One Year On – A Reflection from Vicky Kavanagh, Class of 2011
June 4th marked exactly one year since I departed for Washington DC. Before going, in the book of my life, I imagine that the chapter would’ve been entitled “My Great American Adventure”. By the time I returned in August, it had been re-named “The Summer That Changed My Life”.
It is true of any experience that you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until you’re actually living in the midst of it. Being a part of the Class of 2011 was no different. I was attracted to the program for a number of reasons; it’s ethos of bridging together future generations of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; the professional development of class members; the exposure to the heart of American politics and experience in your field of study through your work placement.
The night before I left, there was a gathering of friends and family at my house to celebrate and toast “Bon Voyage” to my trip. Three years before, I had become the first in my family to ever attend university. I already felt blessed by the fact I had just completed my B.A in Journalism, fulfilling a dream of mine, and making my family proud while I was at it. But this opportunity, for someone who had never even been to American before, was incredible.
When I think of the young woman who yelled in delight on the plane when she could make out the DC skyline, I smile nostalgically, and think how much I’ve grown in the last 12 months. Although only two months of my life were spent in DC, the experience will resonate for the rest of my life. It was one of the happiest and most challenging experiences of my life. As a class member of WIP, you are constantly pushed beyond your boundaries and comfort zone. All at once, I was confronted with a variety of people who agreed with me, disagreed with me, questioned me, and debated with me; over everything from my personal choice of career, to my religious, social, political, cultural and economic beliefs. And that was just my other class members!
We were also exposed to a huge amount of inspirational leaders; with every meeting, I tried my best to learn from them. I listened intently to them as they spoke, even if I didn’t agree with their point-of-view in the slightest, noting how they carried themselves and defended their opinions. I became known in the class for always having a question ready for whoever was speaking to us; you can take the girl out of journalism, but you can’t take journalism out of the girl. Each Friday was spent specifically developing the class as leaders; forcing me to examine my own beliefs, conduct and future role, in my country and career. Undoubtedly, for every question answered, there were numerous more in my head throughout that Summer. The program forces you to ask yourself what kind of leader do you want to be; how can you play an active role in improving your country; what changes do you think need to be made and how are you going to make sure that they happen.
Admittedly, upon my return home to my family, I was left with more questions than answers; a situation that would not change immediately. But this is truly one of the most fantastic aspects of the program; my WIP experience did not end when I returned to Dublin. It was a progress which has evolved with me ever since. Upon my return, everyone, both personal and professional, commented on the differences in me. The best way I can think of describing it is that I returned, still me, but a more polished and confident version of myself. I’ve never been one who separated the personal from the professional; and I’m still not, because personally, I find it disingenuous. But I learned the importance of the impression, both personally and professionally, that I can make through how I articulate my opinions, speak with confidence, dress in a professional manner and respond to those who will personally offend you sometimes. I’ve never been a wallflower, but after DC, I truly blossomed. I found a confidence and belief in myself and my abilities that I didn’t have before I went; I became more politically educated than any college text-book could ever have taught me. I observed and participated in a culture that I had never been exposed to; constantly thinking, “How will this work in Ireland?”
It may sound silly, but after WIP, I noticed the subtle difference in how I held myself; a receding of my fear of failure because there is nothing wrong with attempting something innovative, even if it fails; because you learn from each experience of your life. While I didn’t hold the same politics as all of my class-member’s, listening to them speak so passionately about their beliefs instilled a passion in me that through my career as a journalist, I would make sure that their views were broadcast; that everybody, no matter what their political, social or economic background is, deserves to have their voice heard.
I left for DC as a good journalist; I returned an even better one, an even better person. If it weren’t for those who support the program, from the Board, politicians, corporations, individuals and host families, my transition from a green, college student, to a young woman, confident and faithful in her pursuit of goals, wouldn’t have been possible. Every speaker who answered my questions with clarity, every time I returned home and regaled my experience to my family – both my host parents, Marianne and Jack, and my Mum and sister in Ireland – played a part in who I am, 12 months on. I will never be able to thank you enough. You made my life better, brighter and happier; I hope to do the same for future generations. It is the only fitting tribute to the program.
Vicky Kavanagh currently works as Editor-In-Chief of political and cultural website, teaandtoast.ie; a TV News Runner for RTÉ; Fashion Columnist for TheDailyUpdate.ie and Mental Health Youth Ambassador for Inspire Ireland.