Who were your closest friends at Villa? I came to Villa in 6th grade and graduated…
An Alumna’s Story ~ A University Student During COVID-19
Maddie Gilbertson, Class of 2013
(as seen in Villa Connections Magazine 2020)
I remember Miss Connors, my music teacher at Villa Maria Academy Lower School, teaching my classmates and me an Irish Blessing when I was in 7th grade. We sang it to the eighth-graders at the annual concert to send them off to high school. I still remember the words and the melody. At the time, I loved the song because of its lyrics: May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. You could say that this song is what sparked my interest in Ireland and hopefully getting to visit one day.
When I was asked to share my experience with the Villa family as a student studying abroad then adjusting to virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic, I was flattered and humbled. My story is similar to many college students across America and likely very similar to many graduates of Villa.
I am a proud “Villa Lifer”. After graduating from Lower Villa in 2013 and Upper Villa in 2017, I decided to attend the University of Notre Dame for college to study Management Consulting and English major. I knew Notre Dame was right for me because I recognized a community that I had grown up with – the close-knit, familial environment that had fostered and empowered me at Lower Villa. A driving factor for my decision to attend Notre Dame was its renowned study abroad program. Even in high school, I knew that I wanted to spend at least one semester abroad while in college. I chose Ireland for a multitude of reasons, including my Irish heritage, the brilliant writers that have hailed from the island, the lack of a language barrier, and, of course, the Irish Blessing song.
When I was accepted to study at Trinity College Dublin as a junior, I was over the moon. In mid-January this year, I set off. The first few weeks were busy – I was introduced to Irish culture, language, university, all while making friends and traveling with my Notre Dame cohort on weekends. Everything was exciting and new and so profoundly different than the United States. I was living my dream. A great group of new friends surrounded me, and Dublin was even more dynamic and exciting than I had expected. For a few weeks, everything was perfect.
Two months in, however, and my friends and I started to hear words like “pandemic” and “social distancing“. We naively thought that coronavirus couldn’t touch us in Dublin since we were on a tiny island in the North Atlantic. We started hearing about other colleges canceling their study abroad program, then students at Trinity – the university we were attending – were testing positive for coronavirus. The situation was much more serious than we originally had thought. Trinity suspended classes for two weeks and then proceeded to close for the rest of the semester. My Irish roommates moved out. Leaving our abroad program seemed inevitable.
On March 11th, we finally received the news we were all dreading: Notre Dame was suspending all study abroad programs. Students must return home as soon as possible. We had a few days to pack and say goodbye to the city we had come to know and love. Friends were leaving on parent-purchased plane tickets before we could even say goodbye. Trinity’s campus emptied of all students and tourists, and all the restaurants and tourist attractions closed. The city became a ghost town, and Dublin no longer felt like Dublin. It lost its life and color. Those couple of days were very surreal and emotional, and I was ready to return home. I touched down in the United States the day before St. Patrick’s Day, weary and heartbroken.
The first few days home were, for lack of a better word, weird. I was a bundle of mixed emotions: relief, frustration, sorrow. I mourned my lost semester while being grateful that I was able to return to a loving, healthy family. My sister Caitlin (VMALS ’14) was also sent home for the rest of her semester. We haven’t lived at home for this long since before going to college. As a family, we are figuring out a schedule that works for everyone. We got a new puppy, and she keeps us very busy. Zoom has become my best friend: I use it to see my friends (we recently had a virtual birthday party for my friend when he turned 21), attend live lectures, and drop in on my professors’ office hours. The novelty of college at home has worn off at this point, and the reality of my cut-too-short semester is setting in. I think about what I’d be doing if I was in Dublin right now – grabbing a pint at Doyle’s, walking through Merrion Square to O’Connell House, drinking tea with my roommates, having a takeout dinner in Front Square – but I find that just makes me sad. I am frustrated and disappointed, but I am also fortunate. My family and friends are blessed with health and happiness, and I am in a loving home. The pandemic has required everyone to change their daily habits radically. Every day around the dinner table, my family and I count our blessings that we are together and safe during these unprecedented and difficult times.
It was only a few days ago that my family and I were reminiscing about Villa, about the things we didn’t appreciate then that we do now. Lower Villa was a truly formative experience for my sister and me. It shaped the person that I am today: brave enough to travel across the world and flexible enough to adjust to the new normal. I wish health and happiness to everyone in the Villa family as you adapt to the new normal. Let me leave you with the rest of the Irish Blessing: And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.