On January 16, 2008, I landed in Dublin after an almost eight hour flight from the United States. All I had in tow was two bags, my student visa, and a lot of curiosity. I spent four days in Dublin for my initial orientation before loading up a van with three other American students to take us to the University of Ulster in Jordanstown which would become our home for the next five months. While I was a student at J–town, I studied both communications and sociology and my primary goals were to make friends and have fun. I honestly didn’t put a ton of thought into choosing the University of Ulster–Jordanstown, but the biggest reason was because my home institution, the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, had already reviewed syllabi from Ulster and the credits would transfer back to apply toward my degree seamlessly. Unbeknownst to me, God had a greater plan and purpose for my time in Northern Ireland than I could have ever imaged.
When I came to Northern Ireland, I would not have considered myself Christ–follower. I grew up in the Catholic Church, but I think more than anything, Catholicism made me a good person, but not a person who knew and loved God. I was in a season of my life where I was exploring Christianity and what that would mean for me, but I hadn’t taken any steps toward forming a personal relationship with the Lord. A couple weeks into the semester, I was starting to become good friends with another international student (from the USA) who was a Christian. She asked me if I wanted to go to church with her, and as an extrovert, I told her of course as long as I was going to be able to meet some new people. We had decided to attend a Church of Ireland church, so one rainy Sunday morning, we took the train into Carrickfergus, and walked to the Church of Ireland church we had identified, but we could not, for the life of us, find the entrance to the church. We were so confused! As we were walking around the Church of Ireland trying to find the entrance, we heard worship music coming out of North Street Presbyterian, so we decided to wander in and see what time their service began. It was starting about 30 minutes later, so we decided to attend.
You could tell that we had never been to North Street before because we looked clueless. When we arrived, we were greeted by a friendly usher and we took our seats in one of the middle–to–back pews. We didn’t want to bring attention to ourselves, but someone (maybe the friendly usher) told the minister that we were new and very clearly not from Ireland. Minister Cecil made his way back to us before the service to introduce himself and he asked where we were from.
Both my friend and I were originally from Wisconsin, and in God’s perfect plan, Cecil was planning on showing a video clip of a flood that happened at Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a place my friend and I were both very familiar with. Some people believe in luck or coincidence, but I believe that God was showing us that His plans are greater. We were invited to a social gathering after the church service where we drank tea and ate cookies while meeting many others from the church.
Two things happened during this experience; first, we met many great people and were invited to join in community with young adults in the church and second, God really started showing Himself off. I was beginning to understand and be attracted to His perfect timing and beauty in the relationships that were forming.
I wish I could say that my semester was a breeze and everything was perfect, but that would be far from the truth. I was experiencing culture shock and was having a hard time focusing on the here and now. My family was experiencing some health issues and things got so bad to the point that I considered leaving my program mid–semester and going home to support them.
However, God kept showing up in places I had never seen Him before. He showed up in my finances and in my academics, He showed me light in dark places, He showed up in helping me make connections with the Christian Union and classmates, but mostly, He showed up in relationships and gave me some of the best friends–turned–family I will ever have, and they just happen to be living in Northern Ireland. But this would not and could not have happened if God was not at the centre of it all.
My advice for international students studying abroad in Northern Ireland would be to allow yourself to say yes through the fear. I know it’s scary leaving places of comfort for places that are new, but out of discomfort comes growth. So say yes to things that you typically wouldn’t, stretch yourself to be open to trying new things, and really get to know other international students and locals; you never know the kind of relationships you could find.
My advice for the local church who want to care for international students and share the Gospel would be to create spaces for international students be themselves. The relationships I formed in Northern Ireland are some of the most live–giving relationships I have because they invited me to be me. They invited me to dinner and to go shopping, they invited me over to their houses to interact with them and their families, they took me grocery shopping and ate the weird American food I made for them.
I learned about Jesus by how my friends lived their everyday lives. They all loved the Lord with their whole–beings, and they shared the Gospel with me through being the hands and feet of Jesus. Deep connection are formed through authenticity, and the local church has the opportunity to allow God to work through them in the lives of students who are in such a unique time in their lives. I have to imagine, if students are open to studying abroad in another country, their hearts are probably open to experiencing more, and I pray it’s the experience of hearing the Gospel and forming a deep relationship with Christ.