Aquinas College from Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA officially launched their new Ireland Study Abroad Programme in Tullycross, Co. Galway, today April 4th 2017. Although Aquinas College have brought students to the Connemara village for 44 years, 2017 marks a change in the structure and delivery of their Ireland programme, changes that will ensure that the programme continues to flourish in the coming decades.

The new programme has been restructured to include modules such as Contemporary Social Issues and Culture and Identity taught by Irish faculty from NUI, Galway and local experts from the region. The new programme also links strongly with the recently launched Irish Studies Minor based in Aquinas College. As Professor Michelle DeRose, coordinator of the Irish Studies Minor explained, “the Aquinas Irish Studies minor offers an understanding of social and political issues operating in Ireland today and in an international context, and of Irish culture as an evolving expression of Irish identities. Students also learn Irish history, including its dynamic literary history. Aquinas College formalised the Irish Studies minor curriculum in 2015 and graduated its first students in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2016. It is already among the largest Irish Studies minor programmes in the United States”.
At a flag raising ceremony in Tullycross to launch the new programme, Grand Rapids City Commissioner Ruth Kelly remarked that “today we celebrate the expansion of the Irish studies programme and 44 years of friendship benefiting the Aquinas College students who’ve travelled from Grand Rapids in West Michigan to Tully Cross to study abroad. Recognizing the value of cross cultural experience for our city’s youth, a group named Friends of Connemara has formed in order to help raise funds to support another 40 years of programming through Connemara West. As a City Commissioner in Grand Rapids, an Aquinas alum and especially as a Friend of Connemara, I take special pleasure in seeing this relationship grow and continue”.

The announcement of this new programme is another coup for local development group Connemara West’s innovative economic development strategy based around education-led tourism. This strategy invites colleges from the US to base their global learning experiences in Tullycross in North West Connemara on the Wild Atlantic Way, supported by Connemara West. Established in 1971 on foot of a local fundraising drive, Connemara West is a locally-managed community development organisation based in Letterfrack, Co. Galway which directly employs 28 people. Owned by 500 local shareholders, it has a deep collaborative relationship with Aquinas College stretching over 44 years.

Dr. Kevin Heanue, Chairman of Connemara West said “we congratulate Aquinas College on the development of this new programme and look forward to continuing to do all that we can to work with the college to build it into a successful learning experience for both students and faculty”.

Professor Deborah Wickering from Aquinas College, the Director of the new programme on the ground in Tullycross, together with assistant Director Michelle Plumstead, have made the programme a reality since they arrived in early January 2017 at the beginning of their 4 month long programme. Professor Wickering commented that “it is a great honour to be the inaugural Director of this programme and to be laying the foundations for what is hopefully another 40 years of learning and relationship building between the communities of Grand Rapids and North West Connemara”.

The potential of such education-led tourism as part of a development strategy for rural Ireland is gaining recognition. In the Government’s action plan for rural development titled ‘Realising our Rural Potential’ launched in January 2017, Action 165 focuses on examining the potential to promote rural Ireland as the destination of choice for US colleges wishing to avail of a rural based learning or study abroad experience. Connemara West is the lead body for delivering that action.