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Black Bear Abroad: Study Abroad Ambassador Bailey West recalls her experience in Ireland and urges students to start dreaming regardless of quarantine

Guest Author: Bailey West

I am a fourth-year biochemistry student in the Honors College at the University of Maine, and I am originally from Stockton Springs, a small town in midcoast Maine. I am currently conducting research for my Honors thesis in the laboratory of biochemistry professor Julie Gosse, studying the effects of a popular antimicrobial agent on immune-cell function. When I’m not in the lab, I am involved on campus as an Honors College Student Ambassador, a teaching assistant for the general microbiology laboratory and a Student Support Services tutor.

This year, I am excited to also be taking on a new role as a Study Abroad Ambassador. In this role, my hope is to connect and empathize with first-year students who may be considering study abroad but are unsure where to start. Thinking back to my first year in college, I knew I wanted to make the most of the myriad of opportunities at UMaine — and study abroad was on my radar, if only to a slight extent at first. At the time, studying abroad seemed like the ideal, but I initially doubted whether I was even cut out for it. One of the first pieces of advice I received as a first-year was, “Don’t let your classes get in the way of your education,” and I made sure to keep this in mind.

In my favorite class during my first year (shoutout to HON 150!), my professor assigned a weekly learning journal in which I would reflect on my learning experiences and goals. One week, I casually mentioned in my journal that I wanted to study abroad. My professor encouraged me to go for it and that was the push I needed. Shortly thereafter, I met with my academic advisor to discuss possibilities and he echoed that studying abroad is a life-changing experience that students never regret.

So, I decided to go for it. During my second year, I applied for and received the George Mitchell Peace Scholarship, which is a generous exchange between UMaine and University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland. It honors Sen. George Mitchell’s tireless work which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, ending decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland. 

I spent the spring 2020 semester in Cork, Ireland, and my experience fully lived up to my expectations. It was the best experience of my life because it made me uncomfortable — flying overseas for the first time, going through the immigration process, meeting all new people and finding a home in a new city were all challenges that have expanded my worldview. Further, my aforementioned professor pushed me to take courses outside of my comfort zone, so I studied the Irish language, Irish history and ancient Celtic history (UCC has a world-renowned Celtic studies department) which provided a truly immersive experience. 

Not to mention, Ireland is absolutely breathtaking. On weekends, my friends and I explored the Cork area and traveled to other parts of the island, including Dublin and Galway. My favorite sight in Ireland was the iconic Cliffs of Moher — the picture does not do it justice at all. From the vibrant, friendly city center in Cork to the expansive emerald fields dotted with castles, Ireland’s enchanting beauty awed me every day. It was amazing to connect so intimately with a country and culture that has great significance to my family history. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, I had to evacuate Ireland on essentially a day’s notice. Although my time abroad was cut in half, my growth was doubled. It is because of this unexpected challenge that I realized I can handle more than I originally thought. The unique challenge of having to evacuate due to a global pandemic allowed me to grow in my independence, resilience and confidence, and I genuinely would not change anything about my experience.

I am incredibly passionate about the study abroad experience because of the truly life-changing lessons and relationships it can yield. Studying abroad enhances your cultural perspective, helps you better know yourself and creates deep friendships, to name just a few. Throughout my time abroad, I journaled about these experiences, reminiscent of my HON 150 learning journals, and when I returned and reflected on these lessons, I knew I wanted to use my experience to encourage others in some way. 

I am grateful that the Office of International Programs has enabled me to do that as a Study Abroad Ambassador. Although 2020 has thrown us a curveball and traveling isn’t very feasible currently, I would encourage students to keep an open mind about the possibility of studying abroad in the future. If you have even a slight interest in studying abroad, pay attention to it and let it take you somewhere life-changing.

We will be publishing more study abroad content in the coming weeks, so check back in for more profiles, events, and ways to be involved.

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