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A bit of here over there
The Outpost retreat for students abroad
An Irish rain spattered the window panes of the Dublin hostel as 21 Boston College undergraduates spending the spring semester abroad arrived one by one from their host cities across Europe on the afternoon of Thursday, March 7. They were here for the weekend, not to party or sightsee but to take time out and reflect on the first half of their foreign experience during a three-day retreat called Outpost, which is sponsored by the Office of International Programs and the Center for Student Formation.
After an evening of reconnecting with old friends and making new ones in the warmth of a nearby pub, they and six student leaders, also studying abroad, rose early Friday morning and boarded a bus for the hour-plus journey south to the Kippure Estate, a former hunting lodge in the wooded hills of County Wicklow that is now used as a meeting center. The students, all juniors, joined 10 members of Boston College’s faculty and staff—from the two sponsoring offices as well as the theology and philosophy departments and the Connell School of Nursing—who would be serving as retreat facilitators (or Sweeps, as the organizers called them in recognition of their job of keeping the participants on schedule).
Like the Halftime retreat offered to sophomores by the Center for Student Formation, Outpost is not explicitly religious, but the structure of the weekend is built around tenets of Jesuit spirituality: being attentive, reflective, and loving. For these three days, says Mike Sacco, the Center’s director, “we want them to slow down, disconnect themselves from what might be going on at home or in their temporary home”—whether it be London or Madrid or Amsterdam—and ask “what obstacles are preventing them from being fully present to the academic and cultural environment that surrounds them abroad.”
The schedule for each day includes brief talks by the student leaders, relating their experiences abroad to one of six topics—”Expectations,” “Independence,” “Social life,” “Personal struggles/insights,” “Relationships,” and “Go forth.” After-ward, the participants break into four-person groups for private discussion. In the evenings there are talks by faculty and staff on moments in their own lives when they made challenging decisions, again followed by group discussions. A few hours each afternoon are given over to free time, during which the students explore the hills and woodlands around Kippure Estate, play board games, read, or write in journals. Saturday night is skit night, when students act out some humorous aspect of their life abroad for the group.
There is no cellphone coverage around Kippure Estate and the Wi-Fi password is not disclosed. A half hour is set aside each afternoon for writing in the soft-covered notebooks students received on arrival, and a peaceful and comfortable silence hangs in the air during this time. On the afternoon of the first day, some students settle into a quiet corner of the lodge’s main meeting room to write, while others retreat to their bedrooms or to an adjoining low-lit room where soft music plays from speakers above a fireplace. Here, one young woman spreads out on a blanket on the floor, and several sit side by side against radiators, sipping hot coffee as they scribble intently.
The student leaders were chosen during the fall by staff from the Office of International Programs and the Center for Student Formation on the basis of written applications and personal interviews. The leaders prepared for the retreat via a series of Skype chats in the early part of the spring semester.
“There is a different dynamic for the leaders at Outpost than at other Boston College retreats, because we are also in the middle of our study abroad experience,” says Chris Marino, a student leader who spoke about how difficult he found leaving his family and friends behind to spend his semester in Parma, Italy. “We don’t have all the answers, or the benefit of hindsight, but are here to share our experiences and help to get people talking.”
Some 50 percent of Boston College undergraduates choose to study abroad. Citing the whirl of new classes, new friends, new places and cultures, Taylor Stockton, an operations managment and economics major, says, “We are trying to accomplish so much in such a short period of time that sometimes it is easy to lose sight of your goals and reasons for deciding to go”—in his case, to Barcelona, Spain.
According to Nick Gozik, director of the Office of International Programs, a common theme emerges during the Outpost weekend, and it is that many students feel “under pressure to have a certain type of experience. If we can prepare them better for that . . . we might be able to help to ease some of the pressure they feel,” he says.
Most participants seem to agree with Gozik’s observation, and many point to an unexpected source of stress: social media. While Facebook, Twitter, and Skype are great ways to stay in touch with friends and family back in the States, some students felt a certain pressure to be constantly presenting their “abroad experience” online for others rather than actually living it.
“I want my Facebook to reflect the great time I’m having, but it definitely adds pressure to show you are having a great time, even when things might not be going well,” says Kelley Orcutt, an English major who, like Chris Marino, is spending a semester in Parma. “It makes you fearful that you are missing out on things at home, too.”
“People from home would ask me ‘how is Prague?’” says Madeline Miller, a nursing student who is one of seven Boston College undergraduates studying in the Czech capital. “And something was preventing me from saying ‘it’s perfect,’ even though I really wanted to. Outpost has given me a safe place to ask why the experience wasn’t everything I had hoped it would be, and what I can do to make the most of the time I have left. It has been so refreshing to learn that everyone is going through similar things.”
Miller adds, “I have realized my abroad experience is not going to be absolutely perfect, and that’s OK.” On Sunday morning, she and the other students board the bus to Dublin Airport and the second half of their semester.
Ciara Kenny writes for the Irish Times in Dublin, where she oversees the online and print forum “Generation Emigration.”