Future Reflections Fall 2009
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by Corbb O'Connor
From the Editor: Corbbmacc (Corbb) O'Connor is a senior at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where he is studying economics and political communication. At the 2009 NFB convention he received his second NFB scholarship, conferring upon him the honored title of tenBroek Fellow. In this article Corbb writes about what he learned during a college semester in Ireland.
One year ago this week, my parents came to visit me at college. They were on their way to Dubai, UAE, where my dad was to give a presentation about leadership to a group of medical executives. Mom, Dad, and I had agreed to meet outside the campus library. I got there a little late, but I couldn't find them. I called Dad and heard the familiar ring of his cell phone somewhere nearby. Then I saw him and Mom walking toward me. I had never felt so joyful! I felt as though I were coming home after years away. Actually, I had only been gone for a month, but I was farther from home than I had ever been before on my own.
My parents had visited me at college before, but this visit was different. I was no longer at my university in Washington, DC. I was at a new school in a foreign country. Though English was the dominant language, it sounded so different that it always reminded me I was not in the US. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with two messy, noisy girls. My classes were unlike any I had taken before. The whole experience was foreign to me, though I had looked forward to it for seven years.
I knew that I wanted to study abroad ever since I was in seventh grade. When my older brother hunted for colleges, travel abroad programs were among his priorities. I often heard him and my parents discussing the possibilities, and I, too, wanted to study overseas some day. I took Spanish in junior high and high school, and I thought it would be exciting to go to a faraway land where I really had to know the language in order to succeed. Because of guide dog access laws, however, when it came time for me to apply to study abroad programs, I selected Ireland.
I completed what felt like several books of paperwork so that my five-year-old yellow Lab, Phoenix, could be admitted into the country. Then, just before I was scheduled to leave for Ireland from my home in the suburbs of Chicago, Phoenix became very sick. I would not be able to take him with me after all.
I felt frustrated, sad, and scared. Nevertheless, I thought my adjustment would be easy. "I still use my cane a lot," I told myself and my family. "I use it at rock concerts, noisy restaurants, and crowded ball games. I've been with Mr. Cane-O since I was in first grade. I'll be fine."
I went to Ireland to learn things. I never expected that one of the things I would learn was how inadequate my cane skills were. Over time they improved. My social life (away from my roommates!) also picked up. Classes became more natural. Still I was happy to go home to loving family, caring friends, and Mom's great cooking in mid-December.
Looking back on my semester in Ireland, I realize that I learned three things. First of all, I learned how to live a less stressful life. Next I learned that foreign experiences are only foreign until they become part of a routine. Finally I discovered that I can succeed anywhere, overseas or here in the United States.
Before I went abroad, I lived a very stressful life. My mother (who I realize more and more always knows best!) often told me that I should "chill out, relax, and live a little more." "I am!" I'd shoot back. "I'm happy, I promise!"
I was happy, but the stress probably wasn't healthy. In Washington I worked twenty hours a week, went to class fifteen hours a week, slept far too little every night, and tried to cram in as much studying as possible. I never quite finished all the work I needed to do. I didn't set out on purpose to live a less stressful life in Ireland. It just happened. I couldn't work while I was abroad, so I found myself with twenty extra hours a week. Not wanting to sit idle, I sought out volunteer opportunities. I helped seven- to nine-year-olds with their homework at a nearby school, and I hosted a show on current affairs at the campus radio station. Even so, I had more free time than before. I wasn't rushing everywhere. I even slept eight hours per night! As a result, I was healthier, happier, and less distracted throughout the day. Now, a year after I went abroad, I make time to read a good novel every few days and to go for fun walks with Phoenix. I regularly cook a relaxing dinner with my friends.
Ireland taught me that things only feel foreign before they become part of a routine. My mom told me this would happen but I didn't believe her. How could looking right instead of left when I crossed the street become normal? How could I feel at home in the Emerald Isle, wearing a raincoat everywhere I went, while my friends enjoyed a sunny fall season back home? How could all the strange brand names at the grocery store ever seem familiar? I'm not sure how it happened, but eventually all of those things did become subconscious. My dad taught me a trick at the grocery store. He told me to read the names of the items next to the ones I wanted on the shelves. That way, the next time I went back, I'd recognize the products even if I never intended to buy them. It helped.
My routine in Ireland was unlike any I had known before, and I came to enjoy it. Cooking was one example of the change. At first I cooked dinner every week with my new friend Brendan (usually homemade stir-fry) simply because we needed to eat. At some point I made a transition, and cooking became both calming and exciting.
My months in Ireland taught me that, while change is tough, it's something that I can and should experience more often. When I hunted for summer internships in the spring before I went overseas, I wanted to stay in a familiar locale. I didn't bother to look at internships anywhere outside Washington, DC. Now I'm looking at opportunities for next summer in New York City; Mountain View, California; and downtown Chicago.
Somebody once told me that it's painful to make friends all over the world, because you're going to be separated from them for a long time. Even when you meet them again it won't be the same. After studying in Ireland, I disagree. It's exciting to have diverse friends, and it's nice to have travel buddies who will meet me in Europe next time I return.
My parents visited me once more while I was abroad, this time for Thanksgiving. They started in Dublin and traced the perimeter of Ireland. I met up with them for the second half of their journey. Our driver was a Dublin native. During that visit I wasn't so eager to go home. I wanted to show my parents the country I'd tried to call home for a couple of months. One time the driver answered his cell phone, and my dad asked me if he was speaking Irish. "No, that's English," I said, no longer even noticing the driver's Irish accent. As I said, all is foreign until it's part of a routine. It sounds like a simple lesson, but it took me a semester to learn it.
Study abroad, I've come to realize, is more about studying yourself than it is about experiencing another culture. I'll be eternally grateful to everybody who encouraged me to go abroad, to stay abroad, and to try something new. I'm glad that I studied in Ireland and that I stuck with it through all of the difficult moments. Now I know that I can do it again.
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