Category Archives: Full semester study in Belfast

Finding Home by Nicole Kincius

If you’re reading this, it must be because you are considering studying abroad in Belfast, Northern NicoleIreland. Congratulations on getting this far! Let’s be real; the decision to dive into such an unfamiliar experience can be daunting. But I’m here to tell you that in the end, it will all be worth it.

Preparing to study at Stranmillis wasn’t without its worries. In the week before flying outside of the country I’ve called home for the past couple of decades –for the first time, might I add—my mind was constantly filled with anxious thoughts: What if I don’t make any friends? What if I don’t have enough space in my luggage? What if I get too homesick?

I realized pretty quickly that I could handle all of these worries because I’ve already experienced them before; I felt similar feelings when I first left home and came to Drake. Besides, as soon as I arrived, all of these worries seemed to disappear. As soon as I set foot on Northern Ireland soil, I found myself with a great group of people in my program. We got to meet each other before even thinking of going to school; it was nice to know I had people I could talk to if I needed anything. We were shown around the city, and told where the best places to shop and eat could be found. I started settling into living in an entirely different country. It really helped that the people in Northern Ireland are naturally helpful and friendly, and that the staff at Stranmillis were willing to do anything to help us feel more comfortable.

Now, fast-forward two months. Here I am, an entirely new person, living a previously unimaginable life in an international country. I got used to the striking differences, like driving on the opposite sides of the road, using a foreign currency, and eating different name brands of food. I’ve walked around historical sites that are thousands of years old, I’ve learned bits and pieces of new languages from my international friends, and I’ve been amazed time and time again by the natural beauty of this island. I believe that I wouldn’t have branched out if I hadn’t realized early on that this time abroad was an opportunity for me to expand my definition of myself. There’s a balance that I’ve found here, a balance between stretching my personal limits and staying true to myself.

So, good luck in your decision-making and planning! I could tell you all about the culture in Dublin, or the breath-taking views at the Giant’s Causeway, or the fun times observing and volunteering in schools in Belfast, but I’ll let you discover those things for yourself. I’d just like to say that Belfast is no longer just a far away land, or even a temporary study location. It’s become my home, just like Des Moines became my home while I studied at Drake. We have traditions here, like visiting St. George’s Market every Friday to get cupcakes from the same baker, or going to Thursday Night Live, the weekly talent show at Stranmillis. We’ve established standard places to hang out, like the Birdcage on Sunday nights for live jazz performances, or the Lagan Valley park for a relaxing walk on a (rare) sunny day. I’m even going to miss doing the routine acts, like going on Tesco runs or shopping at Primark for reasonably priced outfits.

All of these experiences have contributed to an amazing two months, but they are not even the best part. So far, the most magical part of travelling has been realizing that I haven’t left home by studying abroad; I’ve found it here.

“Borrowing Belfast” – Britney Mathiesen

britneyStudying abroad was something that came out of nowhere and surprised me with a life-changing experience. I had not premeditated the idea for very long before an opportunity to travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland arrived on my doorstep. With only two weeks to gather the necessary application requirements, I dove in headfirst and made this adventure a top priority. I maneuvered the application process and anxiously awaited the email that told me I had been accepted into the program. Still, though, when that acceptance email came, the reality of this trip had not yet hit me. Fall semester 2013 found me anticipating a semester abroad that I could not even fathom before I stepped off the plane in Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom.

Part of me was afraid, of course, because I only knew one person who would be joining me on this trip. But most of all I was excited for an opportunity for personal, social, and academic growth. I met some really cool people right off the bat, and the Northern Irish natives really helped make this new city feel like home. My memories of the first few days are still a bit hazy, thanks to jet-lag, but I was left with an overwhelming feeling of welcome.

Unlike a lot of my friends who have studied abroad or plan to, my goal for the trip was to live in Belfast. I wasn’t concerned with traveling Europe every weekend or checking off as many things of my bucket list as I could. What I wanted to do was understand what life was like for someone who had grown up in Belfast. I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the social, political, and religious climate and experience the aftermath of some of the history of the place.

With this approach to my experience, I was able to get the most out of Belfast as a city, as well as the surrounding areas. I visited Galway once with my parents, and Dublin and the North Coast twice. These experiences were incredible. The people were friendly, the scenery was breathtaking, and the adventure was irreplaceable, even if I did feel quite a bit of nausea traveling on a different side of the road!

