Staff Spotlight - Sarah Flaherty
Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week we feature Sarah Flaherty, our Marketing Manager, who is usually the interviewer behind our weekly ‘Staff Spotlight’. For a change Sarah is in the spotlight and I am the interviewer. A nice role - reversal.
What brought you to Ireland?
Since I was very young I have always felt a connection to Irish culture because of my surname. My parents tried very hard to manage my expectations and remind me that it was a distant ancestral connection, but no one could convince me that I wasn’t very, very Irish. Between that and the fact that Irish culture was very artistic and I was a musician and a dancer growing up, I always felt a strong connection to the culture.
Then in 2016 I was looking for an opportunity to get experience working in government anywhere that I could because I was very interested in public service. I applied for an internship at the Department of State and as I was applying, I learned that I could apply for a post abroad. I was looking at the list of available posts and I thought to myself, “If I don’t pick Ireland I’ll never forgive myself.” So I did, not really expecting to get the internship because it was highly competitive. But when I was offered the opportunity I thought, “Well, I can’t not go.” So I came to Dublin for 3 months and I loved absolutely everything about the experience - the work was incredible and the people were so welcoming, and so I just could not wait to come back.
After I finished the internship I was looking at my career and exploring next steps, which is when I decided to come to Dublin for my Masters degree. I had studied politics and communications in college and was very interested in the relationship between Russia and the West. I decided to come to Dublin for an International Relations program because I wanted to study that relationship from a specifically European perspective, so I came over here in 2018 and never looked back!
And have you ever determined whether you have any Irish ancestors?
Yes, that was a project I took on one summer! I was a bit disappointed because my parents were right - while I have a fair few Irish connections, all of them emigrated to the US before 1750. That means I have a few ancestors who participated in the American Revolution, which is fascinating, but not such a strong Irish connection after all.
What are the main cultural differences that you have experienced between Ireland and the US?
I think one of the interesting ones to me is that there’s a lack of distinction between urban and suburban areas. In the US, you know very clearly when you’re in a city and you know when you’re in a suburb. Here, they’re all very connected; you can live in a suburban area and still have the experiences of living in a city, which is something I really like.
Another big one has been learning about different cultural ways of communicating - we’re all speaking the same language but between the US and Ireland we do still use language differently. It’s taken me a long time to adjust to phrases like “your man” - I still sometimes think that someone’s saying that quite literally. I’ve also had to learn that we have different ways of saying things indirectly, and so sometimes I have to remember that when I’m communicating something indirectly it might not be interpreted that way because people tend to assume that Americans are very direct.
What is your favourite thing about Ireland and your least favourite?
I think I have two favorite things - I do really love the people here. Everyone that I’ve met has been very welcoming and I feel that we’ve had really strong connections; I have really great friends here. The second is that when it has rained recently and the sun comes out and really shines, there’s just a subtle glow over the whole landscape that you can’t really capture in any sort of photo or other medium, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
One of my least favorites is that sometimes I think there’s no distinction made between American tourists and those who have settled here - and actually I think that’s true of anyone, not just Americans. One of the best things about the pandemic has been that it’s been almost a year since anyone asked me, “So how long are you here for?” I’ve had to work hard to be perceived as a resident rather than a tourist, including studying Irish for 8 weeks during my Masters to simply learn the pronunciation rules and be able to correctly pronounce the names of different areas in Ireland, and sometimes that can be really frustrating.
How do you find working in a school compared to your previous role?
I was previously working as a field organizer on a State Senate campaign, and I think the biggest difference is that the median age of the people I work with has really changed. In local politics you find a lot of older people involved and so I was very used to being the youngest person in the room by a lot. Now that I’m working in a school, that’s really changed! But I also find it very similar because it's the same kind of work; everyone is working towards the same goal, and everyone is just as passionate about that goal as I am, which is the thing that drew me to working in politics in the first place.
Do you notice any political similarities between a school and the political organizations you were working with?
Definitely - if you think about it, everything is politics and every organization has its own politics. It’s about learning who is interested in what and who has what skills, and then how you can work together to create something and make something happen. It’s a lot of the same because someone might have an idea but not know how to execute it and so you have to work together to figure it out. It ultimately comes down to navigating interpersonal relationships, and that’s pretty universal.
What passions do you bring to your work?
You know I see my role as really just sharing what makes Alex special; what makes it interesting, what makes it unique, and what makes it the place that it is. I decided to join Alex because I really believe in the opportunities that education provides, particularly from my own educational background in the US. I went to a well funded public school district and I saw what a difference my own education made in my life not necessarily because of academic strengths, but because the experiences I had gave me so many skills that have helped me in my career. I really believe that that level of education is not just a universal right but a public good, and that everyone deserves to experience that. I think that Alex is a place and an experience that is just as special, and I bring that passion to my work because it deserves to be shared.
Do you have any thoughts on how, as human beings, we can bring education to those who can’t access it as easily as others?
I think a fundamental shift we have to make is realizing that ensuring access to education isn’t just good for the people who gain access - it’s also good for everyone else. Every other person who has access to education benefits me too because it’s a public good. Education requires the funding of a public good that is universally accessible no matter who you are. And I’m not suggesting that throwing money at a problem is the solution because allocation of that funding is always going to be difficult, but I think it’s worth asking teachers and students what they need, ensuring that it’s universal, and then prioritizing that funding because it’s really vital to our society.
How do you intend to develop your position as Marketing Manager of Alexandra College?
I think that the greatest thing that I can do at Alex is to really develop our digital channels. I really want to push further into how we can best serve the community through those channels, especially with the pandemic. We’ve been going through a lot of changes in our digital spaces for a long time now at a fairly quick pace, but the pandemic has really pressed fast forward on that. Everything’s been pushed online suddenly and the way that we interact with our digital spaces has changed dramatically in the last year. People are using social media both more and differently; they’re using websites both more and differently, and I think that going forward I really want to develop our digital channels with two questions - how can I make things easier to access, and how can I help us stay connected? I’d love to use our social media to explore using Instagram Live more once we’re back in the school. Instagram is one of our biggest growing platforms and has allowed us greater connection with the whole school community. One thing I would love to do is host Funky Friday live on Instagram when we are able to return to the school.
If you were asked for a sentence capturing the essence of ‘My Alex’ what would it be?
My Alex is a place where anyone is welcomed, everyone is supported, and out of the box ideas are encouraged.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One thing I’d really like students to know is don’t be afraid to get into politics. Being involved in politics can mean many things; it doesn’t necessarily mean running for office or working in the Dáil (though both of those are important!). It can also look like working in a nonprofit, or in an area that you’re passionate in. I think it’s very important to understand that if you’re not in the room, decisions are still being made without you that will impact your life, and I think that the generation that’s really coming of age in this pandemic is going to have an experience that we need in the room. Your experiences are going to be so different from what everyone else has experienced, and that’s going to be really crucial as we move forward in post-pandemic life and the new digital spaces that we’re in. Being involved in politics has definitely been the most valuable and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.