By Páraic Rafferty

25 October 2013 - 09:47

'Louisville is a charming, cosmopolitan, mid-sized American city full of culture and friendly, hospitable, people.' Photo (c)  Monique Wingard, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Louisville is a charming, cosmopolitan, mid-sized American city full of culture and friendly, hospitable, people.' ©

Monique Wingard, licensed under CC BY 2.0, adapted from the original.

The Study USA programme provides scholarships for Northern Irish students to study business at US universities for a year. Páraic Rafferty writes about his experience of spending a year at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.

As a law student at Queen’s University Belfast, I never imagined that study abroad would be part of my academic career. I thought overseas study was for those who studied languages or did a placement year abroad, but not for me. Then, at the beginning of my second year, I was made aware of the British Council's Study USA programme. A scholarship that would let me study business, in America, for a year, with just about everything paid for? It sounded almost too good to be true. In reality, it exceeded all my expectations and was the single best experience of my life to date.

Once I was accepted onto the programme, choosing colleges to be my first, second and third placement preferences was a little daunting. One was in a rural setting, another had clubs and societies I liked, and yet another was only half an hour from New York City. I reached a point in my research when they all began to look the same from their websites! After making my choices, I had a placement interview where I was questioned about the different colleges, and then I was assigned my placement by email a week later. My advice to anybody who has been accepted onto the programme is not to become too focused on specific characteristics of individual colleges. It is the experience that counts, and if you are willing to be open, friendly, and involve yourself in college life, you will have a good time wherever you are placed.

That being said, a lot of participants, like me, get placed at their first choice of college. Mine was Bellarmine University, in the city I now consider to be my second home; Louisville, Kentucky.  The colleges that participate in the Study USA programme all have a religious affiliation (Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian), but in my experience and in that of several other friends on the programme, religion can play as large or small a role in your year abroad as you wish. Although Bellarmine is a Catholic university, its campus ministry office supported those from all faith backgrounds, or none at all.

Although it’s not geographically in the South (it’s only an easy six-hour bus journey from Chicago), Kentucky is in spirit a Southern state, with an emphasis on horse racing, bourbon, fried chicken and an irrepressible 'Southern drawl'. However, for those who have images of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' springing to mind, I assure you it was not like that! Louisville is a charming, cosmopolitan, mid-sized American city that is full of culture and friendly, hospitable, people. This was reflected in how I had invitations to 11 different homes for the Thanksgiving holiday!

I loved being the only student from Northern Ireland at my university. Being free from ties to home can be liberating, as well as character-building. However, it also meant that I was the sole target of any and all questions American students had about Northern Ireland or Ireland as a whole. As a hint, many are not aware of a distinction between the two places, and will fail to recognise it for the whole year, no matter how many times you explain our political situation to them. I did not find their questioning annoying though; rather, I was glad to try and enlighten them, and the questions (and my accent) always made for a good conversation starter! I found American students to be extremely welcoming, generous people, and I made many good friends among them, as well as the other international students.

Some students may be scared to study abroad because they fear being lonely or homesick. That's natural, but if you are willing to make an effort to get involved, you won’t be lonely for long in America. The students will invite you into their homes, social circles and cars (the last of which can be very useful for getting around in!). It is also easy to keep in touch with home, but I would advise against spending too much time doing so. Your year in America is one where every day brings opportunities for adventure and new experiences, so don’t waste it by obsessing over what’s going on back in Northern Ireland. Trust me, it will still be there, unchanged, when your year is over!

You will probably find yourself experiencing 'reverse culture shock' when you return home.  Just as it will take you a few weeks to get used to and integrate into American college life at the start of the year, it will take a while to readjust to Northern Ireland at the end of the placement.  However, you will also have a collection of wonderful memories to look back on and good friends to stay in touch with, and having lived outside Northern Ireland for a year you will be able assess it with a fresh viewpoint.

My year in the US was quite simply the most memorable, personality-shaping, and all-round incredible experience that I think it possible for someone my age to have. It made me more self-confident, sociable, and adventurous. It challenged my opinions about myself, other people, society, and generally broadened my mind to make me much more open to diversity and new experiences. It also affected my career plans, exposed me to alternative ways of learning, and made me a better student. I cannot recommend applying for it highly enough, no matter how worried about it you are. If you are willing to have a life-changing experience, you absolutely will have one.

Find out more about the Study USA programme. The application form goes live on Friday 25 October.

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