Gerald R. Ford Scholarship winner Kelsey Kuiper spent the last few months studying abroad in Ireland at the University of Limerick. An experience like no other, Kelsey writes how it has changed her life:

… I’ve been studying abroad in Limerick, Ireland for the past three months. It has been an overwhelmingly good experience, and I’m so thankful for the chance to have it. I’m coming home in three weeks, and I cannot believe how quickly time has flown! I’m equally excited to come home and dreading leaving this wonderful place.

I had a difficult time adjusting to life in a different country. Before this adventure, I had only been to Canada, right outside the US border, so moving to a different country was a big deal for me. I don’t think I adequately prepared myself for living in a different culture. I think I moved to Ireland thinking it would be America with an accent because it was a western culture that spoke mostly English. Contrary, Ireland has its own unique culture. It wasn’t substantially different, but everything was just a little bit different. I didn’t know what I could buy in the grocery store. We didn’t have a microwave. I didn’t know where to get food. My housemates partied really loudly. My huggy friends and family were not around. My house smelled funny, my carpet was ugly, and I wanted to go home.

Three months later, I’m going to miss this place a lot when I leave. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll move back here! After the initial adjustment (which took more than a full month), I started to really enjoy and appreciate the differences. I was much less homesick, and I started to make good friends. I remember a few days when I truly had fun for the first time since moving here. A couple housemates and I went to a rugby game, and afterwards, we came back home, made late night snacks, and talked until late in the night. I remember looking out from the castle in Limerick, seeing the Shannon River going through the city, and thinking of Grand Rapids. GR will always be my city, but now, Limerick will also be my city.

I’ve had some really amazing adventures here. I’ve traveled around Ireland a bit, and I’ve also done some traveling outside the country. A week ago, I came back from a nine-day holiday in Italy and Switzerland. A friend and I planned the entire trip ourselves, and I gained so much confidence in traveling and figuring out what and when we needed to do things. Italy was interesting because there was a lot less English than I thought there would be. We left Italy for Switzerland, where we encountered Germany, Italian, and French. Anyway, we made it and had an amazing time, especially while paragliding in the Swiss Alps! Next week I am planning on visiting my friend, who is studying abroad outside of Amsterdam. My ancestors were Dutch, so I’m excited to see the Netherlands and the real tulip time.

While studying here at the University of Limerick, one of the highlights of my time here has been the chance to participate in a community-based learning practicum. I applied for the UL Engage program, which sends international students out into the Irish community to work with community partners on various projects. It takes learning outside the classroom and puts it into the real world with real people. I was placed in my first-choice practicum, which was working with people with sight loss (up to fully blind) and teaching them how to use iPhones and iPads. There are fantastic accessibility features on the Apple products, but the NCBI (National Council for the Blind in Ireland) simply didn’t have enough resources to provide the necessary training. My group member and I met with the community partner and then with the participants to discuss expectations, fears, and desired outcomes. We then researched, designed, and executed a program over five weeks to teach people how to send texts, make calls, add contacts, send emails with attachments, check the weather, listen to music, and so much more without being able to see.

I met some amazing people during this practicum, and I gained another new perspective on life from someone with vision impairment. As a computer science major, I may work on projects someday that need to be integrated with accessibility features. I have insight into the needs of some people with sight loss, and I’m going to be more conscious of programming in a way that will make future integration more possible. The practicum also reminded me how wonderful it is to give of myself to help other people; it will definitely encourage me to make volunteering even more of a priority in the future. As I am writing my final reflection paper, I am prompted to consider four learning outcomes of civic knowledge, civic skills, civic values, and civic motivation. These things remind me so much of what stands behind the Gerald R. Ford Memorial Scholarship.

Studying abroad is a lot more difficult than I imagined it would be, but I know I have grown so much in the last three months. It’s going to be interesting to move back in with my parents this summer after having lived on my own in another country! I’ve gained cultural appreciation skills and a new perspective of living in a different country, and I’ve been privileged to meet people from so many different backgrounds. I also know how to cook so much better now! Honestly, I think the personal growth that comes from studying abroad far outweighs the educations knowledge gained in the classroom.

As I said, this has been an amazing experience, and I’m thankful for any part you played in helping me get here. Whether it was convincing me to come to Davenport, telling me I was worth this opportunity, helping me with my scholarship, encouraging me to come to Ireland, or just being a person who has shown me that you care, thank you very much. I’m excited to take the skills I’ve learned back to Davenport and put them into place in our wonderful (and very much missed) community. I look forward to connecting more with international students after having my experience, and I would love to talk to someone about my experience in the UL Engage practicum project and the possibility of something like that at Davenport. I cannot wait to get back to DU and see [everyone] again!