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Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s celebrate 25 years of sending students to University College Cork in Ireland

Dan Simmons ’99 didn’t know he was launching a study abroad program that would become legacy to 425 other Bennies and Johnnies in the past 25 years.

It was 1997, and he wanted to go to Ireland for a semester. But he wanted an immersive experience – not the more common one where students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University travel together to a destination with a faculty member.

“Stephen Burmeister-May was the global education director at the time, and I asked him if he could find me something,” Simmons said. “Fortunately, he embraced the idea and found University College Cork and, by the time I left, there were about five of us who were going to try it. But I never thought it would be more than a one-off.”

More than a quarter-century later, the academic partnership between the schools is one of the longest-running opportunities for CSB and SJU students to study internationally. It has been so successful that Dr. Richard Ice, provost of Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, and Kevin Clancy ‘00, the current director of the Center for Global Education (CGE), recently traveled to Ireland to mark the silver anniversary with Cork dignitaries and the 13 students currently enrolled this spring. Since the program was idled in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, the current class is the 25th from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s to study at Cork. As a symbol of celebration, Ice and Clancy delivered the Gospel and Acts volume of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition to UCC President John O’Halloran. It will be loaned to UCC and on display at the school’s Boole Library until April, when Rev. John Ross, executive director of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition, will travel to Cork and deliver a lecture before bringing it back to Minnesota.

“Going to UCC was a game-changer in my life,” said Simmons, who has gone on to a career of more than 20 years as a writer – including his current role covering Midwest politics and breaking news as a contributor at the New York Times and Washington Post. “It was phenomenal.”

A different kind of study abroad

Emme Anderson, a CSB senior economics major from Maple Grove, Minnesota, soon will embark on her own career. And, after spending last spring at Cork, she already feels some of what Simmons is saying. There are and have been other study abroad programs in Ireland. There is a fall offering in conjunction with the Dublin Business School, and a faculty-led experience in Galway, Ireland, has been paused since the COVID-19 pandemic. At Cork, however, students can follow just about any interest they have.

“It pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I loved it,” said Anderson, who lucked into the UCC program after her initial plans to study in South Africa were canceled by complications from the coronavirus. “I also studied abroad in Greece, where our group of Bennies and Johnnies was cohesive, and we all had classes together. But Cork was different.”

In one way, she got her choice of courses at UCC. That led to classes in Irish music, folklore, international politics, criminology, and food economics. In another, she was able to explore on her own or with new friends. She structured her schedule to have classes Monday through Wednesday, leaving four-day weekends to travel Ireland and Scotland. She even took a quick trip to Italy.

“I was in class with students from right there in Ireland,” Anderson said. “That’s how I picked up on the local slang, like ‘What’s the craic?’ Which basically means ‘What’s happening?’ Or how people would say ‘no bother’ if you asked for something or said, ‘thank you.’ It sounds like ‘no bodder.’ There also were students from all over – Germany, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia. It was great to be immersed in that culture.”

“I wouldn’t choose one over the other because they were both wonderful experiences,” Anderson added of her experience in Greece and Ireland. “It’s just that Cork is probably more for people who want to be independent.”

UCC president John O'Halloran

University College Cork President John O’Halloran admires The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition, which is on loan to his school until April. (Photo courtesy Tomás Tyner, copyright of University College Cork)

Integrated experience with students from Ireland and across Europe

That’s what Audrey Steinhagen liked. A senior exercise and health science/pre-physical therapy major from Young America, Minnesota, she chose Saint Ben’s in part because of its opportunities to study abroad.

“I didn’t want to be in a huge city, and I liked the opportunity for some rural, outdoorsy experiences,” Steinhagen said. “And with some study abroad programs, you’re only in classes with other international students.”

Cork isn’t small. With a population of 220,000 people a few miles from the southern coast, it’s the third-largest city on the island of Ireland. But it’s a fraction of the size of other study abroad destinations like Berlin (3.6 million), London (9 million), Rome (2.9 million) and Tokyo (14 million).

“I lived in an apartment complex with other Cork students,” Steinhagen said. “It was a time of real self-growth and independence. I had two psychology classes, another in history and an Irish music course where one of the requirements was to go to pubs and write about what we heard. I learned so much about myself and I found joy doing it.”

