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Of Environmental Engineering and Slippery Terrain

Ashley in front of Irish Mountains
Hiking in Ireland

There were two things I was sure of when I arrived at Cornell: I wanted to be an engineer, and I wanted to study abroad.

After many students mentioned the complexity of studying abroad while pursuing an engineering degree, however, I was increasingly unsure if I would be able to spend a semester abroad. When it came time to meet with an advisor, I braced myself. I had made peace with taking 10 classes in one semester so that I could go abroad the next—or having to do something else just as ridiculous—but I was determined to study abroad. To my relief, I learned that it would not be difficult at all to study abroad. A few classes would need to be rearranged, but it wasn’t the nightmare I had expected.

Ashley with her hiking group in Ireland


After much planning, paperwork, and packing, I found myself traveling to Galway, Ireland, for the spring semester of my junior year. Little did I know that in a few short months, I would be standing in that exact place to return home with an overflowing suitcase and full heart.

My first weeks in Galway were a little muddled, a bit awkward, and surprisingly cold. I started out slow: I got to know my three roommates and figured out where all my classes were. Eager to learn more about Ireland, I signed up to try just about every club that my new school offered, and over time I settled into the mountaineering club. The club offered full-day hikes every weekend and rock climbing throughout the week.

It’s amazing how quickly you can bond with new people when they’re helping to pull you out of thigh-deep mud.

As it turns out, hiking in Ireland is a bit different than the Upstate New York trails I knew. Instead of paths, trail markers, and logbooks, Ireland presented slippery terrain, undefined routes, the occasional rusty old fence, and a significant number of sheep. I met countless new people on those hikes every week and slowly got to know the regulars, who soon became close friends. It’s amazing how quickly you can bond with new people when they’re helping to pull you out of thigh-deep mud.

A group of cows on one of Ashley's weekend hikesAshley and a friend on a hiking trip

As time passed, I grew more confident in my hiking abilities. I always looked forward to Sunday hikes, despite often coming home soaked to the bone and feeling physically defeated. That feeling of excitement and success always surprised me. I could only remember being miserable as I scrambled up one side of a mountain in the rain or fell on the other, but once I got home, I would remember all the time spent laughing at myself and others as we conquered another hike together.

As the semester came to an end, I found myself enjoying every day in Ireland—despite having to endure that unfortunate period better known as finals. I could never have dreamed or planned these experiences myself, and some still don’t seem completely real. Yet it was returning to the States that has shown me just how deep of an impact my study abroad experience made.

Surprisingly, completing my longtime goal to study abroad helped me accomplish my other goal at Cornell: to become an environmental engineer. My semester in Galway actually allowed me to fulfill more requirements for my major than I would have at Cornell.

The sun shines over another hiking day

Engineers, my classes were not just liberal studies! Not only was I able to fulfill many requirements abroad, I gained both confidence and a new perspective on environmental engineering. While I was abroad, I reached a point when I had been lost enough times that I had to get over my embarrassment and ask for help. Now I am more assertive in the classroom and less uneasy about asking for help. By navigating a new place on my own, I have learned the value of stepping outside of my comfort zone. As a result, I’ve become a better, more curious student.

Irish professors often approached even basic subjects such as infrastructure and environmental awareness differently than I was used to. This caused me to think about engineering in new ways and to think outside of the box about problems I had always seen approached one way—what I had previously thought was the only way.

If I can survive slippery unmarked routes and days upon days of rain-drenched hikes, I know I can accomplish whatever challenges lie ahead.

I returned to Cornell with a renewed excitement to learn and curiosity about my field. Studying at Cornell has provided me the tools to become a competent engineer and student, while my time in Ireland helped me to grow as both a person and a student. Studying abroad in Ireland changed how I approach new problems, new experiences, and new goals. After this experience, I feel more prepared for the next steps in my life. If I can survive slippery unmarked routes and days upon days of rain-drenched hikes, I know I can accomplish whatever challenges lie ahead.

Going Abroad
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