Once I had become acquainted with my new Glasgow surroundings after a week, I traveled to Shap in northern England through my IFSA program to stay with a local family in what was called a homestay. Many of my friends in other countries live permanently with a local family for their semesters abroad and raved about the immersion into local culture that a homestay entails. Regardless, I was uncertain of what the homestay weekend would mean, especially before traveling to Scotland.
I filled out a form designed to match you with a family in the Scotland area based on interests, allergies, and dietary requirements. Based solely on the description, I thought I would be with a family alone for the weekend, and despite some anxieties I looked forward to a weekend interacting with a family and Scottish culture. Upon talking to other students in the program, I was informed that other IFSA students would be joining me for the weekend in the same home. I also learned that I would be staying at a sheep farm; my parents had joked with me about staying on a Scottish farm for the weekend, so I was ecstatic when I was told that a sheep farm was my ultimate destination.
The minute my fellow students and I stepped off the bus in the Shap area, we were warmly greeted by the kind couple who ran the sheep farm where we would spend our weekend. upon arriving at the farm, they prepared a classic British dish, shepherd’s pie, which was the most generous gesture. After dinner, I quickly realized that as guests, we should help in any way possible. Because the couple prepared dinner for us each night, I gained a new sense of responsibility with helping. Volunteering to prepare certain aspects of the meal or at least set the table became second nature and taught me selflessness in a quick amount of time. A notable meal for me and my friends was a special dessert called the “damson berry crumble”, similar to a cobbler but with damson berries, a fruit we have never heard of before. Two of us volunteered to slice and peel the damsons, while others prepared the dough for the crust. Eating the finished product was all the more satisfying knowing we had all pitched in to make such a tasty treat.
The next day, our host kindly treated us to the best hot chocolate in the Shap region at the Chocolate Factory (and, may I add, it was delicious). We had the chance to interact with local residents at the neighboring farmer’s market, learning about their wares and about their lives in the Shap community. This was enlightening because meeting new people and exchanging stories was an essential part of my desired abroad experience. We also got a peek into the north English community, a place so unlike other locations back home in the United States. Later in the day, we explored the magic of the countryside, discovering the crumbling ruins of Penndragon Castle amongst the misty mountains and counting a good number of the two million sheep residing in the Cumbria region of England. A visit to Appleby Castle and the famous cloisters ended somehow in becoming acquainted with the humble Appleby mayor; he gifted us with an informational historical tour of the central Moot Hall dating back to the year 1100. Visiting three castles in the countryside and in towns gave me a distinct view into British culture, which dates so much farther back than the beginnings of the United States. Plus, driving down the stone walls built long ago by hand gave me and the other students time to bond so early in our program, fostering friendships which are still persistent at the end of my time abroad.
Our last day as guests at the Shap sheep farm brought an exciting activity: feeding the famous sheep! After slipping into green wellies provided by our hosts, we were circled by a herd of sheep who ate the food scattered around our feet. While assuming our temporary identity as sheep farmers, the couple informed us of the mission of their sheep farm. As a nature center, the two hosted many different groups of people, from school groups to the retired elderly and handicapped, to immerse themselves in nature as a way of learning and healing. By providing housing facilities and the impressive acreage of the farm, along with activities built into the land, the couple encouraged engaging with the land to people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do so. Notably among the groups hosted on the farm, the physically or mentally handicapped were especially encouraged to spend time in Shap. The farm was equipped with ramps and paths specifically for those confined to wheelchairs or other forms of physical assistance. This impacted me deeply, and it inspired me to consider different groups of people in my daily life that might have dissimilar access to facilities and resources than I do. As I reflected under two different rainbows shining upon the Shap countryside, I understood that nothing should stop people from being able to connect with nature.
Apart from having a peaceful weekend with minimal cell phone usage in the north English countryside, I learned many valuable lessons while a guest at the sheep farm for the weekend. Since other program students stayed with me, I cultivated new friendships and connections with each of the other students; we now all have inside jokes that still come up in conversation from the weekend. All of us developed a bond with the couple, who gave us great advice on travel throughout the United Kingdom and general life tips. Learning about their sheep farm and its mission to help groups of people with disabilities reconnect with nature gave me a new motivation to engage in the community, especially in my time abroad.
I would highly recommend staying with a local family while studying abroad, whether it be for the whole semester or just a weekend. The amount of life lessons I learned and the sights I might not have otherwise experienced were invaluable, and I will remember the experience positively…especially the sheep!
Sophia Moak is a Mechanical Engineering major at Vanderbilt University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to Study program.