Walking the same halls as JFK, living in the same dorms as Malia Obama and listening to a speech from the President of Harvard University outside the Widener Memorial Library where Legally Blonde was filmed, Co Down student Cormac Savage said that there isn’t a minute that goes by that he isn’t “totally overwhelmed and in shock” of where he is starting his university career.
hen he touched down in Boston only four weeks ago, the Downpatrick native said that he stood in his dorm room, looked out onto the iconic Harvard Yard in Cambridge, and cried.
“I just couldn’t believe I was here,” he told Belfast Telegraph.
“I feel luckier every day at the fact that I am walking the same halls, sitting in the same seats and looking at the same views as some of the most brilliant people in history.
“Barack Obama, John F Kennedy, Franklin D Roosevelt, all the greatest presidents and minds have been taught here and I just think to myself how did I, just a wee boy from Downpatrick, land in this place where these people have called home?”
Cormac remembers opening the acceptance email just last December and quite literally jumping into his mothers’ arms.
“I’m 6 foot 1 so you can imagine this might be a bit difficult!” he said.
“But at that moment I knew all the hard work had just paid off and I was so excited to get here and just experience a whole new way of life.”
The journey from Co Down to the east coast of the US, however, wasn’t all plain sailing and Cormac thanks the hard work he put in over the past few years to helping secure his place at Harvard.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, in 2020, Cormac helped to establish the Secondary Students’ Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI), the first of its kind here.
He was made honorary president of the union at the same time as completing four A-Levels and fulfilling duties as the Member of UK Youth Parliament for South Down.
“I think I just like being busy,” he said.
“But I see what the union is doing now still fighting for students’ rights and I am so proud.
“I’m all the way over here so I feel really helpless but it’s great to see it continue in my absence.”
One of the very first campaigns the group launched was in the wake of the cancellation of exams and the aftermath of the teacher predicted grades the day before the 2020 A-Level results were due to be published.
Cormac said that he almost thanks the pandemic, in a way, for the establishment of the SSUNI.
“I think if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have had this drive for something to fight for, so, in a way, it has worked to our advantage because without it, Northern Ireland students would not have a voice,” he said.
“That whole year was a total whirlwind but it was the best experience of my whole life.
“And it is fantastic to see how the new members are putting their own spin on things and it’s great to see how well they’re doing back home sticking up for students,” he added.
“I think there really is a need for a student voice in Northern Ireland, and there always has been, but the pandemic just gave us the vehicle to create something which should have always been there.”
The 18-year-old said that he thanks St Patrick’s Grammar School in Downpatrick, where he was Head Boy for the past year, for helping him on his journey to the US.
“I had seven of the happiest years of my life there and I know that school has made me the person I am today,” said Cormac.
“I owe the fact that I’m here entirely to St Patrick’s, and also to the support of my friends and family who never gave up believing in me.
“My dad was 100% confident that I’d get in — to the point that before I’d found out I’d been accepted, he went and bought a bottle of champagne,” he added.
“Of everyone in my life, I don’t think anyone believed in me more than him — he never doubted it for a minute.”
Cormac explained that he first arrived at the gates of Harvard five years ago to take a tour of the campus as a tourist, and from that moment on decided that he would one day walk through the gates as a student.
“I had my eye on a couple of American colleges because I loved the system of the universities here and the variety, but I never in a million years thought that I would get into my dream school,” he said.
“The acceptance rates were 3.43% and there was no way I was in that top percentage, and that mentality continued until two months before the application deadline, but if it wasn’t for a few of my teachers telling me to ‘just go for it’ I wouldn’t be here today.”
Despite setting his sights on an education on the other side of the Atlantic, Cormac said that his heart is still well and truly in Northern Ireland.
He is reminded daily by a wall of photographs on his bedroom wall, including two of his heroes — Seamus Heaney and John Hume — and a Derry flag which he said is to celebrate his mum’s home county.
“In just a month being here I’ve found this whole new love for Northern Ireland,” he said.
“But people from home tend to be very insular and I think that is as a consequence of our divided history, so, as an internationalist, I wanted to gain a whole new perspective on life.
“That being said, Northern Ireland can be seen to be far more advanced than life here in the US, for example in terms of healthcare and workers’ rights Northern Ireland is a bit more ahead of the curve,” added Cormac.
“I sometimes see things here in America which I could bring home, but most of the time I find myself comparing them and thinking I would love to bring some things from home over here.”
The former student politician said that, while the US is becoming more and more divided, he feels Northern Ireland is “learning from its mistakes”.
“In America a lot of their politics are very regressive and being from the North we can see home becoming a more cohesive society and America going the other way,” he said.
“When I look at how the split is in US politics, I see our past, but it’s exactly that, our past, and we are learning and growing
but here there isn’t much changing.
“I’d like to bring that outset to politics here, that aspect of there is a cost to division and if you let that get too deep then you realise what that division can cost you.”
Cormac added that, even though he found out last December that he would be calling Massachusetts home for the next four years, he did not prepare himself for the inevitable truth that he would in fact be living as an immigrant for that entire time.
“You visually cannot tell me apart from any other American students, but I had this moment where I realised that I’m no less of an immigrant than any others in this country,” he said.
“It was a big culture shock, I do miss home, so much so that I’ve found myself riding the subway for 40 minutes every week to shop in an Irish supermarket to get a packet of Tayto cheese and onion and some Ribena to get a slice of home!
“I was so prepared for my student life but didn’t prepare myself for the wider issue of being an immigrant, but thankfully I’m in Boston and there is a huge Irish immigrant community here,” he added.
“I’m thankful that I don’t have that language barrier and I’m lucky that I’ve made such amazing friends in the short time I’ve been here but I’d like to use this platform to help other migrants and raise awareness of the variety of cultures that should be celebrated.
“I really do have a newfound appreciation for people from outside Northern Ireland who come to make their home there.”
Cormac is now set to complete his first semester in English, Sociology, Spanish and Politics of Europe after choosing a selection which he said would help to reflect his diverse range of interests but still be in keeping with his student political goals.
“The Dean of the College said: ‘don’t take the classes that were going to be good for your grades, take the classes that are going to be good for your education,” he said.
“It was really refreshing to hear, and that’s how I’m going to base my four years.”
He also said that his aim is to immerse himself “completely in the Harvard experience” including applying to be accepted onto the Harvard Foreign Policy Initiative.
“This basically commissions a bunch of students to do foreign policy research,” said the now well-established Cantibrigian.
“Next semester I’m also set to take a screenwriting class taken by former President Obama’s chief speechwriter.
“I have also been accepted onto the JFK Jr Forum, one of the most prestigious student political organisations in charge of organising and scouting the visits of heads of state and other influential political people to campus and welcoming them when they get here!
“It’s all so exciting.
“And I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this feeling of walking in the footsteps of all these great academics,” he added.
“It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed here walking through the Johnson Gate and through Harvard Yard, and it’s even easier to feel like you don’t belong here, but I think, for me, the college have been so good at ensuring that you don’t get overwhelmed by that.”
There is, however, one thing which brings Cormac some comfort making this life-changing move.
“As an Irish Catholic, moving here under the shadow of the first Irish Catholic president since Kennedy, it gives me a little bit of comfort as an Irish immigrant in the US, and despite loving every minute of this temporary home, my first love will always be in Ireland.”