Story by Elizabeth Walztoni, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Ty Smith
Tullycross, the rural Irish village that hosts Aquinas’ Study Away program, was recently awarded a grant for 2 million U.S. dollars (1.7 million euros) from Ireland’s Rural Regeneration and Development fund. The grant is intended to strengthen rural economies and communities by diversifying employment opportunities, supporting development and improving quality of life. Plans for its use include tangible changes with far-reaching results.
In Tullycross, the funds will be used to transform a vacant priest’s house into a study center and upgrade visitor cottages into a residential education center. The 40-person-capacity center will be used to host groups, events and activities within the community. This means that more year-round educational tourists will be visiting the cottages, and more educational and research-based events will take place in the village itself. One example is the Interchanges Conference, a transatlantic event focusing on education, research and community engagement.
According to Dr. Michelle DeRose, coordinator of the Irish Studies program at Aquinas, there are several projected impacts. Students and visitors will contribute to the local economy as they purchase necessities during their stay, creating additional job opportunities for full-time residents. Many of the groups who will utilize the education center will also need local experts to teach them. Over time, Tullycross is hoping to become recognized as an important place for education and research.
Though these new developments may seem distant to us, the Aquinas community contributed significantly to the awarding of the grant over the eight years it took to develop the project. DeRose says that several Aquinas faculty members worked on developing the education center vision for several years with Dr. Kevin Heanue, director of the area’s development association Connemara West.
She adds that part of the grant application’s strength was the U.S. partners that Dr. Heanue could point to: “Aquinas’s longstanding Ireland program is the first item mentioned as evidence that Tullycross is an excellent place to educate college students.”
Aquinas has also connected the community to multiple other colleges and universities that send students, faculty, or both to study there, including Lourdes University, Maine Maritime, Kirkwood Community College and Madonna University.
Aquinas’ influence is also apparent in Friends of Connemara (FOC), a non-profit local group committed to fund-raise for the project. Several past and present faculty sit on the board, including its Vice President, Aquinas Professor emerita and three-time faculty director of the Aquinas Ireland Program, Dr. Deb Wickering and Tim Ramsay, Director of International Programs at Aquinas. One current Aquinas student and Ireland alumna, Senior Claudia Boerigter, also sits on the board. Many alumni of the Aquinas Ireland program have also donated to the project through FOC.
How will the more abstract goals of the grant manifest themselves for students? DeRose tells the story of students sitting knee-to-knee in a living room, learning about Irish literature using 45-year-old pieces of wood covered in years of Aquinas graffiti as lap desks. This image will be soon be gone, replaced by a classroom, a library, and dedicated study space. The cottages where students stay will also be upgraded to offer modern amenities such as extra space, private bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, upgraded kitchens and revamped heating systems.
However, DeRose stresses that not everything is projected to change. “The biggest strength of the Ireland program has always been the sense of community it fosters, both among the Aquinas students themselves and with the amazing people of Tullycross; that won’t change,” DeRose said.
Students will still live in the cottages with other students, preserving the opportunity to forge relationships, and their classes will still be held steps away from those cottages.
To DeRose, the grant is testament to the power of the international relationships and community engagement fostered by the Ireland program. She describes its driving vision as “focusing on community to build community,” a goal that will continue to manifest itself in the future as the project begins.
About the Writer:
Elizabeth Walztoni is a sophomore majoring in Environmental Studies with concentrations in Ecology and Sustainability & Policy.