By Starrla Cray
WINSTED When people ask 2015 Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School graduate Mikayla Karels of Winsted how college is going, she can honestly say it’s been life-changing.
Mikayla, the daughter of Kim and John Karels of Winsted, spent last semester studying abroad in Ireland.
“I cannot even begin to explain all the ways that I grew as a person during my time abroad,” she noted.
Mikayla’s first trip to Europe was during high school through National Honor Society, and ever since then, she’s wanted to go back.
“[The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University] has one of the best study abroad programs in the country, so as soon as I made the decision to go here, it was almost a given that I would study abroad,” noted Mikayla, who is currently a junior at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph.
While researching the study abroad programs at St. Ben’s, Mikayla knew that the Ireland program would be a good fit.
“I really liked the idea of the rural setting and how much of Ireland we would get to see,” she said.
The program is based in Spiddal, a rural village outside of Galway, and students are housed in cottages at a hotel.
“There were four or five people in each cottage, all from [St. John’s and St. Ben’s],” Mikayla noted. “Because we were not affiliated with an Irish university, all of our classes took place at the hotel itself, with our professors coming to us. This also meant that my group of 18 was able to become extremely close, as most of our time was spent together.”
Mikayla took four classes while in Ireland, focusing on Irish archaeology, Anglo-Irish literature, and Irish Christian theology, as well as a required seminar class. Field trips were part of each course, so students were able to see things in person that they had studied.
“This gave all my classes a more well-rounded, experiential quality . . . . The courseload was not nearly as heavy as my other college classes, and I felt that the focus was more on learning than trying to achieve a certain grade,” Mikayla said.
One highlight was visiting Northern Ireland. Students spent five days in Belfast and Derry with a professor who grew up in the area during the Troubles (a conflict that started in the late 1960s and lasted until the late 1990s).
“She brought us to see a lot of the important places of the Troubles, while also sharing her personal experiences,” Mikayla said. “It was such a meaningful learning experience I will never forget.”
Another memorable time was Mikayla’s 10-day midterm break, when she traveled to Germany, Austria, and Belgium with a few other girls from her group.
“It was amazing to go on such a life-changing trip that we planned completely by ourselves,” Mikayla commented. “It taught me a lot about myself and how independent I can be.”
Mikayla also gained a deeper understanding of Irish politics, history, and culture during her study abroad experience.
“I was lucky enough to live in an area where Gaelic was many of the residents’ dominant language,” she noted. “This led to a lot of discussions about the politicization of the Irish language, something I had no clue about before studying abroad.”
For Mikayla, living in Ireland provided a new perspective on American norms, values, and meaning.
“The biggest surprise of my study abroad experience was how much living in a different country made me realize about our own culture,” she said.
Mikayla describes the Irish as “friendly, open people” who “love to talk about anything and everything, especially American politics.”
For anyone who is considering studying abroad and has the resources to make it happen, Mikayla advises them to “just do it.”
“It may seem scary, and I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t hard at times, but it is so worth it.”
After graduating from St. Ben’s in 2019, Mikayla hopes to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.
“My dream job would involve working with adolescents with anxiety disorders or eating disorders in a group health practice setting,” she said.