I will be the first to admit that my decision to study abroad in England was more of a reaction than decision. Realizing I would graduate in a year and possibly miss out on the great experience of studying abroad, I checked in with the study abroad office and found out that, given my lack of language ability, I had the choice between a year in England or a semester in Canada. Figuring I should probably leave the continent during my study abroad, I selected England.
From the great list of options, I choose University of Leeds as it has a comprehensive Communications program. My greatest memory of the academics at Leeds was that it was HARD. I have heard people mention that undergraduate education in England is similar to graduate school in the US; instead of keeping pace with each week’s assignment and completing small assignments throughout the term as would be the case in the US, in the UK you are expected to study and research on your own schedule and produce a major research paper at the end of term, upon which is based your entire grade. I found myself packing sandwiches and camping out at the school library on the weekends in order to perform research and complete all of the essays on time. During that year, I took a basic journalism class, a number of courses covering media issues (International Communications, Communications and Society) and a law class.
In addition to schoolwork, a major chunk of my time was devoted to participating in the Stage Musicals Society (SMS), a student-run club that put on musicals. I had performed in musicals while in high school and this seemed like a good way to meet people and participate in something fun during my year abroad. I was cast as a dance hall hostess in the Fall show “Sweet Charity” and I was a lead dancer in the Spring show “Me and My Girl.” The practice schedule was hectic– two practices per week and then practice everyday during the final two weeks before performance– but the experience was one of the most memorable things about my time abroad.
Studying abroad in England was my first major international experience and it impacted me in a number of ways. It was the first time that I was totally alone– living in a foreign place with few connections– and therefore was a huge personal growth experience. I remember sobbing on the telephone with my dad: I had no friends, I felt like I was doing poorly in my classes and I was generally feeling alone and vulnerable.*
It was also the first time that I had to contemplate being an American and had to respond to stereotypes or consider aspects of my background and upbringing that I had always taken for granted. I was in England during the 2000 presidential election (between George W. Bush and Al Gore). I reluctantly went to bed at 1 am Greenwich Mean Time (this was 6 pm in California since England is 8 hours ahead) on Election Day when the race was too close to be called; I figured that when I woke up the next morning, the winner would be known. When the election dragged on without a clear winner, the English students pummeled me with questions about American indifference to politics and the benefits of the American electoral college. I often didn’t know how to respond.
Though tough, I deeply value this first international experience. I think the greatest benefit of my year spent abroad is that it instilled in me the belief that you have to do things outside of your comfort zone in order to grow in new and varied ways. You have to travel and see all the wonderfully different things that exist in the world. You have to be open to alternate opinions and use the various points of view that you encounter to challenge and reformulate the ways that you see the world. You have to take risks and be open and from this, you will gain memories and meet people that you will forever treasure.
* Incidentally, I remember my father telling me that I should just pack up and come back home if I was so miserable. One woman in my program actually ended up doing this within the first month of school. The experience was tough (as study abroad is meant to be) but I’m really glad that I pressed through the challenges and stayed the entire term.