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Graduate study abroad: Toward transformation in Ireland


Toni Gay, Ed.D. student at the W&M School of Education, stood at the 13th-century stone ruins of Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland and found herself mentally swept across centuries. She turned on the video camera used to capture components of her digital storytelling project and pointed it toward birds circling among the steep cliffs that propped the site above the sea.

“Standing there, looking out, I began envisioning myself being the lady of the castle many generations ago,” Gay said. “I was thinking of winter and how it would be dismal and dark. I was waiting for those who had left by ship to return, wondering whether they would come back or not.”

She, in a word, was immersed — in the place, in the history. Her ability to capture the experience in the moment would serve, as she later reviewed and reflected upon the content, to deepen her understanding and connection to Ireland, Gay said.

Gay was one of six graduate students participating in a global studies class led by Pamela Eddy, professor of higher education. The professor took them to eight cities this summer, where they met with higher-education professionals and policy makers to gain insights regarding implications of Irish involvement with the European Union and to investigate student learning within an international context.

Eddy, who was leading students abroad for the fourth time, explained that each trip has unique elements and opportunities for transformational learning. “The important thing is that we’re training the educational leaders of the future,” she said. “They have to think about this as a global world, and we need to prepare them to function in it.”

In her own case, she returned from her first trip overseas and changed the way she taught, revamping her syllabi to include international writings, shaping her lectures to emphasize the dissonance that occurs when the way things such as organizational structures or student development are traditionally taught in the United States run up against different practices and understandings overseas.

“In those moments when a student says, ‘This doesn’t make sense to me,’ then struggles to find reasons and context, that’s when the real learning and transformation occur,” Eddy said.

Gay’s digital storytelling project comprised personal blogs, photographs, videos and links to scholarly articles posted on multiple platforms that fed her primary WordPress web site. While it represents, in itself, a credible, personalized portrayal of the struggles and tensions shaping the cultural development of the island’s inhabitants, it’s real purpose, according to Gay, was to model a new approach to research that she hopes to offer to her own students.

“This type of project is a good way to stir the creative juices for some folks, for those accustomed to making connections through visual media,” Gay said. “I think it’s a powerful tool for our up and coming digital natives.”

For an in-depth account of this study-abroad experience, see A hundred thousand welcomes: Ireland reflections on the School of Education’s website.