Belfast: Culture Shock

Unlike other international students at Queen’s University Belfast for one semester, I am in a housing unit, or accommodation, with both international and local students. Because of this, I’ve had interactions with university students from Northern Ireland outside the classroom which highlight the differences between my sense of “normal” and theirs. 

The largest (and most obvious) difference is the accent. Most of the full-time students I live with are from Northern Ireland and have a wide range of accents even they can’t understand sometimes. As someone who struggles to understand a thick accent from any part of the world, the quick speech of my flatmates is tricky to follow and a barrier for conversation I’ve tried my best to pierce– and thus far, failed at. 

Likewise, they struggle to say words familiar to the Minnesota lexicon. I walked one flatmate through the pronunciation of Mankato, syllable by syllable, until he could say it clearly. 

I’m not the only international student struggling with their speech– my classmates with a different native language are, according to themselves, faring far worse than I am. 

Their concept of distance is far different than ours. Most midwesterners would agree, I believe, that a road trip needs to be at least three hours to be considered as such. My drive from my hometown of Hudson, Wisconsin, to MSU is a quick two hours with heavy traffic. Here, Belfast is a two-hour trip from Dublin– but no one does it, because that’s a long drive or train ride! Northern Ireland is only 85 miles from top to bottom, which is the same distance as my hometown to MSU. 

One area I’ll admit defeat is the weather. While I haven’t experienced days on end of pouring rain, last week the region was targeted by a massive winter storm. I thought I was well equipped to deal with the temperatures but because of the humidity here, the 30 F and below is a damp chill I’m not used to. The snowflakes that fall are thicker than the ones at home, too. 

My classes, or modules, began Thursday. Each consists of a lecture hour and a two-hour seminar. During international orientation, we were told not to shy away from speaking up in our lessons, even though the students from here tend to stay quiet. My first class, a lecture for my poetry workshop, proved that correct. I and the other American student were quick to ask questions and volunteer to go first– maybe the full-time students just understood perfectly! 

A challenge with the upper-level courses I’m taking is that, in classes for the last semester of full-time students’ degrees, the structure of the schedule and how assignments are expected to be turned in is not said unless I ask. My essay prompts for the Gilman Scholarship helped me anticipate these difficulties, and I’m thankful that my professors are happy to answer questions about the most minute details. 

The most dangerous difference, however, comes with a combination of living in an urban center and in a country that drives on the left side of the road. It’s tricky enough to find my way around a new city, but crossing the street adds another factor! 

Interested in studying abroad or away through MSU? Contact the Center for Global Engagement at located on the ground floor of Morris, or reach out to myself with questions about the Gilman Federal Scholarship for studying abroad.

Header photo: The Castlewellan Peace Maze, located about an hour south of Belfast, is home to one of the largest permanent hedge mazes and represents a path for a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Tostrud)

Write to Alexandra Tostrud at

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