Emma Aulenback studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland in the spring of 2019, and today she’s back to share a reflection on her time abroad. She discusses what it was like adjusting from having a jam-packed academic, extracurricular, and social calendar as a college student in the US to having large blocks of unstructured free time in Dublin.
“See here! The only assignments you lot have are the ones listed on this sheet,” my professor’s voice boomed from the front of the class.
“Interesting,” I thought, looking at my crisp, first-day syllabi. I flipped the pages over and over again. There were only about four. Was I too focused on how groovy it was that my professor just said, “you lot”? No, I was not mistaken. I had essentially NO homework. Is that not every student’s ultimate dream? Just go to class once or twice a week and then… and then what?
What? What was I supposed to do with the rest of my time?
Up until this point, I thought I had the college song and dance down pat: class, library, work... eat, sleep, repeat the chorus. Socializing and extracurriculars had to be penciled in. At UMass, my planner had me out of the house straight from 7:30 AM until the birds let the bats take stage. There was always an insurmountable amount of reading to skim and discussion posts to fluff up. I had always wondered why our professors gave us so much work! Quality never had a chance with quantity on the ticket.
My weekends at UMass were never long enough for the full-fledged “fun-genda” my friends and I dreamed up. “Friday” and “Saturday” were written in gold. Being surrounded by friends and things to do is what got me through the stress of it all. Unfortunately, these life-giving aspects take a backseat to our culture’s priority passengers: “Academics” and “Career”.
While in Dublin, I found myself floating in a universe of unstructured time. It seemed that every day of the week was now something shiny and sacred. After class, I questioned what to do with myself. There was nothing I had to do. No list of things to check off or assignments to fall behind on. No shift to cover, or club meeting to attend. One would think this newfound change would be a sigh of relief—a break from an exhausting, overly scheduled lifestyle. Not exactly. For those first few weeks I was discomforted by my blank schedule. Was I missing “the rush” of having 5 exams in one week, or was I channeling the feelings of my neglected planner? Definitely the latter.
However, I am the kind of gal who organizes the pantry on a snow day. Idle and I don’t get along. Yet, I soon realized that having nothing to do did not mean I had to do nothing. I started scheduling my weekdays as I did my precious weekends back home. Except now, my “fun-genda” was more spontaneous. No two days looked the same.
“An all-you-can-eat Lebanese buffet? On a Tuesday? Of course!” I said, taking the offer and putting away my packed lunch. Reading alone on the lawn led to friends stopping by to say “hello,” which led us meandering up the street for drinks. I scheduled more dinner parties than I did study sessions. The unknown opportunity was my new routine.
For the first time in my educational career, I had a choice in how I organized my time. After initially feeling lost by this newfound independence, I realized that living life outside of school is a skill we don’t teach in America. Our downtime as students is nearly non-existent. In fact, having any downtime at all made me feel guilty—like I was not doing enough. An empty slot in my calendar meant something was surely missing on my resume.
Freedom described my academics here, as well! Creativity was definitely not the main focus of many of my US college classes. Success was the ability to regurgitate the main point of an 18th-century reading you eked out that same morning at 4 AM. I actually looked forward to creating my Griffith College work. The four assignments for my Writing for Arts and Culture class were all based on real-life experiences we had in the city! Indeed, the Bastille concert I went to with a friend doubled as the focus of my performance review.
Irish life was a true life because it had balance. It’s about time that “Mental Health Manager” be the new sought-after job experience among employers. And so, I made sure not to overload myself going into senior year. I made time for those sporadic coffee dates and explored parts of campus I never made time to appreciate.
After the pandemic cut my senior year short, I had no regrets in not spending so much time in the library. If not for my experiences abroad, I truly believe my last memories would have been tinged by the glare of fluorescent lights and clacking keyboards. Instead, I remember time well spent pulling pranks on my roommate and playing frisbee in the field...my planner in a desk far, far away.
Emma Aulenback is a CAPA Dublin alumnus and Sociology major from University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She was also an official CAPA blogger, sharing her stories weekly on the CAPA World blog during her spring 2019 study abroad semester in Dublin, Ireland.