ballintoy harbor, northern ireland, study abroad

The Surprising Thing I Learned About Myself Abroad

by Sarah Wilkinson, Class of ’17

Study abroad is an opportunity to do a lot more than just take classes in a foreign country. During my time in Dublin during the Spring 2016 semester, I was skeptical when someone suggested that I volunteer for a local organization called the Solas Project. I knew it would require four hours a week minimum, working with kids from low-income areas of Dublin. I was cautious about working with kids in my home country (what if I make one cry on accident?!), but to volunteer with kids who have lived in Ireland their whole lives? What would we have in common? How would I understand them through their thick accents?

I was so close to saying no without even trying it.

But something made me say yes. When it came down to it, I knew that the four months I had abroad were going to fly by and when they were gone, I wouldn’t have another chance to go back and do all of things I hadn’t before. So, like Officer Hopps in Zootopia, I tried even though I could fail. And you know what? I have no regrets.

Volunteering with kids is hard work. It can often be thankless. It can be frustrating when they don’t listen, or when they swear at each other (or at you). I knew it wouldn’t be easy. The kids I spent most of my time with were eleven years old, and all of them had had challenging experiences in their lives. For many, their lives at home were turbulent and the only time they had structure was when they were at school or at the after school program that the Solas Project provided for them.

Many of the kids walked through life with a wall up between them and the rest of the world. It was a survival method they’d learned along the way, and it made the work that the Solas Project did that much trickier. My goal as a volunteer was to help with homework when I could (except when it came to Gaelic, which I was about as helpful with as a sack of potatoes), play games with the kids, and try to help them feel supported. It was a challenge some days just to understand the words they spoke to me, since many mumbled or talked so fast it sounded like a bee buzzing around my head.

But some days, there were moments that made all the other tough ones worth it. One such time was when I was working with the seven- and eight-year-olds during their wood-working class. One of them, a young lady, came up to me as I was watching everyone play in the yard and handed me a heart carved out of wood. Then she quickly ran away to keep playing with her friends. Another rewarding moment was when one of the kids asked me about life in America, since most of them looked at me as though I was a weird foreign person with antennae instead of asking any questions about where I came from or why I was there. One kid even asked me, “Why do you talk funny?” It was eye-opening because I’d never been the foreign person in a situation, and also because it broke through that wall, if only a little bit.

From that experience, I learned not only how important it is to provide struggling kids support, but also how challenging that work can be. I learned that it’s not as simple as helping with homework or playing a rousing game of Uno–it won’t change the fact that they live hard lives. It was the first time I understood that many of the problems that Ireland and also the United States faces are much deeper, operating on a systemic level. The Solas Project was doing essential work for these kids, but it was intervention rather than prevention. In order to really change the fact that so many kids need extra support, you have to address the root problems.

When I got back to the United States, I continued to think about what my time volunteering for the Solas Project had taught me. It eventually led me to my capstone idea, which focuses on how power contributes to the many issues facing our country at a systemic level. Without my experience at the Solas Project, I’m not sure I would have ever gone down this path, and that would be a major bummer because it’s helped me figure out what I want to do after I graduate this May. I never thought volunteering while I was in Dublin would end up helping me figure out what I’m passionate about, but there you have it.

The bottom line is, while you’re studying abroad–whether it be in Dublin, Montreal, Shanghai, or somewhere else–try everything that you can even though you could fail, or might not enjoy it as much as you hope. If an experience you try or a risk you take is applicable to your career goals, you can talk about in your resume, cover letter, or an interview. I will definitely talk about my experience with the Solas Project in my upcoming job interviews as a way to demonstrate not only my willingness to try new things, but also to show how I came to be passionate about social justice.

If you went abroad but aren’t sure how to include your experiences in your resume, cover letter, or interview talking points, schedule an appointment with your Career Coach. They’re always here to help.