Deconstructing Disneyland

Meet the students from Notre Dame who balance their studies with placements in Dublin’s marginalised communities


Fighting Words is a creative writing initiative based close to Croke Park, and co-founded by Roddy Doyle. Run by volunteers, it gives primary school children the opportunity to write stories of their own. Shortly after Chinese New Year, Maggie Blake, a student of history from the University of Notre Dame volunteered at the centre for the first time.

“The first day I was there, their story was about a sparkly dog called chopsticks, whose best friend was named noodles. Chopstick’s biggest wish in life was to was to eat noodles – not his friend the dog, but the food. Also, his biggest fear was One Direction.”

The week after, Blake explains, the children were writing a story about a superwoman, and were debating what her biggest wish might be. “One girl raised her hand and she said: “I think her biggest wish should be that everyone loves her and that she has lots of friends.”” Blake continues: “I was with the girl at the end as she was writing her own ending, and she said: “I think I’m going to end it where everyone is saved and they’re all happy.”

Community Based Learning

Blake volunteers with Fighting Words as part of Notre Dame’s CBL (Community Based Learning) program for study-abroad students in Trinity or UCD. Established in 2009, the program places Notre Dame students in a number of social-service organisations and initiatives across the city. These include an after-school centre in Ballymun, called the Aisling Project, homelessness charities, tutoring refugees working towards their Leaving Cert, and home visits to elderly people requiring help with technology or relief from loneliness.

Rosie McDowell, director of the international wing of Notre Dame’s CBL program, explains that one of the central motivations for extending the CBL program beyond the Indiana campus was to combat the “Disneyland perceptions” American students often have of Western Europe. And unique to Notre Dame is a connection to Ireland. Over 80% of the student body are Catholic, the mascot is a leprechaun and the university’s nickname is “the fighting Irish.” Although Blake had visited Ireland before arriving in January for her semester abroad, she says that there certainly does exist a perception of Ireland as “a faraway land”, informed by films such as P.S. I Love You. McDowell agrees, explaining that the CBL placements aim, at the very least, to expose students “to a country beyond the mystical, mythical, historical Ireland of homegrown wooly sweaters, Claddagh rings, St. Patrick and leprechauns.”

While admirable in educating students about the realities of post-recession Ireland, and providing extra hands in the under-funded voluntary sector, Notre Dame’s CBL program might be criticised as using systemic social problems as a means for credit-orientated educational opportunities. However, Eimear Delaney, Assistant Director at Notre Dame’s O’Connell House on Merrion Square, points to the “win-win” strong relationships the CBL program has built up with many organisations in Dublin: “We are in regular dialogue with many of these places, and we often get asked, “When are the Americans touching down?”” Delaney adds that the children are also particularly fond of Notre Dame’s volunteers: “We work with kids a lot and they just adore Americans – they think they’re movie stars.”

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Past experience

It is also apparent that students selected for the CBL program tend to have a wide range of experiences volunteering with marginalised communities well before they arrive in Dublin. Blake, for example, who grew up in Detroit, herself founded a not-for-profit with her older sister whilst still in high school. Named Blanket With Love, the charity made fleece blankets which were then donated to homeless shelters. She adds that after arriving at Notre Dame, she, like many others, was encouraged to continue to pursue these altruistic interests: “It was something I liked, and especially with my Poverty Studies minor I wanted to keep being involved. Actually, as one of my classes I went to a juvenile prison in South Bend once a week and hung out with the girls there.”

Blake explains that at Notre Dame, choosing to study abroad is a very popular option. The vast majority of students apply for a place on either a single semester or year-long scheme, and perhaps due to the university’s historical ties with Ireland, Dublin is one of the most competitive destinations. Delaney says that therefore successful applications often demonstrate an aptitude for the CBL placements as well as academic ability.

There are currently 18 students from Notre Dame studying in Trinity, and interestingly there is a stark gender divide with only 3 men in the cohort. All are given accommodation on campus, yet McDowell explains that another of the CBL program’s virtues is that it immediately ensures students escape the often insular environment of campus life: “The students live and take courses on the southside of Dublin. Most of the organisations [we work with] are situated on the north side of the River Liffey. We are asking the students to literally and figuratively cross the bridge to engage with their placements.”

Because American students require credits in addition to those provided by their academic work in college, they also take part in further classes organised by the Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Studies in O’Connell House. The institute recently produced a documentary series on the 1916 Rising for RTÉ, and fosters many links between America and Ireland. Regardless of their major, students are required to take classes in Irish history, and have the option of taking a weekly course on Irish literature run by Trinity alumnus and renowned Joyce scholar Declan Kiberd.

Laid back

This necessity to meet additional requirements not asked of the average Trinity student might suggest the Notre Dame contingent would find free time in short supply. However, Blake insists that from her experience the contrary is true: “It’s a lot less intense here.” She goes on to explain that her classes in Notre Dame were much more directed, with homework given every day. “Whereas here,” she says, “it’s more, “here’s what you should read at some point before the exam.” It seems more laid-back here which is a nice break from the go-go-go of Notre Dame.” Despite this, Blake couldn’t have more praise for the competence of Trinity’s academic staff. She intends to major in Irish history, and credits her “super intelligent professors” for honing this interest.

Delaney nods that throughout the study-abroad process “the priority is to study.” That said, over the upcoming weekend Blake intends to travel to Galway, and hopes to visit many other locations across the island during her semester abroad. There is a sense that Notre Dame are invested in much more than the academic progress of their students. Indeed, during the 12-week semester, Blake is required to submit 6 journals detailing her thoughts about her experiences in Ireland. Delaney and McDowell agree that these journals are perhaps the most useful tool for mapping student development not so easily measured by an exam.

McDowell finds that in the journals students often find themselves looking back to America and reevaluating past assumptions. An extract from the journal of a past student given a CBL placement in the homelessness sector is exemplary in this regard: “The United States ideally seeks to give everyone a chance. The nation’s moral fibers were constructed on rugged individualism and the Protestant work ethic. To be an ideal American is to materially gain through hard work and determination. It seems that homelessness is a by-product of the sometimes dog-eat-dog nature of the United States’ work ethic.”