Leah Whitfield

About My Study Abroad Program

Major/Minor: Biology (BS), Chemistry (BA), Cognitive Science Minor
Program: Carolina Global Launch (Maynooth University)
Location: Maynooth, Ireland
Email: lwhitfield@unc.edu
Term: Fall 2021

 

Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you select your program?
As a high school student, I was always looking for ways to push myself out of my comfort zone. I wanted to ensure the continuity of this into my college experience and thought exploring a different country would be an eye-opening experience! Since I am partially Irish, I was attracted to the program in Ireland. I wanted to feel a connection to my ancestors. What I had seen of the beauty of Ireland and Maynooth University itself also drew me there. Overall, I knew I would not be upset no matter which program I attended. I desired to experience different cultures and meet people who were raised differently from me to expand my understanding of the perspectives of all people across the world.

 

What did you learn about yourself?
I learned that I am more capable than I believed. It’s like learning to drive a car: when you’re younger, it seems daunting and difficult to understand. Once you learn, it’s not as hard as it seemed! I always thought doing tasks college students have to accomplish like keeping oneself accountable for everything that needs to be done, navigating a different country, managing money, or boarding a plane alone involved extremely mentally-taxing processes. But, just like driving, I found that it’s really not as impossible as it seems! There are always employees and native people who are happy to help you! Learning that not having everything figured out and not being comfortable with everything I needed to do was okay was really challenging for me. Throughout high school I thought I had to have my entire life planned out and structured down to the smallest detail. This mindset was actually causing me more stress than I realized. No one has everything figured out in college, and there is always uncertainty. No one expects you to have the answer to everything. Abandoning these ideas showed me what it felt like to be free, and every experience I had was more enjoyable when I was not thinking about what I would get out of it. Life is about more than what you can put on your college resume. It’s healthy to have fun!

 

What is one of your favorite memories from your program?
My most enjoyable experience abroad was the weekend our resident director took our group on an overnight trip to the Wild Atlantic Way. We experienced many places unique to Ireland and had so much fun exploring! The Aillwee Caves were pitch black and it was exciting to share such an amazing experience! Along the way, we stopped at small towns that exposed us to a different side of Ireland: the simple life. We had experienced the bustling city life of Dublin many times but seeing the everyday life of people in small towns taught me that, though city life in Ireland may seem different from life in big American cities, at the end of the day, we all have very similar routines, even in different countries. Surfing on Lahinch beach was one of my favorite memories from the whole trip! The famous Cliffs of Moher were eye-opening, I had never seen such a magnificent view! Afterwards, we traveled to the Aran Islands. The energy of such a small knit community was amazing, and the views were incredible. There was so much history there consisting of buildings and other man-made structures that were much older than anything I had seen in the USA. Throughout the weekend, I had so many experiences and saw so many amazing things that made me love the country even more and appreciate the opportunity to get to travel to these places.

 

What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
It’s okay to be nervous about going abroad, especially if it’s your first time leaving the country or your first time traveling by yourself! I was terrified by the thought of leaving everyone and everything I knew, but I could never have imagined how much I would grow from the experience! I have learned to embrace things that may be slightly uncomfortable and prove to myself that I can do what may seem daunting to me. This experience increased my confidence in myself and helped me transition into the independence one has in college. I would advise prospective participants to trust yourself! It is also important to build close relationships with people who can support you while you are having difficulty adjusting to life abroad. My network of friends was always there for me when I was missing home or dealing with the stress of college in another country! Additionally, never be afraid to reach out to someone! I reached out to the counseling service at Maynooth University to help me through rough times, and it improved my mental health and comfort throughout my studies abroad. Your resident director is also available if you have questions or need help! They have supported students who are studying abroad before and will answer any questions or concerns you have about the culture, transportation, and anything else about the country which you are visiting!

 

How do you identify?
LGBTQ+

 

Could you share any experiences where your identity played a role in your time abroad?
When I came to terms with my sexual orientation a few years ago, I struggled with truly being myself around my friends. I had not told anyone but my family, and through the process of discovering my sexual identity, I discovered other parts of myself that I felt too nervous to incorporate into my daily life. Studying abroad with people who didn’t previously know me allowed me to truly embrace my identity and know that everyone that I made friends with while abroad would truly accept me for who I am. Having the chance to express myself and not feel like I was hiding a part of myself from my friends abroad helped me discover who I was versus who I had believed and expressed myself to be in order to fit in with my friends in high school.

 

Is there any advice you would give to other students who share your identity?
Embrace who you are! Making friends who have similar identities and accept you or can relate to your experiences are a great support system to have. It's also okay if you don't have it all figured out now! Take time while abroad to reflect on your personal beliefs and form or accept your identity. There is no limit on the time you have to get to know yourself!

 

If you faced any challenges abroad, where could you turn to get the support you needed?
I turned to the school counselor, my closest friends from high school, and my new friends who I knew I could count on to understand. I knew some people who had similar experiences and speaking with them helped me greatly.

Memories

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