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Well, our final Mitchell reflections have been posted – marking the official end of my year in Ireland.  As always, check out my fellow scholars’ reflections about the year and our time on the Emerald Isle.

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I’m famously terrible with goodbyes. I get teary in the days leading up to a big goodbye, and everything sets me off – the mere thought of a final farewell, the symbolism of a sunset, etc., etc. It’s a bit of an embarrassment when I find myself reduced to tears so easily. So I knew that my last month in Ireland would be rough: many opportunities to publicly humiliate myself with goodbyes to the Mitchells, my Irish friends, and #24 The Waterfront (our lovely home in Galway on the River Corrib).

The Mitchell goodbyes went better than expected. After a great week of activities – meeting Irish President Mary McAleese and receiving our class rings, becoming one with nature at Glenstal Abbey, participating in Listowel Writer’s Week, and enjoying time in the beautiful Glin Castle – we had one last big group hug in the parking lot of the Limerick train station. I held back my tears and laughed at the antics of the group as we said our goodbyes.

Saying goodbye to Galway and my friends there was another story. Once, in the days leading up to our departure, my husband Jon just said the word cry and I burst into tears – apparently unable to stop myself. As we packed up our belongings (…miniature Eiffel Tower from Paris, leggings I purchased at Dunnes for only €3, books on gender and economic development…) I thought about the many things I’d miss about Galway. First and foremost, my friends Laura and Avril, who share my interests and now know my quirks enough to tease me mercilessly; not to mention the community of friends I’ve built over the past year. But also: the swans, the Saturday market, the guy on Shop Street that sculpts a sleeping dog out of sand, the habit of taking tea four times a day, the discussions of local politics and the recession on Galway Bay FM. After days of preparations, Jon and I gathered our things and boarded the train. I thought about the loss of our happy little Galway life as we pulled out of the station and began to miss Ireland even though I was still within its borders. Just as expected: at least one public show of tears.

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When we arrived back in the United States, my dad welcomed us home with bottles of Guinness. He wanted us to have a little piece of Ireland when we returned. Over dinner with my grandpa and grandma, we cracked open the bottles and poured them the proper way. Grandpa took a couple of sips and asked, “Do any of you actually like this stuff?” He was right: Guinness from a bottle is not as good as it is from the tap. This was not a surprise, but Grandpa’s comment made us all laugh. The funny interaction between an American and something Irish reminded me of all the other interactions between the two cultures that I’ve seen over the past year.

There was the time, a couple weeks before we left Galway, that I checked my email and received a poem. Avril, who was sitting beside me, exclaimed, “I LOVE this poem!” The poem was one about summer by Carl Sandburg, a poet I have come to love from living in Chicago. Avril read it aloud, her Donegal accent filling the room, and I reflected on the beauty of finding an Irish friend who appreciates a Chicagoan’s poetry as much as I do.

I remember another time, months earlier, when my classmate Grainne happily informed me that her uncle was also from Chicago. “Maybe you’ve heard of him?” I laughed, reminded of the many times that Irish friends have asked me hopefully if I know their cousin who lives in Idaho, Pennsylvania, or Texas. “Chicago’s a big city, Grainne!” She defended herself by responding, “Well, he’s involved in politics. He’s worked really closely with Governor Quinn.” Oh, I thought, that’s different! It turns out that Grainne’s uncle is well known in Chicago, and Grainne was quite knowledgeable about Chicago politics. I would have never expected that one of my Irish classmates would have hosted the future Governor of Illinois at her home in County Mayo – but, she did!

I think back to an American Bluegrass festival held in Galway, conversations about American politics with the parents of Irish friends, and the time I explained the meaning of Thanksgiving to my classmates. In the US, I’m bombarded by Irish flags hanging over pubs in every city I visit and the ubiquitous Claddagh rings on women’s fingers. We spend our time reconnecting with friends and family, and talk to them not just about the ancient beauty of County Kerry, but also of the immigrant communities that we encountered in Galway, how the Irish educational system is different than the American one, and our peers’ viewpoints on social issues like gay marriage.

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As all of the thoughts of the connections between the US and Ireland flash through my mind, a truth emerges. Ireland has become a part of me more deeply and permanently than I expected. When I took the train out of Galway at the end of June, it didn’t represent the end of anything. My relationship with Ireland, as well as the other Mitchell Scholars, is far from over. It’s just beginning.

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Bill and I getting ready for a rollercoaster ride in Bremen, Germany. October 2009.

The Mitchell Scholars’ third set of reflections about our time in Ireland has been posted.  I’m re-posting mine here, but you should definitely check out the other scholars’ writing too!

