In the spring of 2011 I applied for, was offered, and accepted a postgraduate placement in the School of Music and Theater at University College Cork. To many people it seemed a crazy thing to do. I had completed my bachelor’s degree in philosophy almost three years before. I’d had very little music education, I was out of practice when it came to academic studies, and I had never lived more than 70 miles from my parents’ home. Nevertheless, I left a steady job, packed up as many of my belongings as Aer Lingus would allow me to bring, said goodbye to wonderful family and friends and the home I had always known, and boarded the plane that would take me to a place I’d only seen in pictures. Knowing that when I arrived I would know no one, I set out for the adventure of a lifetime.
It was the best thing I have ever done for myself.
From the moment I first stepped foot in Cork, I was home. One hears clichés about how the Irish are the friendliest people on the planet; since I have not met everyone on the planet, however, nor have I met everyone in Ireland, I will not say I know this to be true. I will say that Cork is the kind of place where taxi drivers charge you less than the fare and a young mother will pack up her three children from a park playground to walk a lost student a block and a half to find her street. Ireland is the kind of country where a stranger will pull over an unfamiliar family’s car to ask if they are lost and if he can help direct them in any way. At UCC, I experienced a staff who did all they could to make me feel welcome and settled, a welcome tour of the city and many opportunities to get out of the city and experience the rest of the county. Coming from a well-respected academic background, I was well pleased with the education I received. The music department immediately felt like family. I felt challenged yet never pressured, always accepted.
The city itself is full of activity, large enough to host culture, choral, drama and jazz festivals to name a few. And everyone knows someone who knows someone you know: all the convenience and excitement of a big, university-centered city with a small-town atmosphere. I spent my nights singing with the university’s choral society, swing dancing at any of the number of lessons and social dances around the city, or participating in my favorite Trad (traditional Irish music) session at what became my very own local pub. With the friends I made at that session, I traveled to Sligo and immersed myself in the tradition of the Fleadh Cheoil. With the choral society, I traveled to Galway, Dublin and Belgium for competitions and went to regular sing-along cinemas and social outings. And while I am partial to the choral society, the sheer number of clubs and societies run by students make it nearly impossible for anyone not to find something interesting in which to participate!
Unsurprisingly, I’ll treasure most the people I met and the lifelong friendships I made. Three years later, I still Skype monthly with half a dozen of my friends from Ireland, all over Europe and beyond. While we lived in Cork, we cooked meals together, took day-trips to the coast, explored the beautiful country that is Ireland, and became each other’s family away from home. With those irreplaceable friends, I learned how to create a life for myself, a life that was all mine. I was able to shape my own space in the world, a life exactly the way I wanted it. By moving abroad, I gained the freedom I needed to become truly independent. By moving to Ireland, I was given the support I needed to trust that independence. Through my experience at UCC and in Cork I became someone who knows what she wants from life. But more than that, I discovered that I know how to work towards creating that life, and learned to believe I can create it.
I am often asked if I enjoyed my time in Ireland. I respond, “Well, I went for a one year program and stayed for a second year-long program and a third year on the graduate scheme. I wasn’t ready to leave because … it just fit.” Now, it is not a question of if I’ll return, but when. And wherever life takes me in the meantime, Cork and UCC will always remain a part of me and a piece of my heart will always remain in Cork.