UL Internationals in Belfast

Yes, we did it again! The Saturday morning, the 26th of October will forever remain deeply etched in the memories of over 100 international students, maybe because of the early 6am departure after a sleepless night following the TGIF madness in the Stables the night before (although for some it was rather one more attraction to add to the trip), or maybe, and more importantly because of the journey that we were about to begin. Once again, the International Society and two full buses of excited international students crossed the ‘invisible’ border all the way to Belfast, the city of Titanic, beautiful accents and much more. After refuelling, both literally and metaphorically, at a few petrol stations, and some detours caused by two rival GPS who could not reach a compromise, we finally made it to Belfast Castle. Soon after we arrived at the hostel and allocated everyone to their rooms, the students were left to their own devices and began to explore the city of Belfast. In the evening, the whole group was reunited in the kitchen or the ‘basement’, which was quite a useful discovery for those who wanted a bit more space to socialise. On Sunday, we visited the Giant’s Causeway, which in spite of the hurricane-like wind and freezing weather, did not lose its charm. In the afternoon of the same day, we set off on a historical and sentimental journey through the streets of Belfast. We visited the Protestant and Catholic areas, saw the murals and also had the opportunity to sign the peace wall which separates the two groups in the Northern Irish capital. The evening was dedicated to shopping and/or gathering strength for yet another night in Belfast. Our last but not at all least important stop was the Titanic museum on Monday. Thanks to the innovative and interactive museum, we could travel back in time and follow the journey of Titanic, from the first strike of the hammer in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, to its tragic end in the North Atlantic Ocean. After such a fun-filled weekend, we came back to Limerick at around 8pm. It was, without a doubt, a trip to remember, and one that, we hope, will be a landmark for our international students of their time in Ireland.

by Monika

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Positive Mental Health Week – Wednesday!

Day 3 and we’re halfway through the week – that beautiful Bank Holiday weekend is almost tangible! Here’s another guest post about taking care of your mental health while you’re away from home. – Muireann

So you’re here in Limerick making new friends, improving your language skills, studying interesting subjects and experiencing a new people and culture as part of your ERASMUS or Study Abroad experience. This is probably one of the best times of your life and you know you’re lucky because you are studying in one of the best universities for international students in the world – UL!

However, there can be some downsides to living away from home. It’s not all parties and travelling! Erasmus can be lonely and difficult. Sometimes you will have bad days. It can be something as simple as missing your mother’s cooking or your favourite food or TV show or boyfriend or girlfriend. You may suffer from homesickness, which is normal and a lot more common than you think! Language barriers can be very problematic too, but you soon learn the power of hand gestures! Culture shock is unfortunately unavoidable. No matter where you go, you will notice some small, and big, differences between cultures. It can be different ways of greeting people, or finding the weather hard to adjust too.

Most of these feelings will pass with time as you make friends and become more comfortable in your new environment.  You get used to the currency, understand the transport system, find your lectures, and make fun and multi-cultural friends! The key to a successful Erasmus is to be brave and confident, try new things and to take care of your-self.

But while we are very conscious about our physical health, we often don’t take care of our mental health. Sometimes your Erasmus experience isn’t as fun as you expected, sometimes the homesickness is persistent, and sometimes you find it hard to make new friends. Believe me, I know. I went to Vienna, Austria for my year-long ERASMUS experience. It’s a fantastic city with a vibrant culture and interesting people. I made some close friends with whom I am still in contact, improved my German, studied new subject areas, and experienced Austrian culture. However, when I think about my ERASMUS experience, I often feel very sad because that year was the most difficult year of my life.

While I was there, my parents split up and then, we lost our house. I found this out in October, at the start of my experience and even now, two years later, I am still coming to terms with what happened.  The year was a blur. I felt alone, isolated, lethargic, exhausted, and to be honest, very depressed. Nowadays, I am a very different person in comparison to the lost, sad person I was back then. When I think about how I managed my mental health, I can see my biggest mistake. I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. Instead, I kept all my feelings in, but they just got worse and worse.