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What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that you are asked a thousand times as a child, and with less frequency as an adult. At various points in my life, I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to be (in no particular order): an archaeologist, journalist, Broadway actress, Vanna White, neonatologist, gymnast, explorer, or rainforest researcher. I’ve been asking the question to myself lately, trying to decide what my next step should be in my quest to become someone who does international development work for a living. But as I ponder what I hope to become, I can’t help but think about who I want to become. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. The what is about profession and the who is about character.

My time in Ireland as a Mitchell Scholar has introduced me to a number of people that give me insight and inspiration into what and who I want to be. I’ve encountered them at Mitchell events, in my program here at NUI Galway, and in my daily life in and around this beautiful country.

Let’s start with someone pretty easy, and fairly obvious: George Mitchell. Although I haven’t met him, this year has given me a lot of exposure to his life and work. The sheer number of roles that Senator Mitchell has taken on is inspiring – judge, Senator, peace broker, Chancellor of Queens University Belfast… the list goes on. Although I could probably write a dissertation-length essay about how Senator Mitchell inspires me professionally, I’ll just highlight one point here. After a life filled to the brim with public service, Senator Mitchell has certainly earned a relaxing retirement on the golf course in Arizona. Instead, he said yes when he was asked to take on arguably today’s most challenging issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His life-long commitment to service is something I will always strive to emulate in my own career.

Another person that I have taken career inspiration from is Naila Kabeer. Dr. Kabeer is one of the preeminent scholars on women’s employment and empowerment in the Global South. My department hosted her for a public lecture last week, and she also facilitated a private session with my classmates and me earlier in the day. Dr. Kabeer has spent her career trying to understand how women are able to make decisions in their lives, and her research directly impacts what development agencies do on the ground. Dr. Kabeer’s explicit link between academia and the lived experience of marginalized people is something I hope to be able to bring to my career as well, no matter what role I am in.

While Senator Mitchell and Dr. Kabeer have taught me a lot about what I want to be professionally, others I have met in Ireland have reminded me of how I want to live my life. Of course, it goes without saying that I am constantly learning from the other Mitchell Scholars and taking inspiration from them. I still cannot get over how energetic and ready to learn the group is – constantly open to new experiences and new ideas. And I could extol their virtues for another dissertation-length essay. I will spare you the mushy stuff, this time, but please know that the Mitchells are a well of perpetual inspiration for me.

My Irish friend Bill has been a model for me in terms of the kind of person I want to be, as he is one of the most hospitable people I have ever met. Hospitality may seem a minor thing – that is, until you are lost and alone in a new place and don’t know who to turn to for help. Michael met Bill right at the start of the year and introduced Jon and me to him several days after we arrived in Galway. From the start, Bill has been warm, welcoming, and helpful. Anytime we have had a stupid question about Irish life, we’ve known that Bill is the person to ask. He always gives great advice and doesn’t make you feel like a fool for asking about the tipping protocol at a café or where to find reasonably priced office supplies. Bill’s ability to take in total strangers and treat them as equals and friends is something I would like to practice in my own life. Although I think that Irish people generally do welcoming and hospitality quite well as a culture, I still think that Bill wins an award for the best!

If you’ve been reading the other Mitchell scholar’s entries already, I have a feeling you’ve stumbled across a character known to us fondly as Sir John. Sir John is a 94-year-old aristocrat from Monaghan and a man who has lived a very full life. Growing up in Castle Leslie, a glorious estate on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic, Sir John led an exceptional life from the beginning. He went on to fight in World War II and was held as a prisoner of war. Sir John later traveled the globe, and settled for 40 years in Rome, rehabilitating old buildings to their former splendor. When he returned to Ireland 15 years ago, Sir John decided to focus his energy on something new: dancing. Not just old time Irish step dancing, but clubbing. Weekly, Sir John gets dressed in his Saturday best and hits up his two favorite Monaghan spots, the Squealing Pig pub and the Forum club. We were invited for a night out with Sir John during our midyear retreat at Castle Leslie and danced alongside him while he jumped enthusiastically to Lady Gaga. It really was a sight to behold. After meeting Sir John, I have taken a new approach to thinking about aging. Now, I don’t want to age gracefully, but I want to age the way that he has: with reckless abandon and complete joy.

These examples represent just a handful of those I’ve taken inspiration from this year. I know that I will always look back to my year as a Mitchell Scholar as hugely formative – not just professionally, but personally as well.

Part of my “job” as a Mitchell Scholar is to write quarterly reflections on my experiences in Ireland.  Our reflections were published last week.  You can read mine, reposted below, and what the other scholars have to say, here.

