How Can You Change The World With Your Semester Abroad?

Mary Leigh Keith with Natalie Warren September 28, 2016
“Goodbye America … well, not quite yet – I’m writing this using my 20 minutes of complimentary Wi-Fi in the Louisville airport. These last few days have been full of those moments like, this is a little bit crazy, also I think I probably have forgotten everything I need to pack, also what if everything gets lost and the plane crashes and it turns out the Irish actually hate white girls from Kentucky? But it’s been really cool to calm myself down and trust God with everything that’s going to happen, and also to realize that probably the worst thing that will happen is I’ll look like a mountain pack mule dragging all my luggage around.” – Entry from Natalie’s blog

One of my greatest regrets from college is never studying abroad. So you can imagine my delight – and jealousy – when I got to chat with Yale student Natalie Warren to hear about her recent experience with Cru’s new study abroad program in Dublin.

MK: Natalie, great to talk to you. Tell me a bit about yourself. I already know you’re smart because you go to Yale.

Natalie: I’m 21 years old and a junior at Yale University. I study cognitive science.

MK: …?

Natalie: It’s the study of human thought. We study psychology, computer science, linguistics – any tools you can study to learn how people think.

MK: Got it. I think. Anyways, tell me how you got hooked up with the Cru Study Abroad program.

Natalie: I knew I wanted to study abroad since before college and I knew junior year was when I was gonna do it. My sophomore year, I went to Epicenter – Cru’s northeast [winter] conference. They said, “We have this new thing called Cru Study Abroad. You could go to Dublin.” And I was like, yep, that’s what I’m gonna do. I already knew I wanted to go to Ireland. I applied right away.

MK: Why Dublin?

Natalie: I grew up in a folk dance group that would travel and perform, and I loved Irish music and dances. I’d been interested in the country and culture for a long time, at least since I was 14. There’s something about the country that’s beautiful and magical.

MK: I get that. But why Cru Study Abroad? Why not just go with a different study abroad program with Yale?

Natalie: I think a lot of it was because of the Yellowstone Summer Mission I went on with Cru the summer before. It was something I’d never experienced before – living on mission. We were working full time and were really busy, but I’d wake up every day full of energy, so excited, because I was living in this Christian community. Everyone knew we were there with a Christian organization, so we could talk to them about it. I thought, I want to do all these outreach things that are happening, why would I not continue that in Ireland?

MK: Talk to me about logistics. How hard was it to apply?

Natalie: I was put in contact with Cru staff in Dublin, and they told me that there were 2 main universities where they had a presence on campus. So I knew I was going to choose between those 2 schools. I applied directly to both of them as an exchange student and I also had to apply for the study abroad program through Yale.

I ended up studying at University College Dublin, where I lived in the dorms with 4 other American exchange students, but I was the only student from Yale.

MK: So you’re in Dublin. You go to class and you’re getting your credits, but you’re also kind of taken under the wings of the Cru community in Dublin. What was that like?

Natalie: Cru is called Agape in Ireland. The organization on the UCD campus is called StudentLife. The community was really great, especially when I first got there. I hadn’t slept on the plane and was freaking out. It was all too much. I had a discipler [an older Cru staff member whom I met with regularly during my time in Dublin] and I would tell her all about the weird, stressful things going on. Everyone in Agape was really wonderful; I liked them all immediately. I could tell there was a strong sense of family and community between them.

“Wednesday I met the staff and student leaders for StudentLife, the campus ministry I’ll be involved with here at UCD. We had a “coffee crawl” in the city centre before our real meeting, And then we had four quite pleasant hours of meetings, in a staff house right in city centre overlooking the River Liffey and the giant spire on O’Connell Street.” – Entry from Natalie’s blog

Natalie: The first week we went around with a big wheelbarrow full of sweets. It was the second week of the term. I’d been in Ireland for like, one week and they already had me doing crazy things! We had a different question [we’d ask] every day – like “Who do you think Jesus is?” – and then we’d give them the sweets. It was a cool way to get to know the spiritual climate in Ireland, share in people’s lives for those 10 minutes, and hear where they were coming from.

The main StudentLife event was called Soul Food. I hosted the one at UCD because I was the only person [living] on campus. Once a week, we’d all get together. Somebody would cook food. We used Perspective Cards and talked through the big questions in life – like the nature of God, the nature of humanity, who Jesus is. It was a group for seekers.

MK: You’re making this all sound quite idyllic. So tell me – what were some of the hard things?

Natalie: I had a lot of weird times of apathy and not really wanting to do anything or go anywhere. One of the [Agape] staff ladies was really helpful in saying that was part of culture shock. Everything felt overwhelming; I had no energy.

The way the Soul Food discussions worked – the Agape staff were very careful not to be like, “Thank for sharing your opinion, here’s the correct one.” So they would say, “Here’s the Christian perspective on who Jesus is or the nature of God.” But a lot of times the questions seemed kind of unresolved. I let some of the questions take root and become little doubts over the course of the semester.

It was also hard living on a commuter campus where everyone went home at 5 pm. I was lonelier there than I expected. Part of the reason I felt so isolated is because [on my Yellowstone Summer Mission] we were together all the time, 24 hours a day, with people who loved Jesus. We were always talking and praying together. It was good to realize that life isn’t always like that. I have to be able to persist without community around me all the time. I realized how important it is to be faithful on an individual level.

MK: Natalie, it’s been great talking with you. One last question: you’re sitting across from a student who’s contemplating doing Cru Study Abroad. What would you say to him/her?

Natalie: [Going with Cru] offers such a great support system for a time that normally wouldn’t be spent doing spiritual things. There’s that spiritual support there already. And the people are amazing. Some of my best friends in Ireland I met through Cru Study Abroad.

I would also say that it’s an incredible way to engage with a new culture, not just on a cultural level, but on a spiritual level. It gives you an opportunity to really think missionally. Other study abroads might offer something that could be a really fun learning experience, but doesn’t make a lasting impact. It is a learning experience. But [with Cru Study Abroad], you have a way to make an impact. Jesus is universal.

“Tuesday we had Soul Food in my apartment, and got to hear and discuss some really cool questions and perspectives on the meaning and purpose of life, while eating fried rice described by one friend as “gorgeous.” It’s just such a privilege to be able to get to know so many people, and to show them love by listening to them and providing for their physical needs (read: making fried rice and lots of tea). I highly recommend inviting people you’ve never met into your house for food and discussion about the purpose of life. 10/10 stars, would do again. Also, fruit shortcakes are the best biscuits ever.” – Entry from Natalie’s blog

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