I deliberately chose the University of St. Andrews as my study abroad destination because, coming from Bowdoin College, with just over 1800 students, St. Andrews would not seem overwhelmingly large. Furthermore, the fact that Scotland is English speaking and not wildly different from the United States, in my mind, was a huge plus. And after orientation with IFSA-Butler in Edinburgh, I felt at ease with any cultural immersion and confident with my decision. During orientation, we received reference guides for any questions we may have, or in case we we encountered any culture shock or homesickness. I thought to myself, “Culture shock? In Scotland? It’s hardly different from the U.S.”
Out of My Comfort Zone
As I was running through the streets of St. Andrews, I was slowly shocked by how unfriendly people seemed.
I arrived at my hall and unpacked my belongings. Unfortunately, I was the only IFSA-Butler student in my hall and was assigned to a single which felt extremely isolating. Thus, I decided to go for a run to get outside and see the town. As a cross country runner since the age of 15, running is a relaxing and sobering pastime for me. At home in the U.S., I live in a small town that is just one-square-mile. Growing up, I often went on runs with my dad who is extremely friendly and insists that I say hello to every person I pass. As a result, whenever I run, I at least wave or smile at strangers. It feels rude otherwise.
Yet, as I was running through the streets of St. Andrews, I was slowly shocked by how unfriendly people seemed. I passed nearly ten people on a trail in the woods, and they averted their eyes or responded quietly and seemingly confused when I said hello. “Where am I?” I thought.
After returning to my hall for dinner, I was faced with another challenge: walking into a dining hall where I knew absolutely no one, and choosing a table of strangers to eat with. In addition, most students in my hall were first-years. If anything, this is what brought me out of my comfort zone. My first experience eating in my hall was extremely uncomfortable and the students at my table hardly spoke at all.
I slowly modified my initial impression from “unfriendly” to “reserved.”
Within the first week, I met other study abroad students in my hall and began to feel more comfortable. Over time, we formed a group who would eat most meals together in the hall, including full-time students at St. Andrews who represented a variety of nations. Some were American, English, Scottish, Australian, Norwegian, and so on.
Eventually, I revealed my first impressions and we candidly discussed cultural differences which sparked interesting conversations. I slowly modified my initial impression from “unfriendly” to “reserved.” The fact that many St. Andrews residents are less likely to greet a stranger does not mean that they are unkind, in any regard. In addition, my experience was only a small sample size of the Scottish culture as a whole. A very telling example of this is my homestay experience.
I learned that my initial impressions of Scots were quite wrong. This family was overtly kind and generous.
Less than a month into my time in Scotland, I went on a weekend homestay with a family who owned a farm between Stirling and Glasgow. The family consisted of two parents and adorable, twin nine-year-old boys. I was constantly made to feel at home and the family could not have been more hospitable.
I ate homemade haggis and black pudding, and was taken to historic sites, including the grounds where Mary Queen of Scots played as child. From this experience, I learned that my initial impressions of Scots were quite wrong. This family was overtly kind and generous.
Finally, at Thanksgiving, in addition to my Thanksgiving meal with IFSA-Butler, the Americans in my hall cooked a true Thanksgiving and invited our non-American friends. I knew that I finally felt at home when I didn’t feel homesick or nostalgic while FaceTiming my family on Thanksgiving.
This experience goes to show that first impressions are not always as telling as we think. Two important takeaways from my study abroad experience are:
- to not make hasty judgments, and
- to not underestimate cultural differences.
Although I appreciate my friendly hometown and college, I would not trade my study abroad experience for anything. I gained new perspective and grew a lot as a individual. I now appreciate my home more than I ever have, and Scotland still holds a special place in my heart.
Julie Randolph is a Psychology student at Bowdoin College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in 2015.