A Magical Place for Learning
Wexford, Ireland, Study Abroad Center Hosts First Students and Plans Year-round Expansion
Stirring descriptions and enchanting memories are common for Georgia Southern students who have traveled to the University’s new learning center in Wexford, Ireland.
Located almost 3 hours by train and just over 2 hours by bus from Dublin, the center hosted the first cohort of Georgia Southern students in the Wexford summer study abroad program last year. The center complex features a historic castle constructed in 1812, but it has been transformed into a contemporary and colorful high-tech educational space where participating students learned from experts and presented their research to their peers and to visiting Georgia Southern alumni.
In recalling the magical feeling she experienced, senior Honors history major Sarah Townsend said, “When I came back, I couldn’t stop talking about it.”
RESEARCH, STUDY AND TOURISM, TOO
On their first full day in Wexford, the students visited the Wexford County Archive, spending two days conducting research.
“The archivist brought out a box of handwritten letters from the Irish famine years that no one had really looked at before,” said senior Honors English major and adult learner April Trepagnnier. “She handed me a pair of white gloves to wear while going through them. It was kind of surreal. After reading the letters and then being in the local community, hearing people speak in their native tongue, their accents, it makes it personal.”
“We had two days in the archives studying the actual Dunbrody ship logs coming from New Ross [County Wexford ] into Savannah,” said Townsend. “We digitized the logs and then we went to the actual historical site of the Dunbrody reproduction, toured the ship and saw the research previously conducted and displayed by Georgia Southern students and faculty.”
Such research helped Georgia Southern students experience Ireland firsthand during their Wexford visit. Their stay in Wexford included visiting Irish landmarks and historical sites, seeing what school is like for Irish children, interacting in classrooms, and teaching the children to play baseball, among other things.
“I’m an avid lighthouse visitor,” said Townsend. “One of the first things we did when we got there was to climb up Hook Lighthouse, one of the oldest functioning lighthouses in the world. It really cemented in me that I was going to love the trip.”
Lilly Kasra, senior public health major, took maternal and child health and social marketing courses in Wexford. Since breastfeeding rates in Ireland are one of the lowest in Europe, Kasra decided to develop a social marketing campaign geared toward the benefits of breastfeeding.
“Being able to be in the city and the country that I’m actually studying about, being able to speak with locals on a daily basis and getting to know their culture was incredible,” she said.
Wexford, Ireland, is a town with rich history and culture. Founded by Vikings in 1169, it is one of the oldest towns in southeast Ireland and is a welcoming, friendly community where students can easily interact with locals and gain a sense of belonging.
It wasn’t just the campus’s signage that made Georgia Southern, locally referred to as “the American university,” familiar to people in Wexford. Georgia Southern students, often sporting Georgia Southern gear, were immersed in the Wexford lifestyle and quickly blended into the crowds walking the town’s streets and alleys lined with shops, pubs and restaurants. Students could be spotted stopping at coffee shops on their way to campus, hanging out at pubs and restaurants to grab lunch or study (except on the bank holiday), or feeling the harbor breeze walking along the Wexford quay.
Students and participants say the familiarity of the Georgia Southern logo on signage in town, the camaraderie of fellow students and faculty, the helpfulness of the community — even the sounds of the harbor coming through the open windows of student housing — made Wexford feel like home.
“Wexford was great,” said Kasra. “I often sat down with locals and just hearing their opinions about things was awesome.”
“I can’t imagine being in a better town,” said Trepagnier. “Everywhere we went, folks were just really glad to see us. I also wanted to find a local pub and right off the corner of the hotel, there was the perfect spot. You never felt like a tourist. Wexford just takes you in and loves on you.”
PLANS FOR YEAR-ROUND EXPANSION
Beginning in the spring semester of 2024, the Wexford Center will teach students year-round. As part of the Global Scholars Program through the Honors College, students will spend more than seven weeks in Wexford during their first year at Georgia Southern in either the fall or spring semester.
“The students will do an integrated humanities and social science core of nine credit hours — three in English, three in history and three in political science,” said Howard Keeley, director of the Wexford initiative. “But rather than having three siloed classes, there will be a lot of shared instruction and shared experiences.”
Georgia Southern is also building student housing nearby and is negotiating with the main university in the region, Southeast Technological University, to collaborate in teaching, research and internships.
Keeley anticipates “enough demand where we would cycle a total of about 100 students a year in four groups.” He added, “The historic nun quarters building we are renovating for student accommodations should be complete. So, the investment that we are making in Wexford will yield year-round results and not just be a summer experience.”
GREAT FOR ALL MAJORS
The students who participated in last summer’s study abroad program said that it is important for others to know the trip is a valuable experience for all majors.
“The variety of students at Wexford was something I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” said Trepagnier. “I can’t think of another situation where one research project was being worked on by biology majors, literature majors, accounting majors and engineering majors in a single cohort. We had all of these different strengths, the way our different brains worked and how we contributed. Working with all those folks was probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve had academically.”
“A lot of my friends in other majors asked, ‘what am I going to get out of this?’” said Townsend. “But when we came back, everybody said, ‘I feel like I can do research a lot better, I feel like I present myself a lot better.’ Everyone felt like they gained confidence.”
Currently, Townsend is working on the Savannah Irish Neighborhoods Project with a grant from the Georgia Humanities Council. After going through the historical Savannah neighborhoods of Frogtown and Yamacraw, she is creating a walking tour for students prior to the trip next summer to Wexford.
“I feel like I am very much changed after Ireland,” said Townsend. “I think it showed me definitely that I wanted to work in public history. But it also showed me that I could explore the world and be able to adapt to a different country. It showed me most of all that I can do it.”
Trepagnier enjoyed the trip so much she is continuing her Irish studies at the Armstrong Campus in Savannah this semester and plans to enter Georgia Southern’s master’s program in English next fall.
“Dr. Keeley developed an independent study class for me when I came back from Wexford because I really got enamored with Irish literature,” said Trepagnier. “A lot of the stories are so heartbreakingly beautiful.”
Trepangier wants to keep Ireland in the minds of her family, too.
“As a matter of fact, my daughter just got accepted into the Honors College and she’s going to Ireland next summer,” she said.
There’s no better endorsement for the Wexford, Ireland, Study Abroad Center than that.
— Story by Liz Walker
— Photos by Jonathan Chick