Belfast experience gives UA student new perspective on Irish culture, politics
For the last five months whenever I met somebody, one of two things would occur: the new person would reference Forest Gump, or begin in a horrid version of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Now, after being back in hot and humid Alabama for one week, spending the last five months in Northern Ireland seems like a dream. I could easily fill the pages of a book with the adventures and experiences I had while living in Belfast; I am so blessed to have been given this amazing opportunity.
As a part of the South Eastern Conference Academic Consortium program, one student from each SEC school was chosen to participate in a global leadership experience. And, as our group became acquainted with Belfast, the capitol of Northern Ireland, the troubled past of the city became apparent.
Anyone just a few years older than us will recall Northern Ireland as a bloody and unsafe place to visit; yet, in recent years the state has tried to clean up its act. Belfast is a city whose greatest claim to fame is the construction of the Titanic, but her divided history is splashed about on the vibrant murals displayed throughout the city. Northern Irish society has placed more emphasis on symbols and flags than American Southerners do on the display of the Confederate flag.
Right in the heart of Belfast, Queen’s University, resembling Hogwarts from the outside, stands as the leading University in Northern Ireland. My professors included a Lord, a top tier negotiator from Cyprus and one of Northern Ireland’s leading historians. Along with classes, I was able to join the women’s rowing team and Queen’s University surfing club.
As a part of the SECAC program, each of us was placed with an internship for the semester. Having an internship with the Alliance Political Party gave me the opportunity to expand my political horizon, while experiencing a whole new type of political system. The Alliance party is the only non-partisan party in Northern Ireland, whose primary concern is with the expansion of integrated schools.
As a part of my internship, I was able to represent Alliance at conferences, meet with Zimbabwean refugees and campaign and count the ballots for the UK parliamentary election. Winning a seat in Westminister was a feat never accomplished by Alliance before this year; it was amazing to be a part of such a historic process.
Living on a hall of all international students, my communication skills were frequently tested. In a shared kitchen with Spaniards, Italians, Dutch and Americans, cooking dinner was an every day cultural event. Visiting the families of my international roommates was certainly a highlight of my semester.
Traveling also took up a huge chunk of my time: attending mass at the Vatican, gorging on paella on a beach in Spain, seeing Wicked and Ingrid Michealson in London, tracking the Loch Ness monster in Scotland, viewing stunning scenery in Wales, standing in awe next to the David in Firenze, being trapped by a volcano in Croatia, basking in the “greenness” of the Republic of Ireland, and spending Saint Patrick’s day in Dublin, along wih countless other adventures, were once in a lifetime experiences.
My entire global perspective has changed, and the lessons I learned in Belfast are ones that I hope will transmit into my everyday life. I learned to defend my beliefs, and challenge myself to see new possibilities; I have become fiercely independent. I don’t miss the rain, but I cannot wait to go back to Belfast.
Megan Wilson is a junior majoring in political science and international relations.