One of the most common questions I’ve gotten so far abroad is “How is your university different from this one?” I’ve heard it so many times, I’ve started to change up my answers just so I wouldn’t have to repeat the same thing over and over. University abroad is very different from W&M, but also very similar. And that’s a much more complicated answer than what the people asking had in mind.
What are the similarities? School is school. I’m going to classes, doing homework at the library, catching up on readings before lectures, emailing professors, hanging out with friends, eating junk food; just being a college student like I would be at home. The differences? Most obvious, the British accents. I’m grabbing meals at tea houses and pubs instead of the Caf or the Grind. I’m reading in my room because the library is 15 minutes away and closed on Sundays. I’m meeting for classes once a week for either a 50 minute lecture or a 2 hour seminar. There is no Sunken Garden, but there is a castle in the middle of the city. These are differences unique to W&M and unique to me. But no one else here would really understand.
Sometimes I forget just how not in America I am. Human experiences are the same across countries, our university experiences aren’t so different. But whenever I call the hob a stove or every time I’m asked to pay 5 cents for a plastic bag at the store, I’m reminded that the small differences can make a big impact. In my American Novel class we talk about big button issues: racial tensions, the upcoming Presidential election, gun laws, gay rights, feminism, etc, on and on and on for intellectual and modern conversations around the older novels we read like Catcher in the Rye and Invisible Man. Everyone has a lot to say, but when the professor asked what Ronald Reagan did before he became President, I was the only one to know ‘actor.’ And when he asked who Ralph Waldo Emerson was or for the definition of McCarthyism, I knew all eyes were on me. I taught my class about American history, a subject I’ve never even taken at W&M, yet suddenly I was an expert. It was daunting at first, and then really cool, and then I realized that this is exactly why I wanted to go abroad.
Not only did I want to learn more about a new culture in a new place, and live in it for a few months, I wanted to learn more about my own culture through the eyes of someone unfamiliar. To see what the world thinks about our country and our culture has opened my eyes even more to theirs, and to bring back what I can after this semester with an even broader sense of self and community would be the greatest souvenir.