Tuesday, 28 June 2022
Dr. Niamh Hamill is the founder of the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland (ISAI), an educational and cultural academy based in Bundoran, Co. Donegal. Although originally from Dublin, her father hails from the Rosses, and Niamh was raised to believe in two things; education is the key to problem solving, and Donegal is the greatest place on the planet!
Niamh talks about the Institute, the reasons, and benefits of choosing Donegal as their base, and the development of ISAI from a small enterprise to its current strong position as a study abroad provider to over two hundred U.S. colleges.
‘’We were always going to base ourselves in Donegal, and Bundoran had surf culture, an entrepreneurial attitude, and access to staggeringly beautiful and historical places all around. It had the infrastructure that we needed- accommodation, restaurants, outdoor activity providers, coach providers, and facilities we could use in the off- and shoulder season. Locating in Bundoran was one of the best decisions we made’’ asserts Niamh.
The Institute works in partnerships with academia (schools, colleges, universities), and organisations in the United States to deliver high-quality academic and cultural study experiences in Ireland. Niamh and her team also create online and blended courses for their higher education partners, with a consistent focus on Ireland, and particularly Ireland’s Northwest.
This focus was shaped in no small part from Niamh’s own background. After completing an M.A. in American Studies in UCD, she then spent four years in the USA doing a PhD in Cultural History. This opportunity to experience and learn about different perspectives on history, ethnicity, diversity, and culture in both countries has helped Niamh and team to develop and evolve the ISAI offering.
However, Niamh also admits they didn’t always get it right first time. ‘’Initially we focused on the Irish American diaspora, and we made assumptions that proved to be incorrect. Spending more time in the USA, especially on the higher education circuit, we developed a more inclusive vision, using Irish narratives in a comparative context’’. This learning curve was important, and consolidated ISAI’s focus on Donegal as the primary location. ‘’We have all the big narratives here’’ said Niamh, ‘’folklore, language, colonisation, emigration, revival, conflict resolution, environment – we can show the global through the local.’’
Like any successful business, collaboration is a key component for ISA Ireland. Niamh’s co-director is John O’Connell, who also owns the Atlantic Apartotel in Bundoran. They both made a deliberate decision to engage with local businesses for their venture. These include local restaurants, services, and bus companies, as well as the plethora of tourist offerings in the region. They bring students groups to Arranmore Island, Sliabh Liag, and Glencolmcille Folk Park on a regular basis.
Other local experiences which help to sell the Donegal USP include Bundoran Surf Co and Donegal Equestrian Centre. ‘’We are particularly appreciative of businesses that remain open in the off-season, notably Donegal Castle and the Museum of Free Derry” says Niamh, “it would be great to see more investment in keeping tourism attractions open all year round, I am certain that if we build it, they will come’’.
Covid-19 presented both challenge and opportunity. While leaving ISAI bereft of students, it paved the way for online teaching, already a much-used resource for many U.S. colleges. The sudden hiatus in study travel gave Niamh time to research cultural competency through online learning. With the advice of US college professors, Covid Business Supports from Donegal County Council, and the support of the Consulates of Ireland in Atlanta and Austin, ISAI created an online library of short and long courses for use by students in the USA. Over 800 students have registered for the ‘Global Perspectives’ online course since its launch in 2021, and Niamh and her team plan to continue creating online content; ‘‘it allows people without the means to travel to have a global learning experience’’ says Niamh, ‘‘it is essential to be present in the digital campus now’’.
When asked about the student responses to Donegal, Niamh says ‘’without exception, our students are always enchanted by Donegal. I use that word deliberately, because the combination of the scenery and the friendliness they experience here, and the history and culture to which they are introduced has a transformative effect’’. She also remarks that learners are surprised by how good the food is here, especially the seafood and bakery. ‘’Students are also taken aback by the surf culture in Ireland, and our willingness to get into the sea all year round. The most unusual feedback for us is their appreciation of the Atlantic climate.’’
Looking to the future, Niamh sees huge potential in connecting students with Donegal. ‘’There are opportunities for further and post-graduate studies in our Atlantic Technological University, including employment through work-study permits and internships. Our plans are to expand our centres of teaching into the Gaeltacht areas and extend our reach from Bundoran to other hubs in the county. We know that all around the USA, from North Carolina to North Dakota to New Orleans, hundreds of students feel that they have a second home in Donegal. Long may it continue!’’ Niamh proudly explains.
ISA Ireland offers year-round course both in person and online which can be accessed here – https://isaireland.com/.
For those who wish to avail of some of those cultural experiences, you have the opportunity to remote work for free in Donegal and gain those experiences enjoyed by ISAI students, to do so visit https://donegal.ie/workingholiday