With only two-and-a-half weeks to prepare, Ashley McMichael, a freshman majoring in International Security and Conflict Resolution (ISCOR) took on the daunting task of applying for a UK Fulbright scholarship. She spent “a ridiculous amount of time” writing
and reviewing her 1,395-word application and 749-word essay. She passed the rigorous application stage and was invited in for a personal interview. McMichael didn’t feel she performed well during that interview, so when she received the acceptance notice, she had to read it several times before she believed that she, indeed, was selected as one of three scholarship recipients from SDSU. “I was completely overwhelmed and in disbelief.
Fast-forward to July and she’s now studying at Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland. This is McMichael’s first trip abroad. In-between side-trips and studying she shared the experience of the first half of her four-weeks on the Emerald Isle.
Q: What is your focus area of study in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
A: I’m studying Conflict Transformation in Belfast. As an ISCOR major, this has been a completely unparalleled opportunity to study my focus area. My program has largely focused on Conflict Transformation during and after the era of the Troubles, and thus far, we have covered areas such as transitional justice, dealing with the past, trauma, borders, and policing, all in the context of the Troubles.
Q: Have you had a chance to research and connect with people impacted by the Troubles yet?
A: Throughout the entire program, we have heard snippets of peoples’ lives from the era of the Troubles. We have heard from people in securitization aspects as well as people whose everyday lives were impacted forever by acts of violence. However, it is during the field trips and excursions out to the town that I feel that I have truly been exposed to the reality of the situation. From hearing about Bloody Sunday from a relative of one of the men killed during the event to the perspective and experiences of people at pubs, the memory of the Troubles truly is everywhere in Belfast, and I have been able to hear about it from both sides.
Q: How do you expect meeting them will change, inform, or enhance your research?
A: Meeting these people and hearing their experiences has truly made the Troubles real
for me. Hearing about a subject from an academic lens is one thing, but it is completely different to listen to people who have personally experienced events. That has been one of my favorite parts of being here and of studying this subject matter, as I feel that it is what has really made me understand the Troubles best. Putting a face and emotion to something so broad makes it more understandable. In terms of enhancing my research, I would say that this has truly opened my mind and solidified my understanding of the knowledge that we are gaining in class.
Q: What are examples of cultural differences/similarities you have noticed during your first time abroad?
A: I suppose it’s easier to look at the differences than the similarities, as those are what we notice first. One cultural difference that really surprised me and continues to throw me is that pedestrians don’t have the right of way here, and that drivers don’t stop. My friends and I have almost been run over a few times while we’ve been walking across the street. Something else that has been very different is the fact that most places, whether they are pubs or restaurants, don’t split the check. There’s a “round buying culture” here, and that has proven very difficult for me and my friends to wrap our minds around when we’re out eating, as we’re so used to each paying for our own meals.
Another difference that has been harder to adjust to is the fact that most stores close
early here. During the weekdays, most stores close at six or seven (this was extremely frustrating when my luggage was lost and we got out of class after four). Many places are also closed on the weekends, particularly Sundays.
One of my favorite cultural differences is the abundance of live music in this city. It absolutely comes alive at night, and there’s a great appreciation for live music that I haven’t seen as much in the U.S. People here have been very friendly so far, and that has been such a pleasant experience, especially with this being my first time abroad.
In terms of similarities, there are still many things that remain the same between the cultures. People enjoy having fun and they love socializing. Especially because the language is the same and our culture is so tightly connected with this part of Western Europe, many things have been very similar, and I’ve appreciated the familiarity and universality of that.
Q: Where are you conducting your studies? What is unique about the city?
A: I’m currently studying at Queen’s University Belfast, which is in the center of Belfast, Northern Ireland. It’s an absolutely amazing university that looks like a castle on the outside and has a completely modern interior, and I adore it. This city is so unique because it has so much history in it, especially given the events of the Troubles in the latter half of the 20th century. This history is still very much alive in the memories of people, but you can also see much of it in the conflict architecture (ie the peace walls). This is something that I haven’t seen anywhere else; the landscape of this modern city bears the scars of the conflict itself. The city is also trying to rebrand itself, and you can see that everywhere you go. It’s making its way out of the shadow of the Troubles and is making an effort to become a tourist attraction, and this is something that I’ve found fascinating while I’ve been here.
Q: Who is in your cohort?
A: In my program of Conflict Transformation, there are about 58 students. Amongst the three programs, I believe there are around 90 students. It is a very international crowd; many are either from the U.S. or Australia, but there are also people from Austria, Spain, Germany, Israel, and Canada whom I have met. I originally expected that the students would all be undergraduate students, but there are actually quite a few people who are taking a gap year or who are in some sort of postgraduate work. The ages themselves range from 18 to 65+; it truly is a diverse group. As far as studies are concerned, I have met people from an array of studies within Conflict Transformation. Sociology, political science, international relations, criminology, and law are the most common ones that I have heard, but we really do have some of everything.
In the Fulbright group itself, there are six of us total, and two in each of the summer school programs. They’re from all across the country, with four of them being from various places in the Midwest and one from Georgia.
Q: How do you think this experience will impact your life?
A: Already, I have been exposed to so much that I would not have been able to see otherwise. From learning to be independent to adapting to a new country to having the opportunity to see these amazing sights, I know that this experience will stick with me forever. Within the educational aspect, I’ve learned an enormous amount about my area of study in such a short time, and I know that I’ll be able to bring this experience back to my classes at SDSU. I honestly think that this independence and being adaptable will return home with me, as it is very confidence-inspiring to know that I am fully capable to deal with some of the situations I have been presented with during my time here. Beyond that, however, the friends who I have made are such genuinely wonderful people with such bright futures ahead of them, and it is inspiring to know that I will have them in my life. Overall, the first two weeks of this experience has already helped to provide me with more direction and desire to see the world.
Although I’m only halfway through the program, this has already been one of the most life-changing events of my life. I never expected to be doing something like this after my first year of college, and it has exceeded all of my expectations. I’ve been able to see and do things that I didn’t imagine myself doing for another few years, from hiking up Cave Hill to visiting Giant’s Causeway to casually strolling around eight-hundred-year-old castles. The friends I’ve made through Fulbright and through the program itself are people with whom I definitely intend to stay in contact, and their company has contributed to this trip being as excellent as it has been. I truly only have the best things to say about this experience.
Ashley McMichael is a first-year ISCOR student. She is studying abroad for the summer semester in Northern Ireland at the Queen’s University, Belfast.