Monday, March 19, 2012

Study in Ireland - A Hundred Thousand Welcomes!

Céad míle fáilte romhat! A hundred thousand welcomes to you! Our group of 21 college counselors touring the seven Irish universities discovered the sincerity of this welcome and the true meaning of Irish hospitality. We were on a mission in early March to learn all that we could about higher education in Ireland. After a week visiting the seven campuses, I understand the appeal of studying in this country so rich in culture, history, scholarship and generosity.

The charm and splendor of the universities mirrors the radiance of the Irish people. Even in early March, each campus showed well, flowers in bloom and several sporting brilliant shamrock green quads…three weeks before the official advent of spring! However, my objective was to leave Ireland not only with the digital and mental pictures, but with a deeper appreciation for its approach to higher education, the essential differences between a U.S. and an Irish university experience, and an understanding of the mindset of the American student who decides to venture to the Emerald Isle to live and study.

Our journey began on the east coast in Dublin, where we spent two days touring Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and Dublin City University. We discovered, among other things, how much better Guinness tastes on the other side of the pond and the sheer beauty of traditional Irish music when performed by a cappella voices in perfect harmony. The next stop was National University of Ireland Maynooth, located in the eponymous medieval town just 30 minutes west of Dublin. Spending the night in a monastery was a personal first, only to be topped by a photo opportunity at dinner with members of the Irish national rugby team! After a three hour drive the next morning we reached the west coast and the picturesque city of Galway, home to the National University of Ireland Galway and a center for theatre and art. On our final two days we headed southeast to the University of Limerick and then on to the University College Cork before returning to Dublin. Both universities regaled us with traditional Irish music and dance performed by students in their acclaimed music programs. If you are ever in Cork, take a page from the Ireland itinerary of Queen Elizabeth II and be sure to savor the tastes, smells and bustle of the English Market!

Getting the flavor for life in and around the university locales was an integral part of our education. Yet most of our time was spent on the campuses, learning about the literally hundreds of subjects offered, the undergraduate entry programs in disciplines that are exclusively graduate level at home such as medicine, law, dentistry and veterinary medicine, Co-op programs similar to those in the U.S., the difference between a society (student club) and a club (a sport), the student union (an organization, not a place!), tutorials (the Irish equivalent of a U.S. university lecture review session), joint honours degrees (a double major), study abroad through the Erasmus programme (a student exchange program), and a whole host of other features, some of which needed to be translated or explained for American educators.

Much of what we heard from faculty, staff and students about the appeal of studying in Ireland came as no surprise. Americans students seek the international experience and global perspective that living in the gateway to Europe offers; yet they know they will still have the familiarity of hearing and speaking their native English. It’s a cultural immersion that feels a little less foreign. Yet there are some significant differences in the educational experience in Ireland that attracts a special type of international student.

Studying in an Irish university is more about depth than breadth. The emphasis on pursuing one or two subjects rather than exploring a true liberal arts curriculum means that students graduate with a genuine expertise in their fields. (University College Dublin offers a program that is an exception, having developed a Liberal Art & Sciences Program modeled after U.S. higher education which allows students to explore various disciplines before declaring a major.) The more common Irish approach is focused, but not narrow. In fact, many programs are inter-disciplinary. A course (major) in European Studies will delve into the history, philosophy, arts and sciences, religion, psychology and linguistics of the region, thereby providing an education that can, indeed, look very much like one pursued at a U.S. liberal arts college.

Those from the United States who do choose to study in Ireland might be surprised by the degree of responsibility placed on students to budget their time and self-pace their studies. One or two exams during the year is the norm rather than continual assessment throughout the semester, as is common in the U.S. Professors do not regularly provide progress feedback in the form of tests or papers. Yet students are not left to fend for themselves. Irish universities provide dedicated support for international students to ensure that they succeed academically and adjust to their new social and cultural environment.

Attending a university in Ireland means being part of a larger community. The notion of town-gown is not part of the mindset in Ireland; students easily mingle with residents and feel very welcome as part of the local community. The warmth, hospitality and welcome of the Irish people is unmatched. Go into an Irish pub or shop and don’t be surprised if you are drawn into a conversation.

