Unbeknownst to Dan Simmons ’99, he was laying the groundwork for a study abroad tradition that has been carried on by 425 other Bennies and Johnnies over the past quarter century.
In 1997, he had the idea of spending a semester in Ireland. Not the typical trip where students from Saint John’s University and College of Saint Benedict travel together with a professor; he was looking for a more in-depth experience.
“At the time, Stephen Burmeister-May was the global education director, and I asked him if he could find me something,” Simmons explained. When I left, there were about five of us committed to giving it a shot because of how enthusiastically he had taken to the concept and located University College Cork. Still, I never imagined it would be more than an isolated incident.
With a history spanning over 25 years, the academic partnership between the schools provides students from both CSB and SJU with unparalleled access to international education. Dr. Richard Ice, provost of Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s universities, and Kevin Clancy ’00, the current director of the Center for Global Education (CGE), recently visited Ireland to celebrate the program’s 25th anniversary with officials from Cork and the 13 students who are enrolled this spring. This is the 25th group of students from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s to attend Cork University since the programme was suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a token of their joy, Ice and Clancy presented UCC President John O’Halloran with the Gospel and Acts volume of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition. Until April, when Rev. John Ross, executive director of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition, travels to Cork to give a lecture and then brings the Bible back to Minnesota, it will be on loan to UCC and displayed in the Boole Library.
After graduating from UCC, Simmons went on to have a successful writing career spanning over 20 years, including his current role as a contributor to the New York Times and the Washington Post, where he covers politics and breaking news in the Midwest. I can only describe it as “out of this world.”
An alternative study abroad experience
Maple Grove, Minnesota native and current CSB senior economics major Emme Anderson is about to launch her professional life. She spent the spring of 2017 in Cork, so she can relate to some of what Simmons is saying. Other study abroad opportunities have been available in Ireland in the past. Dublin Business School offers a course in the fall, and the Galway, Ireland, faculty-led experience has been put on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic. But at Cork, students have the freedom to pursue virtually any passion they might have.
After having her plans to study in South Africa thwarted by complications from the coronavirus, Anderson found herself fortunate enough to be accepted into the UCC programme. I attended college in Greece with a close-knit group of “Bennies” and “Johnnies,” and we all took classes together. However, Cork was exceptional.
She was able to select the classes she wanted to take at UCC. The result was coursework in areas as diverse as Irish music and folklore, international politics, criminal justice, and food economics. She could go off and discover things by herself or with new friends in a different setting. So that she could spend four day weekends exploring Ireland and Scotland, she scheduled her classes to run Monday through Wednesday. And she even managed a brief jaunt to the Italian countryside.
According to Anderson, “I was in class with students from right there in Ireland.” That’s how I learned some of the local phrases, like ‘What’s the craic?’ Which translates to “What’s up?” The common response to a request or expression of gratitude is “no bother.” It’s like saying “no bodder.” A diverse international student body was also represented, including individuals from countries as far flung as Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Slovenia. Being a part of that culture was a wonderful experience.
Anderson continued by saying that she couldn’t decide between her trips to Greece and Ireland because they were equally amazing. Just that Cork is more suited to those who value autonomy.
Immersion with students from all over Europe, including Ireland
Audrey Steinhagen agreed with this assessment. She is a senior at Saint Ben’s from Young America, Minnesota, and she is majoring in exercise and health science with plans to become a physical therapist.
I didn’t want to live in a big city, and I was interested in having some outdoor adventures, Steinhagen explained. And in some study abroad programmes, you’ll be the only non-native speaker in the room.
The size of cork is not negligible. It’s the third-largest city in Ireland, with a population of 220,000 people and a location just inland from the southern coast. However, it is much smaller than popular study abroad locations such as London (9 million), Rome (2.9 million), Berlin (3.6 million), and Tokyo (36 million) (14 million).