Cork bobbing along in face of post-Covid headwinds

Study abroad at CSB and SJU began in 1969 with a program in Luxembourg. Three years later, the schools were members of the Upper Midwest Association for International Education, which organized study abroad programs during what was then called January Term. And in 1973, semester-long study abroad programs began as they are currently known. Initially, there were three: a German program in St. Gallen, Switzerland; a French program in Cannes, France; and a Spanish program in Barcelona, Spain.

Currently, there are 15 semester-long programs on six continents. Eight programs are during fall semester: Austria, Chile, France, Greece, Ireland (Dublin), Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom (London). Students can also choose London in the spring, when Australia, Germany, Ireland (Cork), South Africa and Spain are other potential destinations. A spring program for Mexico also will be offered in 2025. The program at Cork was a fall-semester offering for three years, then was offered both fall and spring for seven years. Since 2008, it has been exclusively for spring participation.

Clancy, who studied abroad in China when he was an undergrad, said CGE is in the process of overcoming a general decline in participation resulting from Covid.

“We can tell people about study abroad, but our best marketing is word of mouth from the students who come back to campus and share their experience,” he said. “We lost some of that when people either weren’t able to go abroad during the pandemic or may have been reluctant to do so since. It’s a hallmark experience at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, however. It’s valuable to a liberal arts education and that’s why we celebrate these programs that have been successful for so long.

“Unlike some of the other programs, the language of instruction in Cork is English, so students have access to a full academic course catalog,” Clancy added. “The other thing that’s different is that you’re actually enrolled in University College Cork, so we have some students who choose to participate in campus organizations or play club sports.”

Springboard to the world

The first was Simmons, who jumped at the chance to join the UCC cross country club.

“I was pretty obsessed with running at the time – although some people would say I’m still obsessed with it now,” said Simmons, who was All-MIAC for the Johnnies in 1998 – when they finished fourth in the Division III national championship. “It was great to experience cross country in the true sense – where you’re running around in mud and your feet are bleeding from the nettles.”

He participated on a UCC club that won the Irish national club championship for universities. His coach was Ray Shanahan, a former Irish national champion in the 1500 meters who later coached his country’s world championship athletes. And along the way, one of Simmons’ friends at Cork later went to Columbia University in New York City and convinced Simmons to join him there.

“I never would’ve thought about going to New York City otherwise,” Simmons said. “I’d lived kind of a sheltered life. Until going to Cork, I’d never lived outside Minnesota. While I was there, I studied Irish literature and history and I feel like I discovered what it was to have a writer’s soul. I liked it so much that, after I came back to Saint John’s, I returned to Ireland during spring break in ’98. Other Johnnies were going someplace warm, but I wanted to go back to Cork.”

After graduating summa cum laude from SJU, Simmons moved to New York and completed a master of science in print journalism with a magazine focus at Columbia. His thesis was about former Irish Republican Army soldiers who faced deportation from the U.S. And that was his springboard to the world. He spent a year in China as a visiting English professor, served an internship with Time Magazine, then became a reporter. Since 2018, he has lived in the Milwaukee area and writes full-time for Mayo Clinic Health Letter and served as managing editor for a men’s health book published by Mayo Clinic Press in addition to freelance work.

“Studying abroad was one of the major factors that influenced the rest of my life, and I have to give a shout out to both institutions,” said Simmons, who also coaches cross country at Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wisconsin. “There are a lot of people with forward, ambitious thinking at Saint John’s (and Saint Ben’s). And UCC was equally fantastic and supportive of an international student. They didn’t just expect you to sink or swim. It’s amazing to see what happened from my one little question more than 25 years ago. I’m glad I asked it.”

Gathering at UCC Dr. Kevin Clancy (left), director of the Center for Global Education at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, joins others at a presentation of The Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland. The schools have maintained a unique study abroad program for more than 25 years. Among those on hand include UCC President John O’Halloran (third from left), and (to his left) students Zachary Staver, Claire Kouri, Abby Willenbring, Theodore Muetzel and Michaela Koll, and Dr. Richard Ice, provost of CSB and SJU, with other UCC dignitaries. (Photo courtesy Tomás Tyner, copyright of University College Cork)

Dr. Richard Ice at the gate to University College Cork

Dr. Richard Ice, provost at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, stands outside the gate to University College Cork in Cork, Ireland. The institution has been hosting CSB and SJU students for more than 25 years.