By Molly Gross
Assistant Professor of English
From May 11th through 25th, 27 students from both Brescia University and Kentucky Wesleyan, along with 10 assorted instructors, faculty, staff, parents and chaperones, embarked on an adventure spanning Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland on the 2022 “Bresleyan” Study Abroad trip.
The air in Scotland is cool, untainted, and unapologetically wild. Not only do crossing Atlantic winds ensure constant renewal and fast-moving clouds, but near-daily spatters of rain squelch any odor’s chance of reaching the nose, save for the occasional hint of pine. In no predictable pattern, the wind moves through mountain passes and narrow streets in erratic breezes that either dance the grass, brush the skin, or invert your umbrella. It’s no wonder the locals stick to jackets. Of course, the feel of the air is not something I could have learned before the study abroad trip I was lucky to chaperone; it was (and had to be) an awareness gifted by the trip itself.
Before 37 of us departed, the 27 Brescia and Wesleyan students among us were enrolled in a weekly course this past spring. Taught by Dr. Rachel Besing, professor of psychology and director of Brescia’s study abroad program, and co-taught by Brescia history professor Dr. Christopher Griffin, the course primarily featured student presentations about the history, culture, and significance of sites we would visit. Of course, there were also many questions.
“What should I pack?”
“What if I get lost?”
“What if I get Covid?”
Dr.’s Besing and Griffin had answers, fortunately, as did Dr. Christina Starkey, director of Kentucky Wesleyan’s study abroad program. As a late-arriving chaperone, yours truly was among the hand-raisers. I have travelled enough to know that there is only so much you can prepare-only so much assurance you can offer the wide eyes of one who has never left home.
The new continent appeared as a quilt of greens and yellow rapeseed framed in our airplane windows. Roger, who could have been Tim Curry’s older brother, was our cheerful and punctual guide who met us at the Edinburgh airport with our bus, or “coach,” as we learned to call it. No time was ever wasted in seeing the sights.
Edinburgh Castle loomed high on a hill of jagged volcanic rock, and I noticed students beaming as we walked through the same gate where William Wallace and Robert the Bruce once entered. It was not as elegant as Stirling Castle, which many students shared as a highlight of the trip, with its colorful, ornate woodwork, wall-sized tapestries, and great hall where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned (I admit that room took my breath away).
On our drive through the Scottish Highlands, fog and drizzle couldn’t dull the bright green mountains nor the grins of our students for several photo-opts along the way. We landed in Strathpeffer near Inverness, an old hotel allegedly haunted, which had served as a WWI hospital, but news of this only added to the excitement. By our second night there, most of our group was dancing in the lobby to a live musician playing Elvis and Little Richard covers.
Another highlight was stopping the coach to sign the Peace Wall in Belfast, erected during “The Troubles” between Protestant and Catholic working-class neighborhoods. To know that Brescia and Wesleyan have left messages of love and peace there is something we now cherish.
A large rock formation on the coast in clusters of hexagonal towers, known Giant’s Causeway, was also memorable. One origin theory is that a Scottish giant challenged an Irish giant to a fight, so the Irish one built the causeway across the channel for the showdown. Finn’s wife smartly dressed him as a baby, and when the Scottish giant saw it, he fled, fearing the size of his opponent. Another theory is that it was formed from a volcanic eruption called a fissure vent, but who knows.
In Ireland, it was evident that the air smelled a bit more of sheep. In May, mama sheep and their lambs were everywhere, grazing the bright green pastures lined in rock piles and navigating rocky foothills in the distance. Dublin was a highlight as it seemed to provide a little something for everyone. We viewed the Book of Kells and the Old Library of Trinity College, the Guinness Storehouse at St. James’ Gate, and the EPIC museum of Irish Emigration. These increased our appreciation of the fine arts, scientific discoveries, the food and customs we can thank the Irish for.
I was surprised to see many students enjoying our more natural excursions – climbing the steep paths along the Cliffs of Moher (where two of us were fortunate enough to see puffins!), filling our pockets with shells and sea glass on the shores of Galway, wandering the gardens around Blarney Castle, and holding lambs at the working sheep farm.
“One of my favorite things is the feeling of confidence I sense from students by the middle of the trip,” said Dr. Griffin. I personally saw much of this confidence building through the freedom students were afforded during free time. As Dr. Besing explained, “We encourage students to explore and use real world skills to navigate the city safely. There is value in discovering hidden gems in a foreign city.” Another goal, shared by Dr. Starkey, is the students “gain a broader world view,” in addition to that confidence.
But something else world travelers learn, is that it is not always rosy.
We had one flight delay, one rolled ankle, one broken sandal, and four travelers who stayed behind for five days with Covid (including myself). Something that kept our spirits up in quarantine, however, was watching the messages roll into our group chat where students shared their highlights of the trip.
From reading those highlights, and reflecting on my own journey, I think we all realized that no matter how well presented a power point is, you cannot gain the same experiences in a classroom that you can going abroad. You just can’t replicate what another country smells like. You can’t feel the warmth of an Irish lamb in your lap, or the echo of a bagpipe played on a distant street. A video can’t bring to justice the silence of the bog-dotted battlefield of Culloden or the whooshing wings of a rook that steals your pizza and the laughter that follows. No one could predict we’d break out singing “American Pie,” and “I Want to Dance with Somebody” on the coach while Roger chuckled from his seat.
We especially can’t create the deep friendships that form from getting lost and found together in a foreign land. Our colleges foster this program because when you push the classroom walls across the sea, what you learn is not just in your mind. It is burned into your journal pages, your new perspectives, and your character forever. It really is priceless.