In an apartment complex with other students from Cork University, Steinhagen explained. It was a period of tremendous individual development and freedom. Two of my classes were in psychology, one was in history, and the fourth was an Irish music survey in which we were assigned to go to bars and write about the music we heard. I gained so much insight and satisfaction from the experience.
Still floating despite post-Covid winds, cork
In 1969, CSB and SJU launched their first study abroad programme to Luxembourg. After three years, the institutions had joined the Upper Midwest Association for International Education, which coordinated study abroad opportunities during the then-known January Term. And the first programmes that were essentially the same as the ones we know today that let students study abroad for a semester began back in 1973. At first, there were three: one in German at St. Gallen, Switzerland; one in French at Cannes, France; and one in Spanish at Barcelona, Spain.
There are currently 15 semester-long programmes spread across 6 different continents. Austria, Chile, France, Greece, Ireland (Dublin), Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom are the eight countries with fall semester programmes (London). London is a popular option for spring break travel, but students also have the option of visiting Australia, Germany, Ireland (Cork), South Africa, and Spain. In 2025, we will also provide a spring programme in Mexico. For the first three years of the program’s existence at Cork, it was only available in the fall semester. For the past decade, springtime has been the only time to join in.
Clancy, who spent time in China during his undergraduate studies, claims that the decline in interest in CGE is being reversed as a result of the introduction of Covid.
We can spread the word about study abroad, but the most effective form of promotion is the stories that students bring back to campus. A portion of it was lost because many people were unable to travel abroad because of the pandemic and others may have been hesitant to do so ever since. But it’s a must-do at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. It’s great to recognise these long-running programmes because they contribute so much to a well-rounded liberal arts education.
Because “the language of instruction in Cork is English,” Clancy said, “students have access to a full academic course catalogue,” unlike at some other programmes. The fact that you’re a registered student at University College Cork makes you unique; many of our students don’t join student groups or clubs until they’ve already graduated.
Kickstart to the World
Simmons was the first to sign up when he heard about UCC’s cross country team.
Simmons, who was All-MIAC for the Johnnies in 1998 when they finished fourth in the Division III national championship, said, “I was pretty obsessed with running at the time, although some people would say I’m still obsessed with it now.” As one participant put it, “It was great to experience cross country in the true sense, where you’re running around in mud and your feet are bleeding from nettles.”
It was on a UCC team he was a member that they took home the gold at the collegiate level in Ireland. Ray Shanahan, an Irish national champion in the 1500 metres and a coach for the country’s Olympic and world champions, was his mentor. One of Simmons’ Cork friends transferred to Columbia University in New York City, and eventually managed to talk Simmons into enrolling there, too.
Without her encouragement, Simmons says she “never would have thought of going to New York City.” It’s fair to say that I’d led a sheltered existence up until that point. The move to Cork was my first time living anywhere other than the great state of Minnesota. By immersing myself in Irish literature and history, I came to understand what it meant to have a writer’s soul during my time in Ireland. It left such an impression on me that I spent my 1998 spring break in Ireland after returning to Saint John’s University. While most of my fellow Johnnies jetted off to warmer climes, I was eager to return home to Cork.
Simmons moved to New York after receiving his summa cum laude from SJU and earned his master’s degree in print journalism from Columbia University. He wrote his thesis on the topic of Irish Republican Army members who were threatened with deportation from the United States. This opened doors for him, and he never looked back. After working as an intern at Time magazine, he decided to pursue a career in journalism and spent a year teaching English in China. Since 2018, he has been based in the greater Milwaukee area, where he has written full-time for Mayo Clinic Health Letter and managed the production of a men’s health book for Mayo Clinic Press.
Simmons, who also coaches cross country at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin, said, “Studying abroad was one of the major factors that influenced the rest of my life, and I have to give a shout out to both institutions.” A large number of people at Saint John’s (and Saint Ben’s) have progressive, aspirational worldviews. Equally impressive was UCC’s welcoming environment for an international student. Nobody just assumed you’d either swim or sink. How far my simple inquiry from over two decades ago has come is truly astounding. I’m relieved I thought to ask that question.