October 23, 2020

The Quiet Moments In-Between: My Brief But Spectacular Time In Ireland

On March 16, 2020—the day before St. Patrick’s Day—Meg Kulikowski’21 watched Ireland disappear from the window of an almost empty Aer Lingus plane. It seemed like an abrupt end to her study abroad experience, but was it?

This is not a sad story. It’s not about how a global pandemic cut my five months in Cork, Ireland, down to less than three, or about the fear and confusion and anger and heartache that it caused for me and surely dozens of Beloiters whose study abroad was interrupted last spring. I refuse to write that story, even after a surreal five months stuck at home.

This is a story about gratitude. It’s about exchanging photos with lifelong friends I made in a place that even two years ago, I would have never expected to live, let alone love. It’s about attending Irish traditional music concerts in warm pubs, learning to cook for myself (badly, I might add), getting caught in chilly downpours, and reading my poetry to a room of supportive strangers. It initially felt like a separate story, almost as if I’d stepped into someone else’s. But now, after months away from the beautiful place I briefly called home, I can see that it was a chapter in my much longer Beloit story—complete with a new cast and setting, yes, but as Beloitish as any other.

I took a chance and applied to study abroad at University College Cork, a big public university in Ireland’s second-largest city. It just felt right. Beloit didn’t have a specific program there, but that lack of structure allowed me to take unique classes in Irish literature, history, and folklore. Many of my best friends at Beloit are international students, and I was curious about what it would feel like on the other side. My excitement grew by the day.

I also started to second-guess myself. I grew up in a town outside of Raleigh, North Carolina—a medium-sized city about the size of Cork—but I never explored it on my own. At Beloit, I’d grown accustomed to walking across campus in less than 15 minutes at any time of day, seeing friends everywhere I went. I’d never independently traveled to a foreign country. I feared being lonely, homesick—all the uncertainties that come with moving to a new place. I expected it would be like starting college all over again.

It felt a little like that, at first. Culture shock was exhausting, even without the added pressure of speaking a foreign language. My apartment was a two-kilometer walk from UCC’s sprawling, green campus, which required planning for transportation and meals each day, especially because campus activities took place almost exclusively at night. My classes were all lecture-style, ranging in size from five students to nearly 60, and my professors didn’t know me unless I introduced myself after class. Because my whole grade for a class depended on one or two papers, staying engaged with the material from day-to-day felt less important. It rained constantly. Those first few days, I felt a little lost.

More quickly than I could have imagined, I started to adapt. I spent the night of my 21st birthday at a pub with my roommate and our closest friend after a tiring but exhilarating day of sightseeing in a nearby coastal town. I began to make a mental map of Cork: the post office, the English Market, our favorite park overlooking the city. I attended UCC’s English society meetings, participating in a couple of open mic nights and local author readings and writers-in-residence workshops. The university’s international society trips to Counties Kerry and Galway allowed me to see the ocean, mountains, forests, and plains. I planned trips with friends when I could.

Ireland started to truly feel like home when I allowed myself to slow down and let go of my worries and preconceptions of what my study abroad experience should be. I didn’t have a whirlwind romance or take a trip outside of the country. Instead, I gave myself permission to spend Sunday mornings making beans on toast (a classic!) and drinking tea while digesting Irish poems I wasn’t even assigned to read for class. I spent weeknights at trivia and playing cards with my friends instead of studying. Heck, I danced around my freezing apartment while doing the dishes on multiple occasions. It was often these small, unexpected moments that brought me the most joy.

Meg Kulikowski'21 at left with Rebecca, her roommate in Ireland. Meg Kulikowski’21 at left with Rebecca, her roommate in Ireland.

In a journal I filled during my time in Cork, I wrote about the many good days and a few bad ones. I brought it with me everywhere, hoping to record a little something in it daily. I missed a few days here and there, and I certainly didn’t capture every detail. But maybe that’s what study abroad is all about: being present through small triumphs and countless failures and all the quiet moments in-between, only to really analyze their impact later. Meeting curious, open people and eventually leaving them. Accepting change and embracing uncertainty. These are the very skills I’ve been sharpening at Beloit, especially during this unprecedented semester. I’m still writing this story, and it’s going to fill many more journals.

Meg Kulikowski’21 is a senior majoring in literary studies and creative writing and minoring in history. She is excited to be back at Beloit to see her friends and professors and the beautiful campus she calls her second home.

Meg’s top 10 favorite things about Ireland (in no particular order):

  1. Moss grows on almost everything.
  2. Orchard Thieves is the best cider in the world!
  3. Fitzgerald Park, located close to UCC’s campus, contains a city museum, a bakery, a duck pond, and an outdoor amphitheater. It is impossibly charming.
  4. Even if the forecast predicts a rainy day, the sun will peek out behind the clouds sometime. See also: wind and hail.
  5. Fish and chips. Vinegar and tartar sauce are essential. Mushy peas aren’t too bad, either!
  6. The Cliffs of Moher are as overwhelmingly beautiful as they say.
  7. Everyone dresses so cute here. Step it up, America.
  8. The beautiful River Lee can be seen from nearly anywhere in Cork city.
  9. Roaming sheep in the countryside.
  10. The drinking culture and slower pace of life. Hanging out with friends involves either a scone and tea or a pint—sometimes within the same afternoon.

Also In This Issue

  • The Leader’s Manual: Leaders on Leadership By Roger H. Hull

    The Leader’s Manual: Leaders on Leadership

  • Kate Mattes’69

    In Remembrance: Kate Mattes’69, Purveyor of Mysteries

  • Professor Ron Watson in 2017.

    Teaching Hard Truths About Race in American Political Science Courses

  • Shanna Dell’10 opted to take a clinical post during the pandemic so she could care for sick people the way she would want to be treated.

    Fighting Covid on Multiple Fronts


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