And That’s How They Do It in Ireland

In which is given a brief account of the differences between the American and Irish educational structures, higher education in general is found to be very difficult and stressful and not much makes sense at all.

Having made it through one whole week of education at the University of Limerick, I will now attempt to describe how going to school as a study abroad student here is different from back in the U.S. First of all, classes here are referred to as “modules” and are divided into two different kind of sessions for each module: lectures and tutorials. Lectures are the kind of sit-down-and-listen-to-teacher-speak classes that most American students know. You are required to sign up for all the lecture sessions for a module. Tutorials break the class down into smaller groups and are more discussion-based. There are multiple tutorial time slots for each class and you are required to sign up for one of them. The average module has two lectures and one tutorial per week, but science classes come with labs and language classes may have more (my Japanese class has four lectures and two tutorials a week!).

Not too puzzled yet? No worries, that’s just the beginning. Once you know which classes you want, you need to check the module timetable and sort out your schedule. This task is hard enough at home where most classes that follow fairly predictable Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday patterns and each class is at the same time, in the same room. Not so at UL…today your  class may be from 1-2 in the afternoon in the Schrodinger Building, but tomorrow it will take place from 4-5 in Block B of the Main Building. That’s right, classes switch times, rooms, buildings and even teachers. I have three different teachers for Japanese. If you can memorize each time and location after just one week, great…but check the timetable again to make sure one of them won’t switch after Week 4. Pay attention in class for announcements on weeks without tutorials and so forth.

On a side note, the Main Building of UL is itself a force to be reckoned with. New students would do well to spend some time just walking around in it to see what goes where before they have 5 minutes to find a class and no idea how to get there. The building is made up of five blocks (A, B, C, D, E) and six levels (G, O, M, 1, 2, and 3). Some of the blocks are connected, but for some you need to go outside around the building or through the center courtyard. Only blocks A and B have a level 3, but only D, E, and F have a G level. B Block is probably the trickiest, since you will find a sign proclaiming “B Block =>” and follow it through a cafeteria/food court area only to find a sign that says “B Block <=” If you only go through the cafeteria like a lost puppy twice before noticing the small hallway off a landing that leads to a couple of classrooms, consider it a job well done.

Granted, Irish students don’t exactly have to deal with the hassle of trying to sort a timetable on their own. They have set classes they take according to their major and the ideas of minors and general education requirements are uncommon. They simply receive a schedule and show up at the listed rooms and times, sometimes without knowing what class they are going to until they get there. Only when they get to the higher levels of their studies do they sometimes choose electives. But for those of us who may be majoring in a social science with a hard science minor and STILL have to find time to jam in a literature requirement, this is how the story goes. Study abroad students are also allowed to attend and try out any class they like for two weeks before turning in a final registration sheet…JUST in case you’d like a little more variability in your academics! 😀

Once you’ve settled on your classes, then the differences in class structure and studying requirements may hit you. Irish teachers (or lecturers) don’t really assign much homework. Most of your grade is dependent on a final essay and maybe a midsemester project or essay thrown in. You are more or less expected to prepare for this on your own by reading the books recommended by your lecturer. Most people will tell you not to buy text books, but the occasional lecturer will demand that you do so anyway.

Yes, the Irish university system is a new and different beastie with teeth in places you don’t expect. In addition to all that, there are the typical university administrative issues: getting your e-mail to work, getting your ID to work at the library self-checkout, making sure you are on the online class management system SULIS. All in all, I generally conclude that all universities, despite being centers of higher learning, are in a state of mild dysfunction at any given time.

But that’s how they do it in Ireland.

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Down by the River Shannon

River Rescue!In which all the orientation gyrations are briefly recounted, we are introduced to Brown Thomas, and Sarah rescues invisible drowning people from the River Shannon.

It hasn’t even been a week since I left home, but already so much has happened that it feels like much longer. I met up with several other IFSA-Butler students upon arrival in Dublin and we spent a couple of nights at the O’Callaghan Mont Clare hotel. We were met there by IFSA staff and given some orientation sessions, several interesting meals and a tour of the Guinness Storehouse of all things.

