20 years on, one Northern Ireland business initiative has witnessed emerging enterprises, long-lasting friendships and even transatlantic love affairs …
Study USA, an initiative unique to Northern Ireland, has been a life-changing experience for many if its alumni. It began in 1994, then known as the Business Education Initiave (BEI), and since then has witnessed nearly 2,000 students from Northern Ireland complete a year studying business at a college in the US.
It was initially set up to aid the Northern Ireland peace process and during its 20 year history, students have gained valuable international experience and business knowledge, strengthening US links and developing their career prospects.
But there’s far more to this programme than just a year out at a US campus. Study USA, which is managed by British Council Northern Ireland and supported by the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), is a programme that genuinely changes lives.
Graduates of the programme are now scattered all over the world, some in Northern Ireland have gone on to develop the skills necessary to have their own successful business, while others have now put down roots in America and are fully fledged US citizens.
It’s not all about business though; there’s been plenty of romance too - including one recent graduate of the programme, John McCaul, who picked up more than he bargained for during his year abroad – a fiancée.
British Council Northern Ireland talked to John and some of the other alumni of the programme to find out how during its 20 year history, the programme has strongly influenced their lives.
John McCaul (22), from Newry, took part in the Study USA programme last year (2013-2014). He is currently a student at Queen’s University Belfast studying History and Politics. John spent his year at Warren Wilson College, North Carolina. Speaking about the programme he said:
“The Study USA experience for me was unbelievable. I had heard about the programme two years before I applied, and for me at the time it was just an excellent opportunity to broaden my horizons and have the chance to experience something new. As a politics student, I was really interested in how the US system worked differently to ours and wanted to challenge perceptions on the situation here in Northern Ireland.
“What I didn’t bargain for was romance. Things all changed when I met Ashlyn Neas at a party at the end of September last year. In October things between us were starting to become very serious and by November, I had been invited back to her families’ home for Thanksgiving Dinner. It was a real proper Southern Thanksgiving and was a great introduction to US traditions as well as to her family. I was made to feel very welcome and I knew in my heart, that Ashlyn was the girl for me.
“I proposed to Ashlyn on June 2 2014 at the Washington Monument. I don’t think she could actually believe it and was silent for a while, but I think she just wanted to enjoy the moment.
“I told my parents about the engagement over Skype and in typical Northern Irish fashion, my dad stopped talking and mum took over – she shrieked and was very excited. But both parents have been very supportive of the engagement and their reaction has meant a lot to the both of us.
“Coming back home at the end of the programme and leaving Ashlyn behind has been very hard – it was difficult enough to just adjust to life back in Northern Ireland, but having her so far away has made it even more of a challenge. I couldn’t get the memories of the year, or this girl, out of my head and more than anything, just wanted to go back.
“My parents have yet to meet Ashlyn, but I hope they will soon. She is planning to come over in December and I’m looking forward to giving her a proper Irish Christmas. I want to take her back to Newry, but also let her see the sights in Belfast. I hope it snows while she is over, as I really want to recreate the romance of the film ‘Love Actually’!
“In terms of what the future holds, I hope to get married in two or three years – but that’s a long way off for us right now. At the end of the day, we’re both still kids, so we’re just going to take baby steps. We haven’t even discussed where we’re going to live yet – whether here or in North Carolina – but I would love if Ashlyn settled in Northern Ireland as she’s a country girl at heart.
“Love is about commitment, trust and faith and we have that - we’re just so lucky to have met through Study USA.”
Jill (35) who lives in Carrickfergus, took part in the programme in 1998-1999, and was based at Wesley College, Delaware. She studied Business at the University of Ulster and is now the Managing Director of the award-winning digital marketing agency, Ambition Digital, which is based in both Belfast and Dublin. Jill was named one of Northern Ireland’s Young Business Leaders for 2014. She has a son called Eli. Speaking about the programme Jill said:
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time out in Delaware and made sure to make the most of every opportunity. Extracurricular activities and clubs are very much part of the American way of life, so I threw myself into everything. I was part of the International Students Association and travelled all over during the holidays, including an amazing trip to Jamaica during Christmas term.
“The programme itself takes a person out of the small town mentality we tend to have here in Northern Ireland and instead of bashing others beliefs, celebrates diversity. I’ve no doubt that taking part in the programme has got me to where I am today.
“My big break came when I was able to carry out work experience at a firm called Chesapeake Utilities in Delaware. The director of the company had heard of me through his daughter – who also went to my college — as the Irish girl, so asked me to give the board a presentation on Ireland. This was my first experience at public speaking and gave me a thirst for it.
“I’m still very much in contact with people I met out in the States, and went back to visit a year and a half after I graduated from the programme, to visit one of the girls who I eventually became a bridesmaid for. I’m also frequently now in the US for business, so would often visit friends from the programme, and once stayed in New York for the whole summer.
“I can honestly say that taking part in Study USA gave me the confidence to set up my own business. In Northern Ireland we don’t tend to toot our own horn and are pretty self-depreciating. I started Ambition Digital back in 2009, with only my existing laptop and a passion for marketing and took a similar approach to the Americans – you’ve just got to have some kind of self-belief.
“Today the business continues to grow from strength to strength and has grown ten-fold with unprecedented growth within the last 12 months through diversification and I hope this can only continue.
“I can largely thank BEI for where I am today.”
