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School Visit to Cork, Ireland

My weekends as a preteen in the mid-80s often involved trips to Blockbuster with friends.  If we weren’t renting Mask (with Cher) for the millionth time, then a National Lampoon movie was a likely pick. Say what you will, but European Vacation remains one of my favorites of the series.  I can’t even count how many times Sam, Ellie, and I have said “Look kids, Big Ben” as Tom struggled with traffic circle exits in various countries.

Anyhow, you might recall the bicyclist from the movie.  Chevy Chase continually causes all sort of accidents that injure this character, but each time the cyclist responds with kindness, friendliness, and unnecessary apologies. Though this part of the movie took place in London, I thought of it often while we were in Ireland.

As an introvert, I am not someone who enjoys small talk with strangers. By this, I mean strangers who will stay strangers-like the person sitting next to me on the plane. Small talk exhausts me, so expending that energy with someone I will likely not see again doesn’t appeal to me. Every single person I met in Ireland was just so genuinely friendly, that conversations didn’t feel like small talk with a stranger. It was really remarkable. I was talking to an administrator from University College Dublin, who is also American and a self-proclaimed introvert like me, and he noted that it’s really hard to truly explain or understand until you experience it.  We lived in North Carolina for many years, so friendliness from strangers is something I’m familiar with, but this is something beyond that.

We started our trip in Cork, which was a three-hour train ride from Dublin.  I was particularly excited about this part of the trip, as Cork is known as a great food destination. And it did not disappoint!  The cheeses were particularly amazing, though the emphasis on local food was prevalent in many places around the city. I walked past more than one kebab shop that advertised using only local Irish lamb. I also like that it’s a smaller city, which made getting around and exploring quite easy. Though not evident in the summer, it’s a university city, with about 17% students included in their population of 210,000.

This trip was different than others I’ve been on. Though Irish universities plan to open in the fall, most are still closed with employees working from home. In most cases, I walked around campuses to get a feel and then had zoom calls with administrators who answered my questions.  The exception was University College Cork, as much of the staff in the International Office continued on campus work through the summer. Due to this, I was able to have an in-person meeting.

Surprisingly, there was only one rainy day on our entire trip. Of course, this happened to be the day of my meeting at UCC so after seeing the forecast I decided to check out the campus a day early. As you may know, centralized campuses are rare in Europe. Usually the different department buildings are scattered around the city. Though there are some beautiful university buildings, they aren’t generally all in one place.  The UCC campus dates back to 1845 with incredible landscaping and Gothic architecture. Even some of the newer buildings are built into original structures, which provides a striking contrast. I have to say, this must be the most beautiful campus in Europe that I have visited.

UCC has 76 bachelor’s and more than 100 masters.  This is comparable to the number offered at the other Irish universities. So how does a student choose between schools in Ireland if they are looking for a program that is offered at many of the traditional universities (as opposed to the technological instituted, which is a topic we will explore in a future post)?

A student might like UCC because of the beautiful facilities, the commitment to a green campus, the focus on sustainability and green campus, the career services offerings, the breadth of student associations, or the incredible English Market (ok that one is me…). While there are a number of aspects students could look at, one that I think is important is international student experience.

There are some aspects of the international student experience that will be common at most Irish universities.  Most of the traditional universities offer an Arts program, which is similar to liberal arts and provides a level of curricular flexibility. Housing for first year international students is (basically) guaranteed at most universities too.  Adjusting to the first year can also be easier in Ireland. I’ve been told that the friendliness and inclusiveness I experienced extends to international students. Further, since the language in Ireland is English, international students are able to access all the various clubs and associations (as opposed to only those in English as is the case in non-anglophone countries).

There are factors around the international student experience, though, that are directly affected by the international student resources in place. This was just one area in which UCC impressed me tremendously.  These supports start with the admissions process. International students apply directly to the international student office who work with the applicant to answer questions and assist with the process.  Application decisions are turned around quickly, generally within 4 weeks or so.  These supports continue after acceptance and before starting at campus.  What struck me were the ways in which the international office team goes above and beyond the help their students during this time. Before they even arrive on campus!  One example of this is the email that was sent to students this summer. It was friendly and informative without being overwhelming. They provided information about arrival, orientation, events and more as well a number of ways for students to connect through Facebook groups and such before arrival. Sam was a first year student at two different Dutch universities and the difference in this before arrival support and what he received is dramatic.

The support from this office continues after arrival and through graduation.  In addition to the orientation that is integrated with the non-international students, the international office hosts four “Essential Information” sessions for international students.  These include sessions on immigration matters, how to access various supports and resources at UCC, practical tips, and issues around culture and transition. Like the summer email, I like that the information is partialized and presented in a way as to not overwhelm the students. The staff really seemed to care about the students and their overall well-being. During covid times, they sent out regular emails, with ways to connect that were aligned with restrictions on movement and provided the students with an online hub to access supports around wellbeing.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that we added Ireland! Though more expensive than most of the offerings in continental Europe, they are still less expensive than private universities in the United States.  All the traditional universities have FAFSA numbers and accept direct federal student loans (not the Pell Grant) and some have scholarship options for international students. Of course, many of are pursuing higher education in Europe in order to avoid debt for ourselves or our children…That said, many of our members are exploring options in Europe due to other benefits around international education and/or have been saving according to US tuition rates.  If your budget includes options in the12-20k per year range, I highly suggest exploring the options in Ireland.