Some of my friends in Austria knew what had happened, but they didn’t really know how much my parent’s separation was affecting me. Why didn’t I tell anyone? Well, I thought that either:

a/ they wouldn’t understand,

b/ they wouldn’t care,

c/ my friends had their own problems,

d/ and they wouldn’t be able to help me anyway.

I also didn’t tell my family much because I felt a lot of guilt. I had this fantastic opportunity to enjoy a different culture, but my family were at home with no distractions. I felt like I had abandoned them. I was stuck in Austria and I couldn’t go home and support my family. Equally, my family were in Ireland and couldn’t support me. Skype helped to some extent but it doesn’t replace a mother’s hug!  I should have realised that bottling up my feelings was making me quite sick. I found it hard to get out of bed in the morning, I could sleep for hours and hours, I lost interest in things that I used to love, I was over-eating and I hated being alone because that was when my thoughts got worse. It also began to seriously affect me academically.

It was so unlike my personality. I am a very happy and positive person.  I am patient and understanding. I always encouraged my friends to share their problems with me. However, when it was my turn to share my problems, I felt paralysed. It was easy to keep my thoughts to myself because all of my friends were at home in Ireland. It was easy to hide behind Facebook. But it was a very stupid thing to do and my biggest regret is that I didn’t seek help sooner, because it ruined my Erasmus year, and my negative thoughts were consuming me.

By May, things were very bad. I felt really low and was beginning to get anxiety attacks. However, a friend encouraged me to contact the Erasmus office here in UL. I did but basically exploded! I wrote them a long email detailing all of my thoughts – probably too detailed! – but all of a sudden, I had support. Someone knew and could help. The UL Erasmus office was fantastic. They took me seriously, even though they had no proof of how much I was suffering or whether I was telling the truth. They told me to do my best in terms of classes, and to seek out counselling. I also told my mother and even though, it really hurt her, she supported me. I just wanted to jump on the first plane home but with their support, I went to a counsellor.

To be honest, it didn’t really help. The counsellor listened to me but when I was finished, she gave me the name of a 24-hour pharmacy where I could get some Xanax. That was not what I wanted. What I needed was to talk to someone, not to take something. However, the end was in sight, and I just about got through the end of term exams, although I missed one or two. I nearly failed the whole year, but thankfully UL were very supportive and gave me options so I could return to university.

However, I wasn’t ready. As I had been in pain for so long, I needed a break. So I took a year out of my course, stayed at home, worked and began to deal with everything I had tried to ignore. I started counselling in my town, which was much better than the counsellor in Vienna – thankfully! It really began to help me, and I am now continuing counselling here in UL. They couldn’t be more helpful and understanding, and I am finally feeling like I am taking care of myself: physically, emotionally and mentally.

The only regret I have was that I didn’t tell my loved ones sooner. If I had, maybe things wouldn’t have become so serious. I also learnt that your friends and family really are there for you, no matter what. Even if they can’t fix things, a friendly smile or an understanding hug can make a huge difference. So if you’re a student here in UL, finding things a bit hard, please go talk to someone. Like they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. It just took me a bit longer to realise that.

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Positive Mental Health Week – Day Two!

Hey guys, happy Tuesday! We have another guest post about mental health awareness for you today, focussing on how self-perception affects mental health and how important it is to look after yourself. – Muireann

Let me begin by introducing myself. I’m an international student here at UL. I was born in Texas, where I’ve lived most of my life up to this point. I’m big on hugs, I love people, and I tend to have a lot of friends. I’m also transgender*.

Being transgender is really rough. Even though I know that I’m a man, I live every day inside a biologically female body. Imagine what that would be like, if you can- what would it be like if every day you had to look down at yourself and see the opposite of what you expected? I’m shocked and disappointed every time I look at my body. I never see what I expect, and my body serves as a constant reminder that my identity doesn’t fit the norm.

