Overseas university spotlight: Queen's University Belfast (UK)
Queen's University Belfast was easily one of the best surprises out of all the universities abroad I've visited.
I really didn't know what to expect, having visited Belfast as a tourist 14 years ago.
Coming back for the first time since then, I was stunned by the city's evolution and what Queen's has to offer.
Here are the highlights from my visit in June 2022!
Maybe it's because I'm a history nerd, super fan of the Titanic, have an eclectic music taste or because I'm someone who appreciates the natural environment, but Belfast is truly one of the most fascinating places out there.
Set in Northern Ireland, a country that is geographically part of Ireland but economically and politically part of the UK, Belfast has certainly seen its share of issues in years past between those who wanted a unified Ireland versus those who wanted to continue to be part of the UK.
Nowadays, however, it's the safest region in the UK (UK British Crime Surveys 2019/20), home to more than 50 parks and is a UNESCO City of Music, where artists like Van Morrison, Snow Patrol and Two Door Cinema Club (a personal favorite) hail from.
And it's one of the UK's most affordable cities -- truly!
If you like alleyways with cool pubs, street art and pop-up restaurants, you'll love the vibrant Cathedral Quarter (which I need to come back and explore further).
Cathedral Quarter is actually named after St. Anne's Cathedral nearby, which has a peculiar spikey spire sticking out of its roof (apparently it's sometimes called the 'rod to God'!).
With a population of around 350,000, Belfast is large enough but also compact at the same time, so much so that you could easily walk from one side of the city centre to the other within 20 minutes.
And when I asked one of the students what was the biggest difference between living here versus back in the U.S., her answer was just that: walkability.
But if you do happen to jump in the car, for those who love the outdoors, you're never more than a 20-minute drive from the beach or a hill walk (highly recommend checking out the Giant's Causeway, but I'm told Napoleon's Nose is also worth exploring, among so many others!).
Belfast's Film Industry
Where Belfast's industries were historically rooted in shipping and linen (the symbol of the city is actually a seahorse), Belfast is now the seventh fastest growing digital city in world, as well as a film production hub, home to one of Europe's largest film studios.
The site, aptly named Titanic Studios, is located right across from where the Titanic itself was built and attracts producers like HBO, Universal and Playtone.
It's also where shows like the popular 'Game of Thrones' series were filmed, and Queen's students have even been known to work as extras in these sorts of productions.
Even though the series has concluded, 'GoT' fans will still be delighted to see the stunning stained glass window art around the city depicting its scenes as a tribute to the show and the tourism it brought in.
Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of my favorite shows, 'Derry Girls' (available on Netflix), which was actually written by a Queen's drama alum herself, Lisa McGee.
It's a comedy set in an all-girls Protestant high school in the 90s.
Having attended an all-girls Catholic school in the early 2000s, I found a lot of it very relatable--but also an interesting look into Northern Irish culture and history at that time.
So if you're a high school student interested in applying to study in Northern Ireland (or even if you're not), it's well worth a look.
The show's creator said that prior to creating this, she always found depictions of the Troubles unrecognizable.
“There were never any jokes,” she said. “I don’t know any Northern Irish person that isn’t funny.”
Well, there you go; a comedic population--just another reason to study here!
Northern Ireland & the U.S.
Northern Ireland is a small country having a huge impact, and 40 percent of its 1.84 million people are under the age of 40, which makes for a dynamic environment.
The connections between Northern Ireland and the U.S. are really strong though, both historically and at present.
There are 20 U.S. Presidents who have ancestral roots in Northern Ireland, including Ulysses S. Grant (born in my native Ohio!), along with three signatories of the Declaration of Independence.
The U.S., which was even heavily involved in the peace talks of the 90s, is also Northern Ireland's second largest export market after Ireland (whiskey and airplane seats mostly!).
Now, more than 200 American companies have their European headquarters here, such as Liberty Mutual, All State and PEAK6.
And people all across the U.S. will have Northern Ireland to thank for having invented air conditioning, an interesting accomplishment given it's a place that's never too hot itself!
Founded in 1845 as one of the three Queen's Colleges (the other two are in Ireland), Queen's has the same motto as the city of Belfast:
For so much, what shall we give back?
Since its early days, it's always been a progressive university with a focus on gender equality, sustainability, diversity and inclusion.
For example, it's the lead university tackling women in engineering, and there were actually female deans teaching at Queen's before Oxford even admitted female students!
With 25,000 students, Queen's is also older than the country where it resides; Northern Ireland was only born when Ireland was partitioned in 1921.
But it's easy to see why it's been rated in the top 10 most beautiful historic campuses in the UK (QS World University Rankings, 2021).
Not only does it have stunning architecture, but it's also located right next to the Botanical Gardens, which students can look upon while studying in the library or go for a stroll in between classes.
Speaking of the library, it's a very unique building that even has a C.S. Lewis room along with quite a collection of his notes, letters and writings.
For those unaware, Lewis was a Belfast native himself and the famed writer of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Located just 10-15 minutes on foot from the city, the campus is full of rapid development, such as a brand new student union centre (One Elmwood) set to open soon.
Housing is suburban or within the city centre, and there's a gym and independent cinema (QFT) on campus, too, which is quite cool.
Below are images from Elms Village, a student village that's a short walk from campus and which has a very modern and recently renovated social space called the Treehouse (offering free coffee and tea!).
Queen's is part of the Russell Group and has been ranked first in the UK for its research intensity.
In 2021, the Research Education Framework (REF) evaluation also deemed that 99 percent of its research is world-leading, which is outstanding.
Hillary Clinton is actually the current Chancellor, a ceremonial and advisory role, but not surprisingly, Queen's has one of the largest schools of politics along with strengths in conflict resolution and international relations.
The university is also home to a large school of aerospace engineering, is number one in the UK for agriculture and information technology and top 10 for archaeology, architecture and food science.
For students who are less sure of what they want to study though, the 4-year liberal arts program is interdisciplinary and quite unique for the UK as well.
And when it comes to the number of students from the U.S., there are more than 200 completing undergraduate or graduate degrees at Queen's, which has high ratings for student satisfaction overall.
Queen's University Belfast: Summary
Belfast used to be known as a war zone; nowadays, it is anything but!
There has been so much renovation and transformation over the years, including in and around the Titanic Quarter, an area where I could easily spend hours.
There is just so much to do.
The art scene is fantastic, from music to film production to creative writing, and there's even an ice hockey arena, a popular sport for the region.
I'm just going to come right out and say it though--those who know me know that I've always been in love with Dublin since I lived there 14 years ago.
But it sure is a lot more touristy now.
To me, Belfast just seemed so much more authentic, down to earth and real that I may even like it better than its southernly neighbor (just don't tell Dublin that).
And to top it off, Queen's is a fabulous university right in the heart of it, perfect for someone wanting a beautiful campus with a progressive social agenda, lots of green space and world-leading academics in an urban, compact, affordable city close to outstanding natural landscapes.
C.S. Lewis once said, "There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
And I would say the same goes for Belfast and Queen's.