The Galway Girl

How does an anxious, sheltered daughter of Italian immigrants finally decide to step away from everything she’s ever known and chase down a dream?

As you probably have already heard, either from me, from my social media pages, or from my family, I have finally decided to take the long leap of faith and study abroad over the summer. I will finally be able to fulfill my dream of studying writing on the Emerald Isle on Ireland’s western coast. I have been accepted into the summer school program at the National University of Ireland in Galway. And with the countdown reaching just over two months until takeoff, I thought it was high time to detail the process thus far and share how I reached my decision.

I have always felt a connection to Ireland. No idea why–when I discover the reason, you’ll be the first to know about it. I do not have a drop of Irish blood in me, yet I have always been drawn there. I knew (and still know today) with absolute certainty that something awaits me out there, and I need to know what it is.

Study abroad was something that was on my personal list of non-negotiables as I sought out my university. I knew that I wanted to study abroad no matter where I went to school, and I looked at universities specifically with this in mind. Part of why I selected Missouri State University was for its unique study abroad option, better titled Study Away. They would send students anywhere in the world they wanted to go, including other American cities, provided it was safe to do so. This, and a guaranteed voucher to offset the costs of studying abroad in my scholarship package naturally drew me to MSU in addition to all the other great things it had to offer me, a decision I am proud of today.

Unfortunately, my plans for a semester abroad got derailed fairly early on in my college career. After an unfortunately trying first semester with a roommate who was the exact opposite of ideal and a transition that was the exact opposite of smooth, I was finally diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression. I lost nearly everything that had made me me: my drive and motivation, my positive outlook, my sense of worth and purpose, and the will to live. There were days I didn’t want to get out of bed, and I would call my parents nearly every day, often while crying or in the middle of a panic attack. Even I agreed that I was not in a stable enough place mentally to survive a trip abroad alone, especially not for an entire semester without the option to constantly call home or make trips back to St. Louis when I needed. This was more than likely my lowest point.

Depression and anxiety are not fun or cute. They are absolutely life-altering, and they suck. I unfortunately suffered in silence for many years, but leaving home and dealing with the emotional turmoil that was my freshman year of college exacerbated problems I had tried to take care of by ignoring and just hoping they’d go away. I was in an unfamiliar environment and everything fell apart. Where normally I would throw myself on schoolwork or theater to combat how I felt, college didn’t force me to make commitments or stick to my obligations, and I was allowed to wallow, and therefore began to spiral.

To anyone who is getting ready to send a child to college, and to anyone getting ready to embark on their journey, please don’t worry. Everyone goes through the transition differently, and I am by no means the norm. However, I am also not a single anomaly. You would be surprised how many people struggle freshman year and try to deal with it alone. Just make sure to take stock of your mental health and communicate with the people you love. It is really important, especially when you’re away from home.

Anyway, I sort of hung up the dream of studying abroad, trying to pretend it didn’t bother me that my mental health was going to prevent me from going off and exploring the world the way I wanted. I tried to rationalize that, besides not being entirely beneficial to my mental health, study abroad would set me back an entire year in my degree program (at the time, that’s what I was being told).

But it did bother me. It bothered me a lot.

I don’t remember exactly when it hit me. It may have been over the summer when I decided to get angry instead of get down on myself. It may have been at the beginning of the first semester when I started working two jobs and making and keeping commitments, or when I began taking on leadership positions. It may have been in my advisor’s office the day I went in to catch up and discuss prospective classes for the current semester. But whenever it hit me, it hit me like a brick. If I didn’t go now, I was never going to go at all. I was finally starting to get things under control and felt far more energetic and with it. I was back in my element, doing things and excelling at them. I wanted to do something to make me happy. So I made my decision.

I was going to Ireland.

Or, at least, I was going to try.

The first thing I had to do was research my program. There are so many options when you go to select a study away program. Should I go with ISA? ISEP? CEA? Concordia? There was a lot of research to find a program that fit what I wanted out of studying abroad. And then there was the question of length. Do I go for a week in the summer led by a faculty member? Is that long enough? Are the days convenient? Are they going where I want to be? How about a month in the summer, or two? That’s got to be better than a semester, or at least that was my line of thinking.

There was also the business of next year at MSU. Jordan and I wanted to get an apartment. How could I justify signing a lease with her if I was going to be gone and unable to pay for at least a semester?

The semester was out.