My discomfort doesn’t end there, though. On a typical day, I can count on being called “she”, “lady”, “her”, etc. a number of times, even though I do my best to look as male as possible. I should note that I have good friends who take care to refer to me as “he” as well, for whom I am extremely grateful. I hear every pronoun. Every day, I can be sure someone will (through no fault of their own, and with no malice on their part) treat me as if I were a woman, when I am not.

Also with regularity, I’m faced with awkward questions from people who don’t understand. People who’ve never met a transgender person and don’t know how to treat us can say the darndest things. Some people, rare birds though they are, actually dislike me or are offended by me just because I’m trans.

As if all of this weren’t enough, I’m not exempt from the same pressures every other student faces. I worry about money, assignments, tests, and relationships as much as the next person.

For the time being, there is nothing I can do to change any of this. So how to face the daily struggle? How do I protect and maintain my mental health?

First, I talk about my struggles. All of them. Every day. I tell my journal about them, I pray about them, and some of the time I tell my friends, too.

I also take care of my body by running, getting enough sleep, and making sure I eat as well as I can. Not only does running release endorphins and improve my mood, but it’s also a break from all the pressure. I tend to run outside, away from people, where I can just escape it all for a while.

None of this is a magic bullet. Every day is still an uphill climb requiring self-discipline and endurance. But it’s been enough thus far to keep me going, and I maintain the hope that at some point, things will get better.

*Transgender is an umbrella term for individuals who express their gender differently from or identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to be at birth. I fall under the umbrella because though I was assigned female at birth, I identify and live as a man.

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Mental Health Awareness Week – Homesickness

Hey guys, this week is Mental Health Awareness Week and our Events Officer Amanda has written some guest posts for the website! Today, her post is about homesickness. – Muireann

Travelling is all I’ve ever wanted to do; it’s always been my biggest love. That’s one of the reasons I chose to study languages. I’m 21 now and I have lived in Spain, Argentina and Germany, for periods of between 4 or 6 months.  Each experience was completely unique and incredible in its own way. Every time I went away I had a great time, met loads of new people, acquired some new families and saw amazing sights. So many young Irish people are being forced to leave this country right now to find work but if it’s possible to see a bright side it’s that they may get to experience something, another lifestyle, another culture that they would never have known about if they stayed in Ireland!

However, I can’t honestly say that travelling is a perfect bed of roses all of the time. Something I suffered from in each country was homesickness. For me this was not something I wanted to share with other people at the time. I’m supposed to be this strong, independent young woman who travels around the world and has an incredible time; people are supposed to be jealous of me. But instead there were times I found myself getting jealous of my friends and family back home and feeling like I was missing out on what they were doing, feeling like everyone had forgotten I existed. Times when I felt like I didn’t belong where I was and all I wanted to do was go home.

Don’t get me wrong. Each time I came back from one of my adventures I told everyone I had the best time ever and I truly meant it. Homesickness was only ever a tiny factor in my travel experiences. But something my father said to me before I embarked on my summer as an au-pair in Madrid has really stuck with me. I was 19 years old, going to live in Spain and it was the most exciting thing I had ever done… All I could imagine was a long hot summer of sun, Sangria and gorgeous Spaniards. But what he said to me was that no matter how exciting it all is in the beginning, everything turns into a routine. He wasn’t trying to rain on my parade but he was warning me that it wouldn’t be fun every second of every day. You’ll have your good days and your bad days. And he was right.

After a few weeks the initial exhilarating excitement of being somewhere new wears off- maybe you haven’t made any new friends, perhaps you feel bored and lonely. This is what I felt a couple of weeks after arriving in Spain and, even though I was living with a fantastic and welcoming family, I felt unfulfilled. There were evenings when I didn’t want to leave my room or talk to anyone, except my friends back home.

