Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Each month we’ll catch up with a HECUA alumni, and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, and their pursuit of continued education. If you or a friend would like to participate in this series, please email email@example.com. This month we’re delighted to host the return of former student blogger Becca Carcaterra. Becca completed HECUA’s program in Northern Ireland in 2018, and returned soon after to spend a year as a volunteer at Corrymeela Peace and Reconciliation Centre. Read on for Becca’s reflection on her HECUA experience.
Almost a year ago, I took a photo of the sunrise over the sea from a little bedroom in a big house in Northern Ireland. The bedroom was blue and white with pictures of seagrass and sand on the walls, and it looked out over a coast of crashing white surf and black rocks beneath a brambly cliff. The surroundings were completely different from anywhere I had previously called home – either my small hometown in the Colorado Rockies or St. Olaf College, the small Minnesota liberal arts school from which I was about to graduate. I just had left everyone and everything I knew and loved to come to a country of unknowns and tensions and difficult questions. But looking out over that ocean in that big house, with three months of schoolwork and internships and new relationships in front of me, I felt at home and at peace.
Now that sunrise photograph is the lock screen on my phone and I sometimes clean that bedroom as part of a housekeeping shift, rooting out soda bottles and crisp packets from under the beds. I’m serving as a yearlong volunteer at that big house: Corrymeela, a peace and reconciliation center in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland. I studied abroad in Derry/Londonderry during the spring 2018 semester as part of HECUA’s Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland program, and at the end of that course I flew home, graduated college, spent the summer with friends and family, and then flew back to Northern Ireland. It’s been a time of intense change and transitions and a messy mix of struggle and reward. I’m so glad to be here.
It’s dizzying to consider all the factors that have intersected to bring me to a remote corner of the North Coast, but there is no doubt that HECUA was a massive piece of that pattern. It was the final step in my undergraduate education, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I signed on to spend my last semester studying peace and conflict in a place that is painfully acquainted with those issues.
I was worried about connecting with my fellow students, a random assortment of strangers from schools across the country. I worried about how the Northern Irish people I met would perceive me, a foreigner here to “study them.” I figured worse case scenario, I’d just spend three months keeping to myself and exploring on my own. But that wasn’t the case at all. I made deep friendships that continue to this day. I felt valued and engaged, especially at my internship site at the Verbal Arts Centre. In the seven weeks that I spent there, I knew I was not only gathering valuable insight into a successful nonprofit that perfectly matched my skill-set and interests, but I was actually actively contributing to their work.
The academic component of HECUA was just as rewarding. My independent research into how the themes of martyrdom and blood sacrifice play out in rhetoric and narratives on both sides of the conflict helped me combine my English major with the programme’s political science and history focus. What’s more, after moving to Northern Ireland I’ve found my academic grounding in the conflict invaluable in everything from peacebuilding trainings to daily interactions.
I think I became myself more vividly while I was studying abroad, when I really had to consider what it means to be an American, a foreigner, a woman, a peacebuilder. I decided to move to Corrymeela partly because I didn’t want to let go of the unique experience of living abroad, of all the daily tiny confusions and new experiences and acts of courage that being out of your comfort zone entails.
But I also know that I am ultimately here because as that semester ended and I stared out the window of my professor’s van at the countryside passing by, I knew I could not leave. I knew deep down that I’m not done with this place, and it’s not done with me.
My advice to students considering a study abroad programme is to go to the places that sing to your heart and enjoy them thoroughly, but don’t forget to have a critical and analytical eye. HECUA is wonderful about inviting students into an experience that is lovely and adventurous, but also rigorous and uncompromising on the hard questions.
As for the Northern Ireland programme specifically, come here if any part of you likes music in late night pubs and music in the harsh sea wind. If you manage to be simultaneously a romantic and a cynic, if you have a good rain jacket and biting sense of humor. But that’s what just worked for me. Your HECUA experience will tell a story all its own.