Arriving at UCD for study abroad, I was quite torn. Part of me wanted to jump in and get involved in campus life, joining clubs and going to events. However, the other half of me had reservations. Did I want to make commitments, which would deter me from traveling and exploring? Would I be able to form lasting relationships in just four short months?
I went to Freshers week (the UCD version of a club fair) to check out all the “socs” (societies; the UCD term for clubs). It was like freshman year all over again… I found myself wanting to join way more than I would be able to realistically commit to: the Nursing Society, Christian Union, Newman Society (Catholic group), Club Basketball, International Student Society, and Erasmus Student Network. The aura of club joining was short lived because I quickly found my door to Ireland and the rest of Europe: the cheap flights of Ryanair! Thus, I began traveling, visiting many wonderful places including Paris, Leeds, Cork, Killkenny, London, Edinburgh, Barcelona, and Athens. However, I still felt a part of my study abroad experience was missing… I had yet to find Irish friends, and I did not experience the strongest connection to UCD. The only soc which I was actively involved with was the Club Basketball Team, but the majority of my teammates are UCD alumni and are much older.
I began seeking the “missing part,” though I was unsure exactly what this was. Five weeks ago, I attended my first Christian Union meeting. I was quickly impressed by how welcoming all the members were. The members are a broad mix from undergraduates to grad students and Irish students to international students, but we are all bound by common beliefs. It was amazing how I felt a sense of belonging and peace so quickly. Each week, we have various events ranging from Morning Prayer to Bible Studies to pick up soccer games to postering (where we pose a thought provoking question and walk around campus, having our fellow students write down their answers). My favorite events are the Wednesday meetings, which break up the week quite nicely. During these meetings, we focus on a Bible passage and invite a speaker, generally a member of a local Christian church, to lead us in a Bible study. Other than in academic religion classes, which I was obliged to take, I have never sat down and dissected Bible passages with my peers. I have been amazed by how two different people can gain different insight from the same passage, likely due to the different cultures they have been raised in and the perspectives which they have been cultivating since their youth. It is also wonderful to see just how many people attend the meetings, giving up their time to join in fellowship with others and expand their faith.
Two weekends ago, I went on the Christian Union Big Weekend Away. Not only was it with our Christian Union but with Christian Unions from all over Ireland. In just two short days, I found my former misconception become obsolete; valuable friendships can be created from just two days away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The retreat was themed “Uncovering John: Explore, Inspire, Uncover,” in which we broke down the Gospel of John. The weekend also had a balance of “banter” and “craic” (Irish for fun) as my Irish friends say. In addition to our Bible studies, we played basketball, dressed up according to the theme (it was Halloween weekend after all!), had an open mic night, and a bonfire. We also spent time exploring the beautiful grounds of our retreat center: Castledaly Manor in Moate, Athlone, within central Ireland.
One of our speaker stated, “To be surrounded by peers is one thing. To have companionship is another.” As I looked at those around me, I came to the realization that I had found companionship; this was exactly what I had been missing. Companionship literally means those who one can share bread with. Historically, meals have been an important time for gathering with others and sharing ideas. In a modern context, the word implies strong friendships in which all members feel a sense of belonging and have the courage to exchange ideas and disagree respectfully.
I have travelled to many far away places this semester; yet, one of my most valuable experiences occurred at Castledaly Manor, only an hour and a half drive from Dublin. Over the course of the weekend away, I had time to reflect upon how much I have grown through the experience of study abroad and on all I have learned about myself and others. Most importantly, though, I learned to not just exist in a community, even if I am only temporarily present. Instead, I must always seek out companionship, a vital component of my human nature.