Castles and COVID: A semester abroad in Northern Ireland

By Samantha Cantrell

Over the past few years many aspects of higher education have changed drastically, including the ability to study abroad.  This past fall, I was able to fulfill one of my lifelong goals of spending a semester abroad by studying at Ulster University in Northern Ireland.  I studied and lived at their Jordanstown campus, which was located about 20 minutes away from Belfast, the country’s capitol city.  My experience was greatly impacted by COVID-19, but despite restrictions, outbreaks, and a vastly different social climate, I was able to experience an unforgettable semester that taught me innumerable lessons.

One of the biggest drawbacks to studying abroad amid a pandemic was the increased difficulty of travel between countries.  Northern Ireland occupies the upper part of an island shared with the Republic of Ireland.  It is part of the UK, but the Republic of Ireland is an independent country, although there is not a physical border.   The UK’s restrictions allowed me to travel within the UK and to Ireland without needing to take a COVID test or quarantine, so I was able to visit England, Scotland, and Ireland while I was there.  However, many countries tightened their restrictions throughout December and January, so I was unable to visit many of the European countries I had hoped to see.

These restrictions changed often without me realizing, which nearly resulted in me being stranded in Scotland.  I had flown through Dublin, Ireland since it is much less expensive; however, I did not know the Republic required negative COVID test results from all travelers until a few hours before my flight.  After navigating technical issues booking a test, a long wait in line to be tested, a fire alarm in the airport, and forgotten scissors in my backpack triggering the alarm in security, I managed to make it to my flight less than 5 minutes before the gate was scheduled to close.  This was one of the most stressful experiences of my life, but I look back at it now and laugh at how incredible it was that everything worked out.

Since the UK had more strict restrictions in place, all but one of my classes took place fully online.  This was frustrating since I missed out on being able to interact with my peers in person; there’s only so much you can learn about a person and their culture through online discussion boards.  There was a silver lining, though: I was able to join my classes remotely when I decided to impulsively buy plane tickets, book a hotel room, and spend a few days exploring London.

Another of my lifelong goals has been to travel to a new country entirely by myself, and while I had arguably already done this by flying to NI alone, going to England was the first time I went on a trip where I was entirely independent.  I loved being able to see the city and do whatever I wanted without having to worry about if my friends were having a good time, agreeing on restaurants for meals, stopping to take a break when they were tired of walking, and so on.  I’ve always been fairly sheltered, so this was incredibly liberating and empowering to know that I am capable of being on my own.

Of course, I didn’t spend all my time outside of Northern Ireland; I was able to take several trips to other cities both near and far from where I was living.  Unlike the United States, there are train and bus lines connecting their major cities and small towns.  They weren’t always reliable (I couldn’t count how many times I was left stranded on the weekend when a bus just didn’t show up to the stop near the university, or it showed up much later than expected), but they made travel possible since I didn’t have a car.

One of my favorite parts of traveling through Northern Ireland was that you’re never more than two hours from the coast (in fact, where I lived it was only a 5-10 minute walk), and there are no shortage of beautiful coastal towns to explore.  The only downside is that storms tend to move in quickly on seaside cliffs, which left me drenched and freezing when I didn’t turn back in time on a day trip to one of these coastal towns.  I was certainly thankful for my waterproof backpack that afternoon.

I also visited Derry/Londonderry a few times, which has been made much more recognizable worldwide by the TV show Derry Girls.  The city’s two names are a result of the ongoing political tension that has been present in Northern Ireland for decades between nationalists (those who believe the entirety of Ireland should be able to govern itself as a sovereign nation, typically Catholic) and republicans (those who believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK, often Protestant).  While it is now technically Londonderry, I had a few friends that exclusively called the city Derry, and the name remains a point of contention.

There are countless beautiful historic sites throughout the country as well.  Derry/Londonderry is home to the oldest complete city walls in Ireland, parts of which have been there since the 17th century.  In Carrickfergus, about a half hour bus ride away, I was able to tour a castle that has been standing for over 800 years.  The Giant’s Causeway is crowded, but a beautiful natural site featuring thousands of interlocking stones that seem to form steps out above the ocean.  There are countless seaside cliffs and shorelines to see, and stunning views from mountaintops over the island.

Political unrest aside, Northern Ireland has an abundance of beautiful sights to see and a rich historical background.  The pandemic presented unforeseen challenges, but the benefits far outweighed any negativity, and I am beyond grateful for my study abroad experience.


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