I decided to do something about it. I contacted other Au Pairs in Madrid through Facebook and that was the turning point for me. Suddenly I was in contact with around 70 other girls in the exact same situation as me, and I ended up making lifelong friends and having the best summer of all time. I didn’t spend a single night in during the remainder of my time there and I was able to give 100% to the job because I was so happy and content. There were times I felt pangs of homesickness that summer, but they were mainly more about missing a decent Sunday dinner or a friend’s birthday night out. Even though I was excited to see everyone at the end of August, I did not want to leave Madrid.

When I went to Argentina I was more prepared than I was before for the longing for home that hits you like a hammer occasionally. I was better prepared for how it would feel living with a family that’s not your own and prepared for the culture shock that comes with living in a country so far away and so different from your own. And those five months were absolutely amazing. At the same time I was around 7000 miles from home, and sometimes I really felt that distance. This time none of my friends or family from home would be visiting. There wasn’t the option of just hopping on a plane for a few days when a return flight costs the bones of 1000 Euros. I was living in a town in the Patagonian desert where the nearest Irish person I knew was 6 hours away by bus. I lived with three different families and most of the time I HAD to speak Spanish, or else people would assume I was shy/stupid/stuck up. My families in Argentina understood what my level was like and had so much patience with me. But at the beginning of my stay, when there were asados (basically barbecues with loads of amazing Argentine food) and parties where extended family and friends would be there, I found myself withdrawing into myself. I didn’t have the confidence to speak much Spanish at that stage and I felt like I couldn’t express myself properly. I wasn’t being myself and I was afraid that everyone would think I was boring or rude, when the truth was that I could understand a lot of what people were saying to me but I just couldn’t get the words out in Spanish yet. I’m a pretty outgoing person and not being able to connect with people was really, really frustrating. This led to bouts of homesickness in Argentina for me, missing the people who I knew who I was and how much fun I could be. (Honestly, I’m great craic!)However, after a while that pretty much disappeared. By the end of my time there I was able to have full blown conversations about anything from my thoughts on Argentine men to the world economy when five months previously I couldn’t imagine being able to discuss anything like that! There were times when I missed home so much it was like a pain in the chest, but I found that talking to my friends and host family about how I felt really helped me to put things into perspective. Every time I met up with my Irish friends from UL we would talk about what we missed from home and that made me feel better too. I knew that I wasn’t alone in how I felt.

My Erasmus experience in Germany was the third time I lived away from home, but during this semester I did not experience homesickness like I had done before. I spent a lot of time with other Irish people which probably helped (along with hindering my chance to learn German, but that’s another story) and I also lived on my own which was something I found easier than living with other families as I had my own independence. During this time I received several visits from family and friends too and this really broke up the semester.

If you are living away from home and are feeling isolated, lonely or homesick please don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Talk to someone; whether it’s your friends, housemates, a counsellor, someone in the international office or, if you’re in UL, somebody in the Students Union. From personal experience I know that staying in your room and not going out and meeting people does not help. Try to make the most of the time you have away because, believe me, there are plenty people back home that would love to have the opportunity you have. I know sometimes it’s hard and scary to put yourself out there but you will regret it if you don’t.

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Here we are again!

Hi there, it’s Friday again! Even if I’m not in college, I always feel so glad when Friday comes around – there’s just a really great feeling about it, whether I’m going home or staying in Limerick for the weekend! This week, I’m going to explain a few things about Irish universities (and UL in particular) which may be different from those in your home colleges!