“School spirit” as we know it in the U.S. is a bit of a foreign concept on campuses in Ireland. Instead, students connect and feel part of the university by joining societies and clubs or team sports, many of which are competitive. Involvement in these cultural, academic, social and athletic organizations is viewed as an important dimension to the university experience, and furthers a mission to educate the whole person. On Irish campuses, students rule. All societies and clubs are student organized and run. Every university has a union comprised of student-elected representatives who take a year off from their studies to oversee many aspects of university life.

Those who choose to attend an Irish university know they will have the best of both worlds: a university campus endowed with state-of-the-art academic, research and athletic facilities which is either located in or within a short distance from a major city, yet easily accessible to the magnificent countryside for which Ireland is well renowned.

I returned from my visit to Ireland convinced that self-directed and motivated American students willing to think broadly about higher education options would do very well to consider any of the seven Irish universities for a degree program that’s highly regarded worldwide and a great value. I would be remiss if I made no mention of the cost. Though tuition and fees vary by program of study, the cost of attendance on average is the U.S. dollar equivalent of about $30,000 per year, a bargain when compared to private colleges and even some public options in the U.S.

For the adventurous, directed student seeking an international and cultural experience that cannot be replicated in the U.S., consider Ireland. Céad míle fáilte romhat!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Education Ireland – An International Alternative to U.S. Higher Ed

In just two days I will be boarding a plane for Ireland, excited to be taking my first trip to the Emerald Isle. I must confess I feel a tad guilty that I, the only member of my family with no trace of Irish ancestry, must leave my husband and daughters behind. However, this is a business trip, not a vacation, and I will get to do one of things I enjoy most about my profession: I will have the opportunity to visit all seven national universities, walk the campuses, see the students, hear from professors and administrators, and learn as much as I can possibly absorb in one week about the Irish higher education system.

I am especially primed for my upcoming trip, not only in anticipation of visiting historic cities and universities and taking in the beautiful surroundings and Gaelic culture. I am thrilled to see firsthand these world-renowned universities which I believe provide a genuinely worthy and interesting alternative for American students. Irish universities offer quality academics and an approach to education that is probably closest to what we have in the U.S. in terms of curriculum, prestige, and career advising and support.

My purpose here is not to exalt the virtues of studying in Ireland (I expect to do that after my trip!), but rather to present some of the reasons why thinking beyond a 180 mile radius exposes families to options they otherwise might not have considered. Granted, spending three or four years studying in another country and living within a foreign culture best serves students open to new experiences and those truly seeking to broaden their horizons. But some of the persuasive reasons for thinking beyond one’s borders may be enough to compel students to consider less conventional choices.

Here is a typical wish list that I often hear from students and families:

- Many academic options

- Access to a city, but also a nice campus

- A mid-size university; not too small

- Lots of clubs and activities

- Career advising

- Affordable!

Here is what I do currently know about the Irish higher education system:

- All seven universities are research institutions offering bachelor, graduate and doctoral programs

- The campuses are primarily city-based with easy access to explore the rest of Ireland

- Several are what we consider mid-size universities, with 7,000 to 12,000 undergraduate students

- The Irish system offers both a U.S. type curriculum where students can study liberal arts and sciences, but also a British style curriculum that offers specialization in the first year

- Club and activities abound; the Irish universities provide many of the student life amenities found on U.S. campuses

- The admission process is very much focused on “fit” and employs a holistic review (academics, recommendations, personal statement)

- International students are not left to fend for themselves; they participate in an extensive orientation program and have access to dedicated support for foreign students, both academic and career focused, throughout their years at the university

- A degree from an Irish university is recognized internationally; the seven institutions draw students from all over the world

- The cost of attendance for the highly recognized educational experience is approximately US$36,000 per year, comparable to that of the public universities in the United States; many programs are just three years which provides considerable cost savings over a U.S. degree

- U.S. citizens and residents can use federal student aid (Stafford and PLUS loans) to help finance an education in Ireland; all of the universities also offer some merit aid.

To be fair, the Irish universities are experiencing many of the cost structure issues that also plague U.S. institutions. The Higher Education Authority in Ireland has been very proactive in addressing this and has recently proposed strategic plans to better align missions and eliminate duplication among the universities. Getting a better understanding for the structure of the Irish system going forward is one of my key objectives for this trip.

As always, I welcome your comment. If you have any specific questions you would like me to pursue on this explorative journey, please send them my way!