Fifty years ago last month, Ireland welcomed its first ever group of American students to study abroad through the Experiment in International Living organization (EIL).

After days of training and preparation in Battlesboro, Vermont in July of 1964, ten eager students flew to Shannon Airport in County Clare to begin their adventures, with their eyes toward cultural immersion and education rather than tourism.

To get a more practical experience of true Irish lifestyles, the students stayed with host families around the country. The video below contains footage from an EIL trip in 1970 of American students with their Irish host families, and an interview with the trip leader Carol Bergin, who met her husband during the semester. “The family is regarded by many as the centerpiece of Irish life, and gathering together for the evening meal is a daily ritual,” the narrator says.

Whether the students wanted to trace their family roots or simply experience what Ireland has to offer, they chose the Emerald Isle out of a list of 35 countries. “They were here to experience and study Irish society, politics, economy, culture and traditions,” EIL Coordinator Jo-Ann Higgins told IrishCentral, though they did manage to kiss the Blarney Stone in Cork and see more of Ireland’s main attractions (see gallery).

EIL Ireland’s mission is to “provide intercultural learning experiences which enrich lives, promote understanding of the culture and challenge individuals to be more globally aware and responsible.” Since the first Ireland trip in 1964, the organization has brought tens of thousands of foreign students to Ireland and continues steadily.

The 1964 trip’s academic leader John McNichols, pictured below leading the students on a boat trip to the Aran Islands, stayed with the Murphy family in Dublin: “The experience had a profound impact on my life as an educator and a human being,” he told EIL. McNichols has returned to Ireland twice since the trip, and said that his recent visit this year was quite poignant and emotional. Upon visiting the EIL headquarters in Cork, he was amazed at how much progress the organization has made in the last 50 years.

“EIL programs are designed to provide tools to survive and thrive in another culture or in a different language, to foster personal development, to build communication and leadership skills, and to be active citizens in an interdependent world,” Higgins told IrishCentral. It is the oldest educational exchange program in the world, and continues to bring students from all over to experience the country in a deeper way than they could on a holiday.

“Back then, the EIL School for International Training in Vermont had the only accredited study abroad/academic program to Ireland. It’s hard to imagine, given the number of American students in Ireland now, but we were a rarity then,” Carol Bergin said. She led many more trips to Ireland after 1970 before becoming the EIL director until 1988.

Click here or the photo below to view the whole 1964 gallery.