Student Blogger Study Abroad

Still Learning in Northern Ireland

A young woman stands beside the ocean in a neon orange jacket. Her hair is braided in two long pigtails, and she looks directly into the camera.

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Giorgia Piantanida will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Northern Ireland program this spring semester. Giorgia is a junior at Swarthmore College, double-majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Environmental Studies. Read on for Giorgia’s third post!

In my elementary school, the exterior walls were often decorated with fancy phrases from famous people who have since passed away. While I have forgotten almost all of them, one of them stays tattooed in my mind, and that is Michelangelo’s quote, “I am still learning.” So few words, yet so rich with meaning for me – no matter what age I reach, I hope I can still agree with that quote that I am indeed still learning.

Coming to Northern Ireland was a leap for me. I was abroad during the fall of my junior year, and the most common practice would’ve led me to stay at Swarthmore this semester, and yearn for the days of abroad once more. But due to a series of then unfortunate events, I decided that I had to get out. I wanted to run away from my problems and the place I convinced myself had created them, and after some discussions with several professors, I mailed my in HECUA application. I don’t actually know why I chose Northern Ireland, nor what I was hoping to get out of it, but I knew it wasn’t Swarthmore, and at the time, that was enough.

Fast forward a year, and I am now two thirds of the way through my semester that was never really supposed to happen. I have about four weeks of class/internship left before I get shipped off to New York, and I can hardly believe the semester flew by in the way it did. And I still wrestle with the quote from so many years ago, but now it becomes a question, “Am I still learning?”

I often fear that I have stopped learning, which means that I have stopped growing. I know I am not at my final destination, and to get there I have to keep learning, but sometimes, I just don’t know how. The other day, while listening to our program director Nigel, I felt trapped by that fear again.

Nigel was speaking about his hopes for us – he would like us to walk away from this semester as more confident people than when we walked in, and he hopes that we carry some new knowledge back to the USA. We were in Tollymore Forest Park, a remote section of Northern Ireland where few tourists go, unless they’re huge Game of Thrones fans, and the scenery was just perfect.

A snapshot of Tollymore Forest Park, where we got to see a side of Northern Ireland that’s often (unfortunately) overlooked.

In fact, it was exactly the kind of classroom setting I had been hoping for when I decided I had to run away. And yet, Nigel’s words chilled me to the bone – if he hoped we were better people now than when we first arrived, it implies that he hopes we have grown and changed as people, which implies we have learned something. But what have I learned besides the factual history of Northern Ireland?

At first, I drew a blank.

Nothing, I thought. I have come here and learned absolutely nothing. And I looked around, slightly dejected, and started wondering why I had even bothered coming at all. But then I took a deep breath and tried thinking about it again. There’s no way I learned nothing. I have been here for two months and I hardly think the way I did when I first landed. And there’s gotta be something said about the fact that I am eager to return to the place I was running away from. So the question then became, what did I learn?

From our classes, I learned that no conflict is as simple as it initially seems. Often times, there is no cut and dry solution or path to peace, and that is ok. What’s often times overlooked but just as important is introspection – are we able to forgive those who have caused us harm? Are we able to learn from our past, our mistakes, and make better decisions in the future? Are we able to move past our prejudices and stereotypes and get to know others as individuals?

From Nigel, I learned the importance of stories. Although I already knew that each of us has our own unique story, I learned the value of keeping our stories safe. I learned that no one has the right to hear our stories, but rather, we have the power to decide when people have access to them. We have the right to choose what to divulge and what to keep to ourselves, so to be allowed to hear someone else’s story is an outright privilege.

From our various field trips, I learned that life goes on, even during periods of intense violence. I learned about the undeniable strength of the human spirit, that carries people through times of troubles but also through times of mirth. I learned about the power of forgiveness; that it actually comes from deep inside you, and is a gift you give yourself, rather than a gift you give the other. And in all those moments, I learned the power of a story, and the indescribable feeling you get when you’re lucky enough to hear just a glimpse of that tale.

From the many interactions I’ve had, I learned that everyone we meet is broken somewhere inside them. I learned that no matter how put together or perfect a person’s life may seem, they have all experienced deep hurt and pain. With that being said, I also learned the power of speech, in voicing in your troubles, and the potential positive effect this can have. I even learned about the freedom that comes with voicing your hurt and finding that others may share in that.

When I actually thought about it, I had learned a lot. Perhaps I did it in unconventional ways, but I have learned a lot. And no, it was not what I was expecting to learn at all. But most accurately, I think it was what I needed to learn. And hopefully, during this last third of the semester, I will continue to learn.

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