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Why We Are Adding Ireland

As more and more families and students learn about the options for higher education in Europe, Beyond the States membership continues to grow each year. When our membership was smaller, there were more similarities in terms of what families were looking for in Europe. The affordable tuition was a huge factor, and they were eager to explore the options that would provide international experiences for prices comparable to in-state tuition.

Here’s our big news: we’re adding Ireland!

I’m now encountering more and more families who are defining affordable as less than out of state or private tuition, or who are exploring the options due to the other benefits (like transparent admissions, international experiences, and future opportunities). We have a question on the Best Fit List form that asks about budget. It used to be extremely rare to see an answer of over $10k per year. Up to $15k a year is a more common answer now, with some even at $20k+.

When thinking of the varying definitions around “affordable”, I was reminded of a friend who spent a few years living in rural areas of China due to her husband’s job.  Not only did she learn the art of negotiating prices at markets, but she became accustomed to incredibly low prices.  I still laugh at the story of her first trip to the grocery store when she returned to Chicago where she tried to haggle over the price of bananas.

Having been immersed in the continental European tuition rates for so long, I can relate to my friend’s mindset shift as it pertained to affordability. What I needed to remember though, is that this is different from the frame of reference that most Americans have. Further, higher tuition rates may still be more reasonable than in the US for students who plan to study outside of their home state.

I am also meeting a number of students who have academic interests that just don’t have a number of English-taught options in continental Europe. Some of these students are interested in things like Creative Writing, Criminology, Theater, Culinary Arts, or Speech Therapy and have trouble finding a program that really suits their interests. It is not that countries in continental Europe do not have these programs, it’s just that they are much more likely to be taught in the language of the country. Others really want flexibility when it comes to declaring a major, but do not meet the AP requirements of the Dutch university college.

I previously wrote a piece explaining why Beyond the States does not include Irish universities. Cost was the main reason.With the changing needs of our members in mind, and a new perspective on affordability, I jumped back into exploring the options in Ireland and am excited to announce that we will be adding Irish higher education to our offerings next month!

Here is a sneak peek at what I have learned thus far in adding Ireland:

▪ Yes, the tuition is higher than the other countries we list. The average tuition in Ireland is $18380 per year, while the average in continental Europe is around $8000 with the countries with the highest average tuition (Denmark, Sweden, France, and Switzerland) at $13075-13470 per year. Further, tuition rates have a residency requirement so if you live in the US with a EU passport, you will still pay international student rates. However, most of the schools offer international student scholarships and about a third of the schools have FAFSA numbers and work with US student loans. 884 of the 1035 programs take 4 years to complete, 75 take 3 years and 76 have a 3 or 4 year option, with 4 year students doing a year abroad between the third and 4th year.

▪ With the higher tuition rate comes a number of amenities that you won’t find in many other European countries. Many schools own student housing, have beautiful centralized campuses, along with extensive sports facilities.There may also be increased resources around the non-academic needs of the students.I was looking at one school that included a student budgetary advisor as well as peer support leaders assigned to all first-year students. This familiarity, along with fact that it’s an anglophone country, can provide a soft landing for American students who may be nervous about living abroad.

▪ With more than a thousand programs, there are programs in just about any field you can think of! Further, most schools offer programs that are similar to liberal arts. Usually, students choose a certain number of disciplines to take courses around during the first year and then narrow it down to one or two during the second year. Different schools offer different possibilities in terms of courses to choose from and the structure varies slightly between schools as well, with some offering options for a single major, double major, or major and minor.

▪ Like many other European countries, there is a type of university (called technical institutes) that offer full bachelor’s degrees but with more of a practical focus and hands-on approach. These are similar to universities of applied sciences in other countries.

▪ AP scores are not required, but admission for American students is generally based on SAT or ACT scores as well as GPA. Most schools have their programs grouped into categories for admissions, with each category requiring a different minimum GPA and test scores.

We have a team working hard to have everything in the database before the summer session of the On Your Mark class. We will have the bachelor’s programs in the database for all members in June (master’s by the fall) along with a webinar explaining some of the key aspects and differences around Irish higher education.  We are also working on a self paced course (similar to the Netherlands course) which should be ready after my school visits in August.  Since we already have the information and are just polishing it up for the database, Best Fit list purchases now include the option for Irish schools! Remember, the annual membership (discounted through the end of the month) comes with a $100 credit that can be applied to a best fit list. We hope you’re as excited about these new programs as we are!