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From Alabama to Ireland: Lowery McNeal

When she graduated from Auburn in May of 2015, Lowery McNeal knew she wanted to continue her education through a master’s degree, but she didn’t know that it would mean a journey from her home state Alabama across the ocean to Ireland.

McNeal was a participant in Living Democracy a year before her graduation with a bachelor’s degree in history. Her summer in Selma was a perfect connection between her major and her minor, community and civic engagement. She was able to apply her knowledge and research ability to a community she was living in for ten weeks.

With Selma’s rich history, the city offered McNeal many opportunities to learn. She worked at the Old Cahawba Archeological Park, led a student forum on education, and was an extra in the film “Selma” to name a few.

Much of her knowledge of the city came from speaking with the people around her. Citizens would talk freely about the stories of their families and their neighbors dating back a hundred years. The skills she learned from her history major gave her the tools to know what to look for and what stories to listen to in what she described as an “in-person history class.”

After graduation, McNeal continued to serve in her community by joining Impact America in Birmingham, close to her hometown of Trussville. She worked specifically with the program called Focus First, which provides free vision screenings to young children in the Southeast. Over three years, she had three different positions. In her first year she worked for Americorps Vista, a program where people serve a year working in communities in the U.S. to alleviate poverty.

Wanting to continue after her year assignment, she began work as a director for the Focus First program, organizing and maintaining partnerships with daycare centers and health providers as well as finding grants to fund the vision screenings. This past year, she worked as a recruitment manager helping hire more volunteers and Vista members since the program has grown to all Alabama counties and four other states.

Through Impact America, McNeal said she was able to see “direct threads from work that [she has] done and then how that affects the community or affects someone else’s life.” She was even able to return to cities to give vision screenings that she visited during her summer in Living Democracy. To the delight of her coworkers, she was able to provide them with the history and a tour of Selma.

Her plan always included a master’s degree, and now she is ready to move on after having a few years of work under her belt. When searching for schools to apply to, she thought “What a better time to go live somewhere else than when you are in grad school?”

Having also applied inside the U.S., McNeal decided on Ireland for multiple reasons including her ancestry from the region. Her interest in community politics and demographics drew her to the similarity in population between Alabama and Ireland, both being around 4.8 million people.

After learning more about the country, she was interested in “how there are a lot of issues in Ireland that really mirror issues in the American South right now.”

After earning her master’s degree, she hopes to return to the Southeast to work in a nonprofit, advocacy group, or university. Her focus has been and will continue to be her community and those within it. “I want to be interacting with people.”