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Communication Studies MA |

Stephanie Gruner

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Achieving Personal and Academic Growth in Ireland

Studying abroad tends to be a life-changing experience for those who participate, both on an academic and personal level. For compelling evidence of this fact, look no further than Communication Studies graduate student Stephanie Gruner.

Gruner, whose specific area of concentration is Human Communication Processes, participated in a 25-day faculty-led trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, visiting a dozen or so locations and staying a night or two in each place. The trip allowed Gruner to complete an independent study as well as a course in intercultural communication, while also helping her gather invaluable research for her graduate thesis.

"I definitely recommend studying abroad," said Gruner, who also serves as a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Communication Studies and aspires to become a full-time instructor in the same field. "I really loved it because I believe in learning from experience. I love learning in the classroom and from books, but it's a whole different experience when you actually go out and interact with people. Especially when it comes to intercultural communication, which is something I was studying."

Stephanie's photos from Ireland

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For her intercultural communication coursework, Gruner focused her work on religious, national and political identity in Ireland and how each of those three work together to form the sense of being for many of the people she met.

"I used the social constructionist approach and the symbolic interactionism theory to study the way identity is experienced by people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland," explained Gruner. "Specifically, I focused on religion, national identity, and political identity because those three work together. I also studied cultural differences and similarities between Protestantism and Catholocism in Ireland and how people from those two groups interact with each other -- or don't interact with each other. I also looked at spiritual identity through the people I met there."

In Gruner's case, though, a great deal of personal growth also took place during that month abroad.

"I learned a lot about myself," continued Gruner. "I wrote about all my experiences and observations, and also reflected on myself in the paper. I recently became Catholic, and my paper talked about Protestantism and Catholocism in Ireland.

"That's why I wanted to focus my work on spiritual identity. Throughout my paper, I also reflected on different parts of my spiritual life and how I see my own spiritual identity; so instead of only focusing on the people I met, I made sure I reflected on myself as well."

Fourteen students, predominantly undergrads, made the trip. Jim Coleman and A.J. Walsh were the faculty leaders. Every student was female, allowing Gruner's independent study to focus on how a group of American women are perceived by the locals they encountered as well as how the individual members of that group felt they were perceived.

In terms of sheer beauty, Gruner says the Cliffs of Moher topped her list of sights seen during the trip.

"But Galway was my favorite place to go because of the people I met," Gruner quickly added. "It was a really friendly city and I had a lot of fun there. Corrymeela was also amazing. Obviously, I studied a lot about conflict in Ireland with the Protestantism and Catholocism, and Corrymeela has an organization that is trying to bring opposing groups from all over the world — not just Protestants and Catholics — together and help them find peace, interact with each other and reconcile their differences.

"We also took two different tours with two different guides from different political, national and religious backgrounds. We took a tour of Belfast and viewed political murals with a man who is from Northern Ireland, was a political prisoner from the Unionist party during the Troubles, and identifies himself as Protestant and British. In addition, we took a tour of Derry/Londonderry — this town is referred to by both of these names depending on who you ask — led by a man who witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday, is a former member of the IRA, and identifies himself as Irish and Catholic. Both men are now working toward peace, but it was interesting to compare their points of view to one another and to those of the people at Corrymeela."

All in all, Gruner just feels as if her Ireland trip has broadened her horizons in a way no book ever could have.

"It helps you keep an open mind about things and how many different ways of life there are out there," said Gruner. "It's so interesting what you can learn from other people; people who may be different than you, but at the same time you learn how similar you actually are.

"Also, I learned a lot about taking risks and doing things in a different way, rather than sticking to the traditional process of going through classes and getting a degree. I think it's really cool to go about it in different ways: Doing internships, going on study abroad trips ... learning from experience."