What Am I Doing Here? One Student’s Faith Journey Abroad
Some people plan on studying abroad before entering college, some want to go to a particular country to study a particular subject, some go to visit a country that they’ve always wanted to live in. Perhaps you fell in one of those categories or maybe none at all. But if you’re anything like me, this study abroad experience is not what you expected it to be at all.
I knew that I wanted to study abroad before starting college, but plans began to fall through as I researched study abroad locations when I realized the cost of studying abroad, the logistical nightmare of figuring out classes that would fit into my schedule, and pushback from parents. I was looking to go to a non-traditional study abroad location, maybe somewhere in Africa or Asia. I wanted to really put myself out of my comfort zone and go somewhere completely new where I knew no one, so I didn’t want to come to Europe at all. Just when I found a program that would fit, for some reason or another, I couldn’t go. I was lost and confused. As a person of faith, I was thinking how this might be a sign that I shouldn’t go abroad at all. As the deadline to confirm to apply to study abroad in the fall drew closer, I found IFSA-Butler’s program at University of Limerick. Finally, I found a program that had classes I could take, my parents approved of, and was affordable. However, studying here has brought its own challenges.
Although Ireland is a mostly Catholic country, most young people are non-practicing which I expected because many majority Christian nations, like the United States, are becoming less Christian among the younger generation. As I approached the fall semester, I grew more anxious thinking about how people will react when they realize that I don’t like to go out all the time and my first drink was only this past summer. Will they think that I’m a prude for not indulging in the same things as they do? Will they want to be friends with me?
Studying abroad anywhere can feel particularly isolating and lonely at times because you’re living in another country with a different culture, far away from my family and friends back in the US. I had studied abroad during the summer for one month and although it was with students from my home university of Boston College, it was so difficult to make close friends and I was really hoping that this would be different from my experience in the summer. In Ireland, everything is even more unfamiliar and so I looked to where I found my community at Boston College, which was one of the Christian fellowships on campus. University of Limerick has a Christian Union which I found online and then met in person at the Student Recruitment Drive in September. They said at the recruitment drive that they hold weekly meetings about the Bible, faith, and college life and I couldn’t wait to join all the activities that they had planned.
However, this season has been surprising and unexpected. The first week of college here, I was invited to a pub with my housemates. Even though they offered me a drink, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be for me to refuse a drink because I didn’t feel like I needed to drink to feel accepted. And where I thought I would find community at Christian Union, I actually found to be quite difficult and challenging as I quickly realized that we shared different beliefs about certain parts of our faith. Since arriving, the fellowship has not been where I’ve found instant friends, instead I’ve found greater friendship with my housemates.
My faith is a big part of my identity. It gives me purpose, hope, and joy. I would feel lost without it so I knew before stepping on foot at this campus that I would need to find a faith community. Before arriving in Ireland, I found different church groups and fellowships to attend while I was here. Although it is a short amount of time, it was important for me to find a place where I could maintain my faith while abroad. I found a local church with other international students who could relate the struggles and challenges of being a Christian on campus, but others might find solace through meeting another person from the same faith background in one of their classes or maybe getting involved with a campus fellowship. Being able to find another group of people who share the same faith as me helped me with my transition to this new country because even though we might speak different languages (amongst the international students) and come from different cultures, here was something we shared in common that goes beyond those differences.
I didn’t and still don’t understand exactly why God has placed me here, but I hope that by the end of the semester there will be some clarity in the midst of this fog through this new community that I have joined.
Jennifer Liao is an Elementary Education and Applied Psychology & Human Development double major at Boston College and studied abroad with IFSA at University of Limerick in fall 2018. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study program.