Fulbright and the Power of Personal Stories: Cultural Ambassadorship as Teaching and Learning

Judith Coe, Professor Emerita, University of Colorado Denver
2006-2007 Fulbright U.S. Scholar to Ireland

In the late spring and early summer of 2014, I traveled with eight of my Honors students from the University of Colorado Denver to Ireland and Northern Ireland, for a three-week global study journey. Our trip was one of the many extended results of my Fulbright experience from years before. I was a 2006-2007 Fulbright U.S. Scholar, based in the Irish World Academy at the University of Limerick. From 2010-2012, I served as a Fulbright Scholar Alumni Ambassador, and I am currently the College Music Society Ambassador to Ireland. I am passionate about Irish people, their history and culture, and the beautiful Irish land- and seascapes that continue to inspire, influence, and engage people from across the world. 

My personal journey as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar was life changing. I met and worked with incredible artists, thinkers, teachers, learners, leaders, politicians, and social justice champions. I also met Martin Kearney – a man who had been born on the Great Blasket Island (part of a small archipelago off the coast of southwestern Ireland in Co. Kerry) – who, like many Irish people from this part of Ireland, had immigrated as a young man to the Hungry Hill area of Springfield, Massachusetts. That chance encounter in a small coastal village in Ireland led to a deep transformational shift in my research and creative work as an artist and an academic, and facilitated lifelong friendships in Ireland and Massachusetts. And I love being able to share my excitement and passion about the Irish people with my students.

A 2011 sabbatical as visiting scholar in the Blasket Centre led to continuing work on a documentary film project and an album project of original songs. A direct outcome of that focused work was designing and leading the multidisciplinary study abroad course for my Honors students. The focal point of that course design was a ‘Blog as Journal’ project. Students researched, wrote about, and reflected on the opportunities that we experienced together in context — through travel, cultural ambassadorship, pub culture, food, art, music, history, politics, medicine, language, films, plays, and building deep connections with people, places and ideas — across Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

It was a magical and intense learning journey. Each of these eight students – with their own personalities, learning styles, rhythms and preferences – made such wonderful contributions to this group. It was marvelous to watch them as individuals – learning, processing, struggling to understand, being delighted and enchanted, talking and reflecting – through solitary and group cybersleuthing and research, through small group and whole group discussions, through blog responses, and through planned excursions and serendipitous impromptu encounters. They began to understand how complex the issues of Irish identity, freedom, and the notion of home truly are, and they each began a personal inquiry into understanding their own lives and the lives of their own ancestors in a new way. We started our journey with a great visit to the Fulbright Commission offices in Dublin,  and later attended a marvelous evening Fulbright reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. And this was just the start.

In Dingle, Ireland, we attended a screening by local award-winning documentary filmmaker Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin, of her film about wise and wonderful women from Irish-speaking West Kerry who have witnessed great change in their lifetimes from childhood to the present day. Afterwards, Brenda hosted a beautiful tea in her home for my students and these incredible Bibeanna – they talked, asked questions back and forth between generations and cultures, and sang and told stories. Students were delighted and surprised – and they were so honored by these wise women and the opportunity to visit with them and hear some more of their stories and learn about life and love across decades.

In Derry, Northern Ireland, we walked the city walls and the Bogside, learned about The Troubles, and toured the solemn political murals with sons of one of the men murdered on Bloody Sunday, Patrick J. Doherty. This was a powerful and painful way of adding deep layers of learning and understanding to students’ awareness and knowledge of this place and these events – not just in terms of Northern Ireland and the decades of conflict there – but in relation to all of Ireland, north and south. For the past and future of these two countries have been and always will be, interconnected and complex. We also saw the heart-wrenching theatre of witness play, “Unspoken Love: Stories of Mixed Marriage in Northern Ireland – Exploring Issues of Sectarianism, Family Legacy, Trauma and Love,” by Thomas Spiers and performed by two mixed marriage (Catholic/Protestant) couples. It was a magical, poignant and transformative evening. We were all absolutely transfixed – quietly weeping at the sad bits (there were plenty) and laughing together at the funny, clever bits (lots of those, too). We were caught up in these stories and falling in love with the people on stage belonging to the stories. Theatre of Witness is a form of performance in which true stories are told as a way to bear witness to issues of suffering, transformation and peace. Thomas Spiers is a psychotherapist who began his career as a social worker. He experienced the exclusion of mixed faith couples in his own family and community and says that, in doing this work – writing directly from the words of the storytellers – he has learned about love and the art of loving. It was a powerful experience. Afterwards, we had coffee and got to visit with the director and the storytellers/actors. Great connections were made, and student blogs about this experience were tender inquiries about love, intolerance, empathy, and the power of personal stories.

Our next-to-last last day of class, we took a small fishing boat out to the Great Blasket Island (An Bhlascaod Mór), three miles off the Dún Chaoin mainland in Co. Kerry, Ireland. The weather could not have been more perfect and we had an extraordinary Blasket Centre guide, Tommy Long. Students responded deeply to his amazing knowledge of Blasket island people and their way of life, his sincere appreciation for their culture, his humor, and his respectful interest in their studies and understanding of this community. It was a particularly touching moment when students stood inside the ruins of the Seán Tom Ó Cearnaigh cottage where Martin Kearney had been born, and thought about what life might have been like for this family that we studied and for this unique and isolated Irish-speaking community.

The days that I spent during my sabbatical in the Blasket Centre reading, asking questions, watching films, talking to staff there and people in the community, learning the history, going through the artifacts, thinking, reflecting and falling more and more in love with this place and its people – were pure magic and some of the best days of my life. I loved being able to do that work in such a beautiful and supportive environment, and the friendships that ensued have been such a lovely, enduring aspect of my work and passion for Ireland. And I loved being able to share my passion with my students. Helping students to learn about Ireland, and observing the depth of inquiry about their own lives and histories, and the profound insights they gained, were magnificent teaching and learning experiences for us all. The gift of Fulbright is one of cultural learning, empathy, ambassadorship, and respect, needed in this world now, more than ever.