Mark Owens (35) is originally from Derry~Londonderry, and took part in the programme from 1998-99. He now lives in Cleaveland Ohio with his wife Maria and his two kids: five year-old Eamonn and Lilian, who is six. He is a past student of Belfast Metropolitan College and studied BSc Fashion and Production Management. He now works as the Director of Marketing for Skylight Financial Group - one of the largest financial planning and investments firms in the Cleveland area. Speaking about the programme Mark said:
“A past housemate had taken part in the programme and had nothing but good things to say about the experience. So I did some research into the programme, and the more appealing it became – it was a chance to get away from the norm and live in a different culture, a different country, all while developing myself as a person.
“I had an amazing time during the programme and on returning to Northern Ireland, the ‘American dream’ was always on my mind. So I returned there on holiday in 2001, and dropped a few resumes off with local companies, one being Enterprise Rent-a-Car who interviewed me during my holiday there. Luckily, I got the job as a trainee manager and was very fortunate that they then hired a lawyer to do my Visa paperwork to make sure I did everything the legal way. The process took just under a year and literally within a week of it being issued I had my one way ticket booked to Cleveland.
“A year later, I met my wife. I got roped into playing for the local GAA club, Cleveland St Pat’s in a seven-a-side tournament up in An Arbor, Michigan. My wife, Maria, was playing for the Cleveland ladies team that weekend and that’s how we met. We got married in June 2004 in Cleveland and have been in this area ever since. My wife and I now have two kids – Lilian who is six, and Eamonn, five.
“I became a US citizen on July 5, 2011, but feel more Irish than ever. I am heavily involved in the local Irish community – to a point where I have become totally re-educated on Irish cultures and traditions.
“Without the Study USA programme none of this would have been possible. I highly doubt I would be where I am today without it – I would not have found Cleveland, my career and ultimately my wife.”
Harry (29) from north Belfast took part in the programme in 2005-06. He studied teaching at St Mary’s University College, Belfast and spent his year at Schreiner University, Kerville, Texas. At the age of 28, Harry was promoted to Associate Vice President of Business Development at Invest Northern Ireland – Americas. He lives in Boston and is single.
Speaking about the programme, Harry said:
“In January 2005 I received a phone call that changed my life. Just over two months prior, I had attended an information event at St Mary's regarding the Business Education Initiative (BEI) with no inclination where it would take me or the opportunities it would afford me.
“Arriving in Kerville, Texas in August 2005, a shy and nervous 20-year-old oblivious to what was ahead, I maintained that I would keep an open mind and see out the year no matter what at my new college, Schreiner University.
“BEI changed my life. Before I went out I was sitting on a low 2:2– but the commitment required at my college got me into a good study system and I graduated from St Mary’s with a 2.1 — largely thanks to the programme.
“I also have a stutter – and the amount of public speaking involved in the programme gave me the confidence to do more things - including the ability to run a successful campaign for the position of Students' Union President at St Mary’s University on my return.
“I always knew I wanted to live in the United States though, and studying in Texas definitely strengthened this want. Therefore, almost three years to the day after leaving the US, I returned as a Project Manager, helping Northern Ireland companies win business and export to the US and Canada with a temporary base in Boston.
“The certificate in American Business Practice which I gained further helped enhance my job prospects and in November 2010 I woke up in sunny California, in Silicon Valley, promoting Northern Ireland as a location to do business for Invest NI. Two years later I arrived in New York City as Business Development Manager forging business links between Northern Ireland and the US.
“Last year, I became the Associate Vice President of Business Development for Invest Northern Ireland. It’s very satisfying and I love that I’m doing positive work for Northern Ireland. In my first six months I was able to secure my first Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) project which contributed $2.1M (£1.3m) to the Northern Ireland economy and provided salaries well above the private sector medium.
“Unbelievably, I work with a number of other people from Northern Ireland who took part in Study USA and we all love the work we do; promoting Northern Ireland as a great location to do business.
“My advice to anyone who wants to challenge themselves with new experiences is to go out, make the most of it, challenge yourself, step out of your comfort zone and remember, it’s not better or worse, it’s just different!”
Richie Smith (31), who lives in Portadown, took part in the programme from 2003-2004. A former business studies student at the University of Ulster, he attended Wesley College in Delaware. Richie is now director of Unify Solutions, which provides event management and sport and leisure experiences.
Speaking about the programme he said: “I always had ambitions to study in the USA, and having heard of the programme, came home to Northern Ireland after living in Portugal for a while, to study at the University of Ulster.
“My time spent with Study USA was genuinely the best year of my life and I made some life-long friendships. It not only broadened my horizons, but helped me look at things in a completely new light.
“I’m still very much in contact with people I met during Study USA, having spent most of my time on campus hanging out with the other international students. After the year was over, I spent the summer travelling for five months with the other guys I had studied with — they hailed from all over the world – including Japan and Australia, and we still keep in contact on a regular basis.
“I still go back to Delaware too, and have been back three times since 2004 – including for two weddings.”
“I think I’ve always had big ambitions, but the programme helped cultivate my passion for business. In America they talk more about entrepreneurship than we do here in Northern Ireland and the self-confidence they all have is amazing. Study USA definitely showed me a different way of thinking and makes you more ready to go out into the world of work.”
Study USA is an initiative managed by British Council Northern Ireland. Applications are now open for next year’s programme and students interested can apply online at http://nireland.britishcouncil.org. Deadline for Applications is Monday, November 24.
For more information on British Council Northern Ireland or Study USA, visit http://nireland.britishcouncil.org of follow on Twitter: @BCouncil_NI