As his time in Chicago comes to an end, James Fagan reflects on how his year away from home has helped him find who he is as a person
“You seem much (more) sure in yourself, you know that? More solid.” Ciaran was across our hotel room as I was about to pass out for an hour’s nap. I hadn’t seen him since, what I can only assume is, over a year ago. “It’s difficult to place my finger on it but it’s as if you aren’t a try-hard anymore, less ephemeral.”
It was hard to really understand what he was trying to tell me. I can probably chalk that up to the tiredness at the time, the debilitating flu I was fighting or the almighty hangover from the night before. However, I think I got the gist of it; my American sojourn has had profound effects on who I am.
I was in Vermont that weekend attending the US Universities Debate Championship as a judge. I had decided to go to it, as it would give me a chance to catch up with some old friends, meet some fun new folk and have a last hurrah before the finals countdown. Burlington is your quintessential college town, picturesque, tiny and filled with sorority houses. It made a great change from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
If I had to look back on the eight months I’ve been here, I can say that I have really warmed to living in a metropolis. There’s something exciting about the constant buzz, the lights and the people in big cities that small towns and the countryside lacks. Everything is set up for convenience, so daily life is a breeze.
However, my trip to Vermont reminded me of allure of quiet living. Being able to look up and see the stars for the first time in almost a year really is amazing. Can I definitely make a call over which one I prefer? Probably not, but I’m glad to be in a position where I have experienced both.
When you move away from your home, your familiar settings, your close friends and your family, there is a big adjustment you have to make. I’m sure many UCD students from outside of Dublin can understand what I mean, but I think that when you can’t hop on an intercity train or pick up the phone to call (time difference is still a pain after eight months), there is a greater feeling of isolation.
The feeling is further compounded by the fact that life back home plays out through Facebook. One has to really try to make the most of it and integrate; otherwise you won’t feel like you’re really there, but waiting to return instead.
Chicago has been good to me. I have made some fantastic new friends from all types of walks of life, I have a job that keeps me afloat and shows me the ins and outs of practicing law, got up to some crazy adventures and I finally got to live out my childhood dream of visiting America for an extended period of time (before August, the only American soil I set foot on was the embassy’s). Will I ever return to America? Sure. It is a great place. Would I ever move to America? I don’t think so.
While it is fun and exciting, I feel the culture is just too glossy. As you dig beneath the surface you see inequalities and prejudices. It is a country where it is cheaper to buy processed, fattening foods than to buy fresh produce. Moreover, it is a country more obsessed with military might and political wrangling than on fixing its education, environment and health systems.
Yet despite all of this, I’ve been proud to make it my home for the year. I would urge anyone who gets the chance to go on an exchange. You will learn more about yourself than you could ever imagine. And if you do go on one, be sure to engage with it fully, from the classes to the people you meet and the parties you make. It will be the best year of your life.
I’ve watched Ireland’s slow decline etch itself out through the papers and global news outlets. It would be nice to say that it is where my future lies but I somehow doubt that. Whatever happens, I know that I’m equipped with the skills to make something of myself anywhere. At least I’ll always have had my time in the Windy City. Goodbye Chicago, it’s been great.