Student Stories

Dublin study abroad students find insights through community-based learning

By: Rosie McDowell

June 19, 2017

While Notre Dame students study abroad in Dublin during their junior year, they have the option to learn and serve with local community organizations through a collaboration with the Center for Social Concerns. Community-based learning (CBL) placements with at-risk youth, people experiencing homelessness, the elderly, and refugees afford students weekly opportunity to encounter and build relationships with Irish youth and adults and other residents of Dublin. 

The integration of these experiences with the Introduction to Ireland course taught by Professor Kevin Whelan, director of the Notre Dame Dublin Global Gateway, are facilitated by regular journal prompts and discussion with onsite staff.  Students in the program write six journal entries during the semester in which they reflect on their experiences. In the final journal entry they address the theme of displacement in response to a reading taken from the book Compassion co-written by Fr. Don McNeill, CSC, founding director of the Center for Social Concerns.

Rising senior Hayley Hofmann, a math and sociology major with an international development minor, describes her experience this way. “I think what makes CBL particularly special is the extra stage of displacement that it forces us to take. Not only are we displaced as American students studying in Ireland, but through CBL we have the opportunity to interact with different aspects of Irish society and people ingrained therein that we otherwise would not have had the opportunity to (meet).  I’ve met some wonderful people – coworkers and children alike – and I really feel like I developed genuine relationships with them even though our time working together was so fleeting. These relationships were the defining element of my time with Foundations (an organization serving the needs of homeless families), and from their progression I can most definitely understand the changes I’ve seen in myself and in my experience as a whole.”

The opportunity for relationship through this additional displacement within study abroad is a cornerstone of the program. Annie Richelsen, who studies marketing and international peace studies, writes that “sometimes we forget that although we come from very different places, cultures, religions, and countries in the world, we are still all human and experience the some growing pains as life goes on.” 

Susan Zhu, a political science and chemistry major, echoes this in her reflection: “The mission statement and goals of Don Bosco, aligned perfectly with the idea of finding solidarity with the brokenness of fellow human beings. It provides a home and a safe space for at-risk young men – a cohort of society that is often overlooked and forgotten. It seems easy to assume that young men cannot be vulnerable in the same way that unmarried mothers or orphaned children are, but that would be unfair.  Displacement calls for the awareness of a shared existence with the broken and struggling because we are all broken and struggling.”

This program, which moves students beyond what Fr. McNeill and his co-authors call “the ordinary and proper” place during the study abroad semester, creates the conditions for Notre Dame students to take the perspective of those they would not have encountered in a classroom setting. 

Annie Roble, a biological sciences major, describes learning to appreciate an element of the Irish culture in a particular way while working with at-risk youth in an afterschool program.  “If you really care about something, you should make your voice heard, even if you’re just speaking one-on-one to someone and have something you really want them to know. I think the Irish tendency to be brutally honest, especially in children, really rubbed off on me and made me see that keeping important opinions or thoughts to yourself won’t help anybody.”

Derek Meyer, a member of Navy ROTC who studies math and actuary sciences, in writing about his placement with refugee youth describes his shift in thinking this way: “in the ever globalizing world, the experience of living in a foreign country will help me to value the cultures and viewpoints non-Americans can bring to solve world problems.  While living in the United States, I did not really appreciate the burdens on families that were forced from their homes due to fighting in the Middle East. I never stopped to think about what it would look like for a refugee family trying to set up lives in a new country.”

These new perspectives will will continue to impact these students long after leaving Ireland.  Annie Roble expects to reshape her involvement in a mentoring club at Notre Dame. “I’m most excited about applying what I’ve learned at Solas (an afterschool youth program) to my volunteer work with College Mentors for Kids…I’m hoping to approach CMK next semester with a renewed sense of motivation to make the club a more involved and welcoming place for the kids to look forward to, just as the kids at Solas do.” 

Susan Zhu gained new insight toward her intended career choice in the nonprofit field.  “It is not all rescuing starving children or carrying dogs out of burning buildings. It is a lot of sitting at computers, stressing over budgets, ordering twenty first-aid kits, eating two ham sandwiches at lunch and learning the nuances of homemade jam. I plan to go into public health after graduation and have always wanted to work for a nonprofit, and this semester has been important in showing me that the behind-the-scenes work, although not always exciting, is just as vital as the sexy frontlines work.”

Annie Richelsen summarizes her take-away lesson from community-based learning in creative writing program this way: “to understand a culture, you must assimilate, or in this case voluntarily displace, yourself in it. I would have had such a different experience if I would have not volunteered every week because I got to meet so many Irish people from the ages of 12 to 65 who shared with me little pieces of their life and culture that I will keep with me forever.”

Students write their final papers for Professor Whelan’s class on themes related to their CBL placements and are invited to consider future independent research based on those topics.  Upon return to campus, they participate in a re-entry session hosted by the Center for Social Concerns staff and are included in the preparation of future cohorts of Dublin study abroad students engaged in community-based learning.

Contact: Rosie McDowell, rriordan@nd.edu, or Eimear Clowry Delaney, eimear.clowry.1@nd.edu

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