I have a thing for birds. Last year, while living in Uganda, I became obsessed with identifying every weaver, hornbill, and crane that crossed my path. And although the birding is a bit less thrilling here in Ireland, I swoon every time I see a swan gently paddling down the canal that feeds into the River Corrib. So back in September, when Michael (Mitchell scholar), Jon (my husband), and I stumbled across a flock of 40 (yes, 40) swans while on a walk through the Claddagh, I knew that living in Galway would make me very happy indeed.

This year in Galway marks my second year living as an expatriate, and I find myself constantly comparing my life in Kampala to my life here. I’m sure you can imagine the many differences: in Galway, I wash our clothes in a spiffy little machine that resides in the kitchen. In Kampala, laundry was a chore I spent hours doing every week by hand (although, believe it or not, I rather enjoyed it). In Galway, every time the sun shines, I soak it in, because I know it won’t last long. In Kampala, I was constantly seeking out a patch of cool shade. In Galway, the language is English, and I manage to blend in, despite my painfully American accent and fashion sense. In Kampala, I struggled to use my hard-earned Luganda (the local language) correctly and became accustomed to the feeling of being watched. The similarities between my two adopted homes are apparent as well. In both Galway and Kampala, drinking tea is an important social custom, the soccer fans are zealous, and the people are so warm that you are immediately put at ease. Both Kampala and Galway have made their mark on me, and in Galway, I know that the process is still just beginning. Galway, with its twisty cobblestone streets, omnipresent street musicians, and sweet salt air, affords me with somewhat of a fairytale existence. It is easy to while away a day exploring the passageways near my apartment, in the center of the city, window-shopping when the weather is dry and escaping into a café when the rain inevitably begins again. And since Galway is a big tourist city, it’s easy to forget that I’m not actually on vacation; that I’m here to do work.

Work is definitely a big part of my life in Galway. Although at times it is frustrating to have my laid-back vacation bubble popped, I am so grateful that my program is turning out to be exactly what I hoped it would be. The MA in Gender, Globalization and Rights is a part of the Global Women’s Studies program at NUI Galway and is introducing me and my 10 classmates to the intricacies of feminist theory, the Bretton Woods institutions, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, grassroots development methods, and how they are all connected. In other words: more than I bargained for, but in a good way. I am confident that what I’m learning now will be useful in the near future, and that’s a good feeling.

Although I love Galway, I have used the majority of my weekends to escape to other places in search of adventure. Traveling throughout the island of Ireland has been a main feature of my travel thus far, and I’ve spent time in Belfast, Cork, and Dublin with the Mitchells. In fact, tomorrow I’m taking a day trip to Limerick to learn more about Irish Aid and to pay a visit to Shane. I’ve also had the chance to visit London with friends from home, and Bremen, Germany, with Irish friends, Michael, and Jon. All of the travel has given me an excuse to improve my photography, a hobby I’ve kept up since my Uncle Cliff taught me how to use a darkroom in the fifth grade. Meanwhile, I am watching Jon and myself become more and more Irish as the days go by. Jon is starting to add “like” at the end of his sentences. I prefer “Dja know?” as it is awfully close to the old Minnesotan saying, “Dontcha know?” I’ve stopped complaining about the rain and started drinking tea several times a day. The familiar process of acquiring the idiosyncrasies of a place is beginning to happen to me once again.

I can’t write a about my first couple of months without mentioning my fellow Mitchell Scholars. So many words come to mind when I think of the group: energetic, social, well-read, empathetic, hilarious, loyal, open-minded. I’ve already had so much fun with the group, as well as with people one-on-one, that it’s exciting to think that we have much more in store this year. I feel especially lucky to have Michael in Galway with me, to share the joys of our Mitchell year, and look forward to having Rebekah join us here in January. To my fellow scholars: Here’s to many more weekends where we all sleep on the floor, meals that are cooked communally, days exploring whatever locale we end up in, and nights dancing to a certain Black Eyed Peas song.

I think it’s pretty clear that my life in Galway, and in Ireland more generally, is turning out to be pretty fantastic. Between the traveling, the perfection that is Galway, the Mitchell scholars, and my program, I’ve basically got it all. It is truly humbling to be a member of the Mitchell class of ’10, and I’m so grateful for this incredible opportunity. But the cherry on top has got to be this: a flock of swans lives less than a kilometer from my front door.

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Welcome to our blog! Follow along with us as we travel and experience life as a couple of 20-somethings - with all its ups and downs. We hope to post photos, short videos, stories about our daily life and not-so-daily adventures, and thoughts on what’s going on in the world.

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