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The Experience of a Lifetime in Clifden, Ireland

Alex Trunnell ’17, teaching at the Clifden Community School

Education major Alex Trunnell ’17 had never been overseas before she traveled to a remote community on the west coast of Ireland for her first student-teaching experience. By the time she had completed Vassar’s Irish Internship Program this spring, Trunnell was convinced of two things: She wants to make teaching her career, and she’ll always consider the tiny village of Clifden a second home.

“It was great fieldwork experience,” she says, “but it was also an amazing life experience.”

Trunnell is one of more than 60 Vassar students who have completed the Education Department’s Irish Internship since its inception in 1986, and she was on hand for the program’s 30th anniversary celebration in February. She was joined in Clifden by education prof. Chris Bjork, who oversees the program, and by former prof. of English and Dean Emeritus Colton Johnson and retired education prof. Thomas McHugh, two of the founders of the program.

Bjork says the Irish internship can be especially helpful to undergraduates who are thinking of pursuing a career in teaching because it enables them to gain hands-on experience in their junior year. “Being immersed in a teaching experience helps our students find out what it’s like to teach a class and if it’s something they’d like to do,” he says, “or, just as importantly, discover it’s not what they want to do.”

Bjork says his students’ experience in Ireland is always enhanced by activities in and outside the classroom arranged by the program’s Clifden coordinator, Brendan Flynn. “Brendan is friends with just about every musician and poet in Ireland – when I was there once he introduced me to the guy who does the music for Riverdance,” Bjork says. “He’s not someone you’d meet every day in some small, rural school.”

Trunnell taught two courses she designed herself, astronomy and public speaking, to high school students at Clifden Community School four days a week. She spent every Friday with a tutor at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she wrote her thesis on a political rebellion in Ireland called the 1916 Easter Uprising. While she was learning about the uprising, her tutor, Des Lally, took her to Dublin to see Sean O’Casey’s play about the rebellion, entitled “The Plough and the Stars.”

Clifden, Ireland

Trunnell says teaching in a small, close-knit community was rewarding, both professionally and personally. “The hands-on practice and instant feedback I got from the staff was invaluable,” she says. “I always had other teachers in the room with me, but they let me know it was my class and I was in charge of making sure the kids understood what I was teaching.”

Trunnell didn’t confine her instruction to the schoolroom. For her astronomy class, she took her students on nighttime trips outside the village where they could view the planets and stars she was teaching them about. “Of course, it was Ireland, so it was raining a lot of the time, but when the weather cleared, the village was so remote that the night sky was amazing,” she says.

But teaching was only part of the Clifden experience. Trunnell says the village was so small that it wasn’t long before local residents would wave and offer a cheery “Hello, Alex!” to her as she walked to and from school. She landed a job taking tickets at the local theater, and when she mentioned she was student-teaching astronomy at the school, the owner of the theater arranged for her to talk about the experience at a gathering of the village’s Heritage Society, and later, on a local radio program.

Trunnell learned just how much she was considered a fellow citizen of Clifden the night she ventured into a tavern for the first time shortly after her 18th birthday. “I went there with a friend, and a couple of creepy guys started to bother us,” she recalls. “Immediately, the bartender came over and kicked them out. That incident made me feel like I was really part of the community.”

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Vassar’s Irish Internship Program: (standing, left to right) Brother James Mungovan, Brendan Flynn, Colton Johnson, Tom McHugh, Catherine Lowry, and Alex Trunnell; (kneeling) Des Lally and Chris Bjork.

McHugh says that after meeting Trunnell, he was convinced that it was students like her that he had in mind when he created the program. “Alex has an infectious enthusiasm, a love of teaching and learning that’s captivating,” he says.

McHugh joined the Vassar faculty in 1974 and established a study-abroad program for education majors at an educational studies college at Oxford University. About 10 years later, he met Brendan Flynn while Flynn was traveling in the United States on a fellowship and invited him to give a lecture to his classes.  When Flynn discovered that McHugh was a member of a faculty musical group, he invited the band to play at Clifden’s annual arts festival. A friendship was born, and two years later, the Irish Internship Program was born. McHugh, who is 79 years old and long retired, still travels to Clifden and performs at the music fest.

Johnson says he was always impressed with the quality of teaching and mentoring Vassar students received in Clifden and at the university in Galway. At the 30th anniversary celebration, he thanked those responsible for keeping the program going. “I told everyone at the gathering that we at Vassar are grateful to the community for embracing our program and our students and that it was a program that benefited many young men and women who became great teachers all over the United States,” he says. “Vassar has been a pioneer in many things, and the people of Clifden helped us create this innovation.”

Trunnell says she’s grateful the program was there for her. “I didn’t know at all what to expect in Clifden when I got there, but I was immediately embraced as a member of the community,” she says. “I can definitely say it was the best experience of my life.”

--Larry Hertz