The Emerald Files

Musings from a semester abroad as a Fulbright Scholar in Ireland

Journalists: Don’t overlook the international Fulbright fellowships

In theory, being a working journalist means you get to spend your career steeped in curiosity. You ask questions, you write stories, you learn endlessly about how our society functions.

But in reality, other duties get in the way. There are deadlines to meet, breaking news events to respond to, newsroom meetings to join (or lead), mid-year evaluations to write. It can feel far away from the thing that got many of us into journalism in the first place, that desire to learn more about the world around us.

If you are a journalist who’s felt this itch, you’ve probably entertained the same options I did. Grad school. Law school. The prestigious paid fellowships at Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan, and Mizzou.

But what I didn’t know about for many years was one of the coolest opportunities available to journalists: a Fulbright.

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Culture shock

When my husband and I arrived at our new home in Maynooth, Ireland, we could barely believe our luck. Maynooth is a charming college town, home to a bustling main street of cafes and pubs and even a 12th-century ruined castle, which we toured while jet-lagged on our first day. Trees are greener here. Groceries are cheaper. The accents are definitely more charming.

Common wisdom tells us that, after moving to a new place, we will experience “culture shock” — a feeling of overwhelm that can render us aghast and immobile, until we acclimate and get over it. Perhaps that is true for some people or some places, but what I’ve found in moving around the United States and, for brief stints, to other countries is a different mixture and order of emotions.

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A sense of adventure

I mean, check out those Cliffs of Moher, right? The western coast of Ireland is beautiful.

“What are you most excited about for Ireland?” multiple friends have asked me in recent days. We leave in less than 24 hours now, so the trip has been part of every recent conversation.

I’ve struggled to answer that question. How can I pinpoint one thing? Sure, there are individual things I’m looking forward to. Hiking along the western coast of Ireland. Hanging out in Neolithic monuments. Buying an epic raincoat.

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The dizzying back-and-forth of abortion law

After the U.S. Supreme Court decided that abortion was no longer protected by the federal constitution, I couldn’t help but feel like we were all hanging on to a pendulum for dear life.

I started covering abortion law in 2014, as a public radio reporter in Nashville. At that time, abortion was not only legal in Tennessee (as it was — past tense — in every state), it also enjoyed additional protections under our state constitution. It was, you could say, more legal in Tennessee than in other states. Now, a near-total ban is going into effect later this month.

Halfway through this eight-year turnaround, I visited Ireland for the first time. It was early 2018, and abortion was still constitutionally prohibited. But a few months after my visit, the country legalized it for the first time. It’s now easier to get an abortion in Ireland than in Tennessee.

I find it both dizzying and fascinating to be living through these times of change. And by zooming out a bit, geographically and chronologically, the arc of the pendulum is even easier to see. Or maybe the better word is pendula, plural: Each place carves its own path back and forth, and sometimes it knocks into the other along the way.

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Fields of green

Smiling at the rolling green hills somewhere between Counties Cork and Kerry, April 2018.

In 2018, my then-boyfriend and I decided to go to Ireland. We’d been dating only a few months when we started planning it, and booking an international trip seemed like a gesture of massive commitment. Three years later, we would make an actual gesture of massive commitment and get married.

The reason we chose Ireland as our destination was, to my recollection, because I had learned to play a smattering of Irish tunes on my fiddle. We shared an intense aesthetic attraction to the sound: a mix of joy and sorrow, tunes you could dance to and cry to. My mother has shared with me that she used to be similarly enamored with Irish music and chalks that up to its similarities to Eastern European Jewish music, which is our actual cultural heritage. Perhaps that’s why Irish fiddle tunes resonate so deeply in my soul. Perhaps it’s because it was the soundtrack to my falling in love. Or perhaps it’s because, as a spiritually inclined friend once informed me, I used to be an Irish nun in a past life.

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