Dublin, like most cities, was full of pedestrian activity and crazy traffic. As an amenity to the blind, the little walk-don’t walk lights make Pacman-esque sound effects when crossing the street is permitted. Cyclists zip along two inches from automobile traffic at ludicrous speeds and have no problem with shouting at you to get you out of the way. Not really rude shouting like you would get in America (of the comic-style *&!#@ variety), more like a single “OI!” seconds before they’re about to mow you over. Whatever gets it done, I suppose.

As soon as we were feeling pretty good about Dublin, it was time to pack up for Limerick. Let me just say for any students studying abroad, you should always investigate all the drawers in any hotel room for complimentary items you can “steal.” I took the shampoo-conditioner and found a mending kit and sturdy plastic dry-cleaning bag. I used the bag for laundry and it came in handy again later for shopping. They actually charge you for plastic bags AND shopping carts in Limerick, so you can’t pick up too many free items like this. Just don’t take their Bibles!

Limerick orientation was more of the same (personal safety, how to behave yourself, etc.) but with the addition of information on registering for classes. This was quite useful considering that, for a person accustomed to the U.S. class structure, trying to understand the Irish structure is like trying to hold a meaningful conversation with an inbred pigeon. More on that later. We did get a nice tour of the campus, including a mysterious rust-colored statue referred to as “Brown Thomas,” which stands facing the library and can catch you quite off-guard on a foggy evening. UL has a couple of restaurants and a pub, gym facilities with an Olympic-size swimming pool, five student “villages,” a bank and a small shop in addition to the usual academic buildings. Orientation also included a bus tour of the Limerick City Centre and the Medieval Quarter. The Medieval Quarter is the site of King John’s Castle, an old Irish abbey, the Treaty Stone and the Hunt Museum as well as nice views of the River Shannon. There are small plastic stands containing life buoys lining the river just in case, and I posed with one of these before returning it to its stand so that the Gardai (Irish Police) wouldn’t catch me messing with it.

The last couple of days have been spent in administrative endeavors (getting my e-mail and library ID to work, etc.), getting groceries and other necessities (with that nice dry cleaning bag I mentioned before) and reconnecting with home via computer. School and real life begin on Monday!

Brown Thomas

He is a rather unexpressive personality.

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Once Upon a Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

In which Sarah prepares to venture to Ireland, discovers that there are many gyrations involved in making the hop over the pond to Europe and the same jokes are made many times over.

It is now only four more days until I get on a plane and start my trip to the Philadelphia airport, from there to Dublin for study abroad orientation and then finally to Limerick, which will be home for the next four months. It’s difficult to say I’m ready, and I don’t think you ever can be completely ready for a brand new country. No matter how well adjusted you are, there will be culture shock in some measure. I’ve been out of the United States before, but I don’t think a couple of weeks in Ecuador with a mission trip group qualifies as instruction in Living in Ireland. The last time I was in Europe, I was in Germany, but that occasion hardly counts. Then I was so young that I not only needed help with communicating to German people, but also with tying my shoes and reaching light switches. The young and vertically challenged are not often concerned with international experience.

Most of my time over Christmas break has been spent visiting with friends and trying to get everything in order for the trip. For my time in Ireland, I’ve had to make sure all my trip deposits are made; keep transcript, passport, student validation document etc. together, get European plug converters for my laptop, try to learn at least something about Irish culture and work out the best packing strategy possible. For the things I’m leaving behind, I’m finishing my scholarship community service sheet, writing my film reviews for my editor job with the Hett, making sure someone will take over my kids’ Tae Kwon Do class at Song’s and making sure the horses at the farm are in good shape. Friends and family contribute to this process by thinking that I will either come back with an Irish accent or come back speaking entirely in limerick poem format. Here’s to loved ones and their infinite cleverness. 😉 They’ve also been saying goodbye for the past two weeks, so I now feel like I’m going to be gone for about two years rather than four months.

This is likely to be the shortest long trip I’ll ever take. I’m looking forward to seeing Ireland and vaguely dreading airport security, but it will be okay. I have come to find that it’s amazing what you can do when you have to and that most situations can be managed just fine if you stay calm and don’t back down.

See you on the other side.

This is money?

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