29 May 2009

'The hardest part was letting go, not taking part' (Reflections on a Year Abroad)

(Originally posted on Facebook for my friends.)

This note has been several days in the making as I have found it unexpectedly difficult to express in words my feelings towards this past year: my junior year abroad. I still cannot quite believe that it is coming to an end within the next few days. Indeed, I catch myself thinking 'well, next semester I...' and then it hits me that next semester I will be back at St. Mary's. Back to a school of 1,800 in rural Southern Maryland after having studied at two of the world's top universities. It will take some getting used to, of that I am certain; however, the change is not an unwelcome one. It will be nice to get to relax (sort of) for a year after having pushed myself to the limit over the course of this past year. The purpose of this note is to detail the particulars of the past year (for the craziness of Oxford, see my ‘Memories of Oxford’ note), but rather to show exactly what studying abroad meant to me. It is a life-changing experience for everyone who goes through it and I am no exception.

My Oxford experience was...indescribable. To this day, I am still sorting out what happened to me between September and December. Nothing that I could write here could even come close to describing my experience and so I will not even attempt to do so. I hope that the depth of my appreciation for the experience that I had and for those I met can be adequately conveyed by my silence. Unbeknownst to me until the very last, Oxford managed to subtly and inextricably work its way into my heart. Returning in January was like breathing fresh air for the first time...I had the feeling of coming home more than I have ever had returning to my actual home. It is for this reason (as well as more academic ones that would bore those who are actually normal, well-socialized individuals to tears) that I have to get back for graduate school. It is not a desire, it is a need. Applying to Oxford may be my triumph...or my greatest failure. I have a feeling that it is most likely to be the latter scenario, but will not know for certain until March or April 2010.

In Oxford, I encountered some of my biggest challenges and made some of my closest friends. Despite my failure to maintain an effective balance between working hard and playing hard (I tended to work hard but play harder), I learned a lot from my mistakes. I've learned that it is alright to ask for help (and that others will not look down upon you for doing so), that you can spend eight weeks alone simply arguing about the definition of terms to be used, that I quite like the British spellings more than our 'bastardized' English (although I am using US spellings for the purposes of this note), and that I need to be more analytical in my essays. While these realizations came after the fact, I put them to good use in Edinburgh, where I finally got a hang of the UK university system. A bit belated, to be sure.

In Oxford, I had not received a single grade for the entire four months. So it came as something of a surprise when I received back my first essay for Medieval European history and got a 65. Still thinking in terms of the American grading system where a 65 is a solid D, I had a good three hours of panicking before I mustered up the courage to go to my tutor. The poor man looked at me as if I were crazy as I stood shaking in his office asking how I might improve my essay. The situation was only made worse by the fact that he had very few comments to offer me other than that it was a 'good essay, though you could have acknowledged the counterargument a bit more'. It took us a bit before we realized that it was a misunderstanding on my part that was the result of my stress.

It is strange to think that I worked harder in Edinburgh than I did in Oxford. Not only did I have more class time, but the constant preparation of essays and presentations (all of which seemed to be scheduled in the same weeks) meant that I was in a constant state of stress. However, I feel that my major achievement in Edinburgh was admitting when I needed help and seeking it out from my professors (a huge change from Oxford, where I was usually too intimidated to even ask). My time in Edinburgh was also notable for my involvement with Retrospect, the History journal, which provided me with the opportunity to get away from Warrender Park Road once a week and work with some amazing people. I am eager to see what the future holds for both the journal and those involved.

Studying abroad in the UK is not for everyone. If you want a relaxed experience then I would not suggest attending a British university. Cultural, it can be. Pubbing, kebab stands, ceilidhs, bops: all of these are part of the UK study abroad experience. Relaxing, on the other hand, is a concept seemingly unknown in the world of the UK university student. Between tutorials, seminars, lectures, essays, and exam revision there is very little free time. You will be forced to re-evaluate the concept of the weekend and mould it to fit your class schedule. Granted, you will spend much less time in the actual classroom (less than 8 hours a week for those in the humanities), but your out-of-class workload will be much higher. During presentation weeks at Edinburgh, I literally spent every spare hour that I had in the library. This is the major difference between the US and the UK educational system. In the US, you may be assigned pages or chapters in a book to read. In the UK, they expect you to read entire books (hence the term ‘reading’ for your degree). In fact, I had only one week where my reading list for my seminars was less than ten books. You are expected to come into seminar already knowing a large amount about the subject at hand. At the same time, you leave class feeling as if you’ve actually learned something.

Despite my struggle to achieve good marks in the UK and the stress that I subsequently endured, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Both Oxford and Edinburgh required me to push myself beyond what I thought was possible. Although it took me into my term at Edinburgh to get the hang of things, I learned to develop a more critical approach to history. I've become more of an academic, which is a rather frightening thought in itself, and my desire to go to graduate school has become stronger than ever. If nothing else, I can confidently say that no class at St. Mary's will be as hard as my tutorials and seminars over the past year. My workload may be unpleasant in the autumn, but it will be nowhere as intense as in the UK.

I had hoped to conclude with a bit of practical advice for those who may wish to study in the UK at some point in the near future. Unfortunately, I realized that most of my advice was location specific to either Oxford or Edinburgh (as in 'don't go to the big Sainsbury's near Westgate between 4:30-5:30pm if you do not wish to queue for the better part of an hour’ or ‘the kebab stand off Broad is rubbish’) and therefore inapplicable to the vast majority of the UK. Instead, I would like to thank everyone who I've met in this past year: the students and tutors at Oxford and Edinburgh universities, my fellow CMRSers, my flatmates, my parents and family, and, most of all, the friends that I've made. Thank you for walking down mountains with me in the rainy Italian night and initiating dramatic readings whilst cruising the Bosporus. Thank you for accompanying me to St. Peter's bar for a pint and then heading to the library to write an essay all night. Thank you for letting me sleep on your couch/bed/floor when I couldn't or didn't want to make it to my own. Thank you for crazy nights at Opium and Strongbows on the rare sunny days in the Meadows. As sad as I am to leave the UK, at least I have the benefit of knowing that it is not forever. I will be back in September/October 2010. Mark my words.

No comments:

Post a Comment