1. College or University – wait, I.T.? What?! There are several institutions of higher education in Ireland, but the titles and types are different depending on the status of qualification offered. IT stands for ‘Institute of Technology’, and they can be found all over the country. Everything from an associate degree programme to a PhD can be completed at an I.T. There are seven universities in Ireland: University College Cork, University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University, NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, and the University of Limerick (whoop!). There are also several colleges of education, such as Mary Immaculate College Limerick. This may seem a little confusing, but the way Irish students speak about their place of education may baffle you at first, so this does have a point! Firstly, we generally refer to wherever we are as ‘college’, e.g. ‘I can’t face going to college today after Molly’s last night.’ (Molly’s is a nightclub in Limerick city.) Even if one is in an IT, a university or an actual ‘College’, in everyday conversation the place is referred to as ‘college’. Secondly, although the calibre of education is excellent across the board, there are unfortunately stereotypes about students from each university, so prepare yourself for some classic memes insulting various institutions of education.
2. It’s the weekend… where is everyone?! As is no doubt obvious to you, Ireland is a small country. Many people live within driving range of their chosen university and choose to drive in and out to class every day. Others live further away and rent accommodation either on or off campus. Students who live further away will often take a bus or drive to and from their home counties at the weekends. On Friday afternoons, the sight of hundreds of students dragging bags (full of laundry for the Irish Mammy at home to wash, which is a phenomenon I shall explain at another time) around campus is really something to be seen. As a result, the housing estates where most off-campus accommodation can be found and the student villages on-campus are usually very quiet and empty over the weekend. On Sunday evenings, the buses pull in at different locations again and the streams of students (bags now full of clean clothes and packets of pasta taken from the cupboards at home) start to make their way back to their weekly homes again. As a result of the lower numbers of students around at the weekends, many cafés on campus will have restricted opening hours, but you’ll be glad to hear that the Stables stays open! The library is also much quieter – again, there are shorter hours – so if you need to get that assigment out of the way, that’s a good time to get it done!
3. What is RAG Week?! (Or Charity Week, if you want to be picky.) RAG Week, or Charity Week, is a week during which there are events all over campus to raise money for various charities. We call it Charity Week in U.L., but RAG (which stands for Raising And Giving but also has origins in students in British universities bothering or “ragging” members of the public to give money to various causes over a hundred years ago) is what it is referred to in most Irish universities. There are always loads of events on around the Courtyard, in the Stables, in Scholars and basically all over the place! It takes place during the second semester (after Christmas) so if you won’t be around, you will unfortunately miss out on it. However, if you will be at U.L., it’s brilliant craic and you will have a blast!
4. What exactly are the Clubs and Societies? This does not really need to be explained, but there are so many things going on within C&S that it is worth going into in more detail. The U.L. Wolves 4. is the name given to the C&S in U.L., which is why you will see a wolf on a lot of the merchandise that you can buy in the Student’s Union. There are 69 Clubs and Societies in total, which have a membership of over a third of the student population here. 4. The Clubs cater to almost every sporting or even vaguely active activity that you could think of, including GAA, American Football, Dance, Soccer, Fencing, Flying, Skydiving and Ultimate Frisbee, to name only a few! The Societies are just as varied, with Drama, Debating, Out in UL, Fan Forum, Psychology, Engineering and, OF COURSE, the International Society being only a tiny selection of those that are available for you to join. As a U.L student, you are automatically a member of UL Wolves, but in order for you to join the Clubs and Societies, you need to sign up for each organisation that you wish to join. You will pay a small joining fee – it may be larger for certain groups, but for the International Society it is only about €6 for the entire year. There will be a Clubs and Societies Recruitment Drive on in the Arena on Wednesday 11th September, where you will be able to investigate all the C&S in more detail. You can also check out the UL Wolves website, which has loads of information about all the different groups. You can log into the website using your UL Student number and your UL email password, but you won’t know those until orientation at the start of September. When you do have these, I would strongly advise you to pre-register for any club or society that you are interested in joining. It saves you so much time then when you go to sign up then later on! I’ll remind you of this nearer the time, but it’s very simple, just a matter of ticking a few boxes. As a member of several clubs and societies, I know that I’m biased when I say this, but getting involved in C&S is so worth it. You will meet amazing people, make wonderful friends, go to incredible places and have a fantastic time – and that’s just with the International Society!

That’s all for this week, as ever, if you have any comments or questions, please let us know! Also keep an eye out for our ex-members’ videos of advice which will be uploaded to the YouTube account and the Facebook page. Until next week, take care! :)

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