It has been over four years since I went on the Northern Ireland Semester, and I still find myself thinking about Northern Ireland a great deal. As part of my time abroad, I had the chance together with my classmate Cecelia Osowski to meet with Derick Wilson, a professor at the University of Ulster and the Assistant Director of the UNESCO Centre in Northern Ireland. As it turns out, Derick also worked with a Presbyterian priest named Ray Davey to help establish the Corrymeela Community in the 1960s. One windy afternoon, Derick drove Cecelia and me out to Corrymeela to see the center and to sit down with the director and chat about the work that goes on at Corrymeela. I don't remember much from that first visit, but I do recall the almost tangible feeling of welcome that I experienced when I first walked in the doors. The place had an atmosphere of comfort that made me feel immediately at home.
Within a week of my visit, I had made up my mind to return to Corrymeela to volunteer at some point, so that I could take part in the peace building work that they did around Belfast and for all visitors to the center. I returned to Swarthmore, finished my degree, graduated, and began to look forward to my next great adventure. It wasn't until I stood outside the doors of Corrymeela, on a September afternoon in 2010, that I doubted whether I had made the right decision to leave my friends and family and come to Northern Ireland. I apprehensively walked into the main building, and I immediately felt the same warm, welcoming atmosphere that had struck me when I had visited with Derick and Cecelia. I was home.
I worked as a residential volunteer at Corrymeela for one year, living on-site with eight other Long-Term Volunteers (LTVs) and numerous other short-termers. The work, which included facilitating groups, leading children's activities, cooking in the kitchen, operating the reception area, and LOTS of cleaning, was incredibly rewarding at some times and endlessly frustrating at other times. Similarly, living with eight other people helps you develop tight-knit, loving relationships, while also fostering short tempers and perpetual annoyance at, say, whoever only unloaded half the dishwasher again and then mixed in dirty dishes with the clean. But, as with most experiences, you look back with fondness on the good parts (the relationships you built), and while you don't want to relive the bad bits, you recall the annoying parts with a nostalgic fondness as well.
Recently, I returned to Corrymeela in 2012 for a one-year reunion with most of the LTVs on my team. Again, I felt the warmth of being home when I arrived on-site, which was only heightened by the joy of seeing old friends for the first time in a year. We laughed and played pranks on each other and reminisced about the infuriating episodes of the dishwasher, relishing our time during the week we spent together. At the end of the week, we parted ways, promising another reunion in the near future.
I know that my story is not the same as the stories of others who went on the Northern Ireland Semester. Other students had different experiences, different memories, different challenges. In chatting with other students, though, I discovered that there were always memorable moments, fun stories, or quirky experiences. I don't doubt that everyone will remember their abroad experience for years to come. I challenge you to travel to Northern Ireland and NOT fall in love with it. I'm not sure it can be done. If you do happen to travel there and you don't fall in love with it, keep searching. Search until you find that place that you love, where you feel welcome, where you can be accepted and challenged, where the relationships you build make up for all the dishwasher episodes that you will face. Find your Corrymeela.
Swarthmore Class of 2010