In 2004, while pursuing a degree in Texas, I took advantage of my school’s helpful and well-run study abroad office to take the chance to go to England.
I applied to the University of East Anglia, and was not only accepted but given a small scholarship, a stipend of 500 pounds, which made it much more possible for me to take this leap, and also set a positive tone that made me feel exceptionally welcome.
To subsidize all the travel, I decided to pursue summer employment in London before my fall semester began. I enrolled in an exchange program called BUNAC that sets American students up with British work visas (and vice-versa).
For the first couple of weeks, my employment situation was grim. My friend and roommate who had gone ahead of me “found a great deal on rent,” subletting from a Chinese grad student living in what turned out to be the garage of a council flat, though we didn’t know it until we took down a poster, revealing one wall to be a pair of outward-opening garage doors. No wonder it was so drafty.
Meanwhile, we were working for a rather shady catering company that hired other transient workers from around the globe – terrible work, but we made some good friends. Still, I wanted more. Being a writing major, I found the name of a publisher in the BUNAC directory that had offered internships before, got interviewed, got the job (due to my knowledge of Latin – probably the first hire on that basis since the Middle Ages) and set to work finding out-of-print titles for their new classics line.
Once fall came around, I packed up my bags again and took the train to Norwich. I studied creative writing there – UEA is a hallowed place for that subject in the UK, with alumni like Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, and I eagerly soaked up the atmosphere of artistic seriousness, along with many a Snakebite.
Which is not to say I didn’t work hard academically during that semester; my grades were transferred back as pass/fail, but I got the equivalent of all As, meaning I probably took classes more seriously than necessary, if anything. My papers were extremely well-received by tutors and professors, and I came away with the impression that humanities education in the UK was both less demanding and more enriching than in the US – much more emphasis on simply taking your own time to read and write.
If I could do it over again I’d spend slightly less at the pub, and travel more within the British Isles rather than blowing my scholarship money on Ryanair jaunts to the continent, but I have no real regrets. The highlight of my whole experience was probably cooking a turkey dinner to introduce my British associates to the glories of an American Thanksgiving. Which goes to show: the benefits of international study even extend to those who stay home, and meet weird people like me from faraway lands.
Integrating with the people of a host country can be hard, even if, as in the case of my transatlantic adventure, you’re “divided by a common language.” I won’t lie: I was often homesick. The recent Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows the health and vibrancy of study abroad programs, but surveys have shown problems with integration that reinforce the importance of building these bonds. So for those of you engaged in this field: be active in encouraging social assimilation, and don’t let any of us fall through the cracks! I want everyone to have as great an experience as I did.
An experienced writer on all things related to higher education and business, Amanda Watson spends her days covering the latest stories on various topics such as online mba rankings, web entrepreneurship, and social media marketing. You can contact Amanda at email@example.com.