The degree to which you are rubbing shoulders with Irish people or students will depend a great deal on the type of study abroad program you select.
Some study abroad programs, especially short-term ones (e.g., summer and winter programs) are designed specifically for North American study abroad students. They may be taught by faculty from U.S. universities taking a group of students overseas, or by faculty in the host country that teach a specialized subject. This type of program, known as an “island program,” ideally takes advantage of the site to reinforce the content of the class. A University of Iowa example is the Irish Writing Program in the summer. Students are taught creative writing by published Irish authors, and take a literature & drama class from Irish professors. They also attend seminars given by experts in the Dublin literary world, and attend and discuss plays at the many excellent theaters that Dublin has to offer.
Alternatively, a “direct enrollment” program places study abroad students in the Irish classroom with degree-seeking Irish students, taught by Irish faculty. Study abroad students do the same academic work as their Irish counterparts. Students are integrated in local housing with Irish and other international students. Examples include the Iowa Regents Semester in Ireland program and the Semester at Queens University Belfast.
Some study abroad programs offer a blend of both program models. For example, students might take one or two classes offered by the program (e.g., “Irish Cultural History,” “Irish Literature”), often taught by local Irish faculty who have experience working with American students. Then students have the option of taking some direct-enrollment classes at a local university, or undertaking an internship. This type of program, known as a “hybrid,” is offered in Dublin through such programs as the Insitute for the International Education of Students (IES).
Students considering study abroad should ask themselves what level of cultural immersion they might be comfortable with. No one model is appropriate for everyone. Generally speaking, it is the philosophy of Study Abroad to encourage as much immersion in the host culture as possible while studying abroad, but this can be done in many ways. For example, a student on an “island” program might seek out ways to get involved in the local community through volunteer work, and internship, or joining clubs or sports teams.