Magazine article International Educator

Why in the World Go to Ireland?

Magazine article International Educator

Why in the World Go to Ireland?

Article excerpt

The question came bluntly and succinctly from an African American professor I met at a NAFSA conference. She was teaching in a university in the Southern United States, and seeking out study abroad options for her students. Ireland was not top of her list. "Why in the world would our students want to go to Ireland?" she asked incredulously.

I explained to this professor the profound impact I witnessed every time African American students discovered that the civil rights movement in Ireland in 1968 was modeled on the American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the shared narrative of discrimination, segregation, and persecution. I told her about our Hawaiian, Native American, and Hispanic students who identified with the narrative of cultural subjugation and revival. County Donegal, the home base of Study Abroad Ireland, is an area within the Republic of Ireland renowned for its beauty and friendly people, but for decades it was affected by high levels of emigration, rural poverty, and proximity to the border of Northern Ireland. Ireland, I explained, with its cultural history of the grim, the grievous, and the grand, provides a template for all U.S. students, wherever their origin.

My interest in teaching U.S. students was inspired by a visit to Boston as a college student myself. I was asked to work at an Irish festival, and I was utterly stunned by the turnout of thousands of people to celebrate a culture that I absolutely took for granted. From then until now, I remain fascinated by hyphenated America-"ItalianAmerican," "African-American," "Jewish-American," "German-American," "Irish-American," etc.-and the potential these identities have to connect us to histories and cultures, but, more importantly, the potential these identities have to connect us to each other.

I will admit that when we first began programs for U.S. students in Ireland, we did have the Irish-American diaspora in mind. However, the more we engaged with faculty and students from the United States, and the more we witnessed the impact of Ireland and Irish culture on visiting students, the more we began to realize that Ireland could function as a global platform that could offer much more than an insight into a particular indigenous culture.

Ireland has had a difficult history, which includes colonization, the suppression of language and culture, famine, emigration, a cultural revival, a civil rights movement, a terrible and divisive conflict in Northern Ireland that thankfully moved into the current Peace Process, an economic boom and a subsequent recession, and a prioritizing of natural and environmental resources for future generations. We began to realize that the narrative of Ireland, past and present, provides our visiting students with much that is familiar, even if they know nothing about Ireland. One of our turning points came in 2006 when a group of students destined for another country could not travel because of safety concerns. We were asked to provide an alternative program. These students were of African American and Hispanic ethnicity, and we wondered what they would make of a visit to Ireland. We were astounded by their affinity with our narratives, their enjoyment of the Gaelic culture, and their rapport with the experiences of the Irish people, past and present. We, in turn, were enlightened by their cultural traditions and experiences, and so we began to rethink how we could adapt our programs to be more accessible to nontraditional visitors to Ireland.

We began to think about and teach Irish culture in a comparative manner. Rather than deal with specific cultural events, we began to search out the parallels between the Irish experience and those of our visitors. Nearly all of our students are descendants of immigrants from somewhere and we share narratives of struggle and success in re-establishing our identity in the United States. Through the lens of Irish culture, we can learn, discuss, and think about the past, the present, and the future, and with a focus relevant to the particular field of study of the students. …

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