I created a life for myself in Belfast, eating at least one Ulster Fry (huge Irish breakfast) a week and “beans on toast” (like the Northern Irish college kid’s ramen) for many of my meals. I got close with locals and created memories I will cherish forever. I was also able to further my education in a system that was very different from the one in which I grew up.

Stranmillis University College (the Education College of Queen’s University) took me in and treated me as a Northern Irish student. The expectations were the same, though some of the guidance was differentiated for me. The content was challenging, but what was even more challenging was the cultural diversity I felt being the only American sitting in the classroom. It was quite the experience for me, and one that I will apply to my future teaching. I was also able to do a placement (like a practicum) in a P1 classroom (students were 4-5 years old). I learned so much from this experience, and I adored every opportunity to travel to the school and learn alongside the kids.

Overall, my study abroad experience challenged my perceptions of the world, education, and myself. I grew personally, socially, and academically, and would not trade these lessons and experiences for anything.

For more than one reason, leaving Belfast broke my heart. But I value my education here at Drake, and I will honor the lessons I learned across the pond. Perhaps someday I will head back to Ireland, but for now I will be content with the notion that I “borrowed” Belfast. It’s time to make the most out of home.

Spring semester 2014 in Belfast, No. Ireland


I have been in Ireland for almost a month and a half now and the experience has been fantastic.  While there has been some acclimating to do, namely surviving the awkward meeting people stage, adjusting to the accent (more on that later), and adapting to near perpetual rain, and not getting killed by cars that seem to be driving on the wrong side of the road (or I’m looking on the wrong side), I think overall, I’ve settled in nicely.  Stranmillis University has been very helpful, with a dedicated International Office, who have taken good care of us and have provided many opportunities to explore Belfast and arrange events for us (the international students).

College classes are different here, which has taken some adjustment.  First, classes are the equivalent to five credits at an American Institution, so I am only taking three courses, instead of the standard five back in the states.  Additionally, while courses follow the normal lecture/discussion format I’m used to at Drake, classes meet much fewer times; two of my classes are only on Mondays, while the 3rd is 4 times a week.  This set-up provides a large amount of free time and with only a single, large assignment over the semester, so it feels as if there is very little to do.  Now, we are given large outside reading lists, but it is hard to motivate yourself to read, when presented with so much free time.  Classes are all two-hours long, which makes concentration somewhat difficult, when you’re approaching the sixth consecutive hour of class without a break (my Monday is three classes back to back).  At Drake, I normally had two or three classes a day, all between 50 and 65 minutes, broken up throughout the day.  I’ve found that this model, of shorter, more frequent contact with professors and class make a much more sustainable learning environment for me.

I have just finished by 3rd week of placement at Movilla High School. Located about 20 miles from Belfast, in Newtownards, Movilla, once sustained by factory and industrial jobs, has taken hits in the last 20 or so years, as those jobs dwindle.  Movilla itself is a school losing pupils, dropping from around 900 to short of 300 in 10 years, as students opt to enroll at more modern schools. Yet, while it has indeed been challenging, it has been a good experience.  The students are considered to be “low-achievers” and teaching can be a problem.  Most have problems with authority, and I don’t think I’ve had a day when I haven’t seen a teacher throw at least one pupil out of the classroom or assign a detention due to behavior.  That being said, the kids are bright, if shy, and generally engaged and willing to learn.  It feels the main difficulty is confidence, that students don’t believe in themselves.  For me, it also has been difficult, since I’ve been loaned out across the school, helping in a number of different classrooms, namely English, Literature, and Geography.  I am not specializing in either English or Literature, so figuring out how to teach/connect with the students within those areas has been a challenge, but a good learning experience.

Branching out, the people here are wonderful, always willing to talk and seem genuinely interested in what I, as a foreigner, have to say.  I live in the Midwest back home, which holds a reputation for having very nice people, yet the Irish blow that away.  They are without a doubt some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered.  They are also insanely difficult to understand.  I obviously knew there was an accent when I came to Ireland, but I did not anticipate the amount of difficultly I would have in understanding what they say.  It is English, but the speed at which they talk transforms a conversation.  The accents are also very different, depending on where you are, so going a mere twenty minutes in one direction produces an utterly different accent then what you’ve been hearing.  Understanding the pupils at Movilla has been especially difficult, as they talk rapidly, making me need them to repeat their statements a number of times before I understand.  Or, at times, I just need another teacher to “translate” what they said.

Overall, I am happy to say the study abroad experience has been great, with very minimal amounts of homesickness.  I look forward to the next couple of months and finishing out my school placement, as well as getting some traveling done.

by Brien Behling