Then there was the week long faculty-led programs. None of them were going to Ireland, and they were pricey for just a week. Plus, the program I would have wanted left the day after my little sister’s graduation from high school.

Three strikes. Out.

It was around this time that I found my way to the ISA catalog and their summer semester program for Irish Studies in Ireland.

Bingo.

Only trouble was, I had even more options. Did I want to go to Belfast? Galway? Dublin? Well, that depended on what I wanted to study and how much I was willing to spend. Dublin had always been the goal, but their program was lacking in writing. Belfast wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. But Galway? Now that was a perfect fit.

The Irish Studies program included courses in literature, music, creative writing, film, and business. The location was at a castle-esque university just on the coast of Ireland in a rich cultural hub.

And just like that, we had a winner.

And the logical next step was talking to my parents.

So here’s the thing about trying to convince your parents to be okay with you traveling entirely on your own for a month over the summer to study in a foreign country. They’re never really going to be okay with it. They may say they are. They may act like they are and fully support you every step of the way. But they’re never going to be 100% on board. They are going to worry. And if you’ve never been anywhere on your own?

Yeah. Forget it.

So I honestly don’t think my parents believed me when I told them I intended to study abroad. They kind of laughed it off, like, yeah, eventually sure you can. So when I grew insistent, that really caused problems. My parents are very protective of my sister and me. They never want me to be in a position where they can’t help me. And they were so far from okay with me making this decision at first that we argued about it for months. They wanted to know why now, if I was really ready for it, if I could find the money, and so on.

But as time has gone on, they have become more okay with it and more excited for me. As they’ve seen me work hard and save the money and do the planning and thinking ahead, they’ve recognized that I’m serious about making this happen, and they’ve supported me every step of the process. They know this has been my dream, and they’re genuinely happy I’m reaching and working for it. It means a lot to have that support. Shout out to my mom in particular, who has told me many times even more recently as I’ve started to doubt myself that it’s time to do something for myself that makes me happy. If I were at all nervous and on the fence before then, your encouragement cemented my resolve.

Then there was the business of getting a passport. See, the only time I’ve ever traveled out of the country, I was five years old, with my parents, and we went to Italy. That passport was well beyond expired by many, many years, and I don’t intend for that photo to ever see the light of day again. I went to the post office with my dad and applied for a new passport, got a new photo (a way better one), and, soon enough, received the little blue booklet in the mail.

With that out of the way, what followed were many hectic months of applications, scholarship searches, signatures, and forms. I had to make sure all my courses overseas would transfer for my degree (they will). I had to apply through MSU study away first, then through ISA to be accepted by their program and the university in Ireland. I had to upload about a million forms and documents and waivers. I had to get my student record verified. I had to fax out medical forms as I am not in St. Louis to see my doctors in person. I had to apply for dozens of scholarships to ensure I had the funding to make this trip a success. I submitted my final form last week, and my final payment through ISA will be in by the weekend. I will know about scholarships in a few weeks. I booked my flight (for significantly cheaper than I thought I would), and hotels, and I have been touring the city via Google Earth to scope out places I want to visit before I go. It has felt like an endless revolving door of forms and paperwork and more forms and signatures, and did I mention forms? But it is finished now, and all that is left is signing up for my courses, going through online orientation, and packing.

As you can probably imagine, I am stoked. I am watching my dream unfold and seeing the fruits of my labor, of working 2 jobs, taking 16 credit hours a semester, and filling out so much paperwork that I quite literally never want to see another form as long as I live. But now that I’m at the end of it, I have to say, it’s been worth it. Just the preparation and the anticipation alone have taught me a lot about myself.

While in Galway, I will be studying creative writing and representing Ireland in literature and film. I will be working on some creative pieces of my own. I intend to talk to locals at length, hear their stories, and maybe document a few. I will be going on excursions with my ISA group and making new friends as I experience new and breathtaking places. My goal is to come back different and more enriched than when I left.

I’m preparing to start a travel blog to document my experiences and share them while overseas. I’ll be taking a lot of pictures and sharing many stories with my family and friends. You’ll all get to experience Ireland alongside me, and for many years to come in the things I write.

It’s been a really long road. But every second that ticks down on my countdown, bringing me ever closer to my impending trip, I can’t help but grow exponentially more excited. This is going to be the experience of a lifetime.

I obviously wasn’t born one, but I’m so excited to get to live my dream and be a Galway girl.

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