The World is Your Oyster
When my mom came to visit me while I was abroad during the fall in England, we started to watch the movie Bridget Jones’ Baby. It took us over two and a half hours to finish watching the 120-minute movie because I wanted to stop it every time I saw a place that I had been in London to tell her everything I knew about it. Needless to say, she was a little annoyed by the end of the movie. And while spending time in London enabled me to recognize the settings in the movie, I am still very glad that I picked an IFSA program located outside of England’s capital city.
When the whole world can literally be your oyster, deciding where to study abroad can be a daunting decision. IFSA’s tremendous variety of programs stumped me when my on-campus study abroad office handed me a packet full of options.
As an English major, I knew that I wanted to go to England and have an experience similar to that of actual English university students, who only study a single subject in college. It was clear that a university there would offer the best classes in my major and I hoped that going to an English-speaking country would relieve some of the stress of the experience. I was also looking for a smaller university because my home college has under a thousand undergraduates and the individual attention that the size allows had been key to my success so far. My last requirement for a program was that I wanted to separate myself from other students from my home college to force my introverted self to make new friends, not just stick to people I already knew.
These goals for my experience ultimately led me to select the IFSA program at the University of York: outside the cosmopolitan hub of London, with an English department ranked 7th in the UK and 27th in the world, 12,840 undergraduates (which seems large, but is actually one of the smaller programs), and I would be the only the second student from my college to go there in the past 10 years.
Get Me Out of London
Prior to my arrival in England, I learned that I had succeeded a little too well in my goal to separate myself from people I knew and would be the only IFSA student on the York program. Even though this concerned me, I knew from the moment I got to London that I would be incredibly overwhelmed if I had to stay there for an entire semester. The pace of life and constant commotion of London was immediately too much for someone who had never lived in a big city.
This is not to say that London’s constant vivacity cannot be a huge advantage for a study abroad experience. My best friend, a native New Yorker, spent a semester on the IFSA program at Queen Mary and absolutely loved the constant variety of events and experiences available in the capital city. For me, the selection of a more rural program came down to knowing myself. I already that knew that in a bigger and busier city, I would struggle more with my anxiety and have a harder time establishing a routine, which is why I personally needed a quieter city.
The only part of orientation that made me question my decision was that by going to a university an hour and a half away by train, I would be far from the IFSA Office that was my only support system in the country. Once I articulated this concern to the staff, they were very reassuring and I left London with their promises to come visit me and information about the office’s programs, which IFSA would pay for me to take the train down for.
The Right Place for Me
From the moment that I arrived in York, I knew that I had made the right decision. From the train station, I could see the medieval walls surrounding the city, which had a much calmer and friendlier vibe than London. Richard Hull, one of the IFSA London Program Advisors, traveled with me to York to help me move in.
Richard, who himself attended university in a small town in Yorkshire, did a great job of suggesting activities that I could do in the city and university. Based on the recommendations that he and the cab driver who took us to campus made, I constructed a “bucket list” of things to do in York; this encouraged me to have an adventure every week, which was an essential tool for me as an introvert. Items on my bucket list included visiting the famous York Minster cathedral, eating a pork pie from a local delicatessen, and shopping in the Shambles, the medieval street in York that inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley.
This is not to say that just because I picked the right program, that I was not ever homesick or culture shocked. The first week was difficult, especially since classes had not yet started and I was unable to construct a routine. I had to convince myself to leave campus and explore, which is where my bucket list and my need for groceries were helpful. I did find that things, like the grocery store, were further away from campus in York than they were for my friends in London, especially since I was committed to walking and not spending money on the bus.
Once classes started, I had the opportunity to meet and make friends with English students. Most of my classes were with first-year students, who were in many ways just as lost as I was. Another advantage of the University of York was that it is a residential university where all first-years live on campus. This enabled me to see people in my classes at the on-campus restaurants or at dorm events. These continued interactions helped me build some solid friend ships and I was able to take my friends along on several of my bucket list adventures. Most memorably, two of my English first-year friends and I went to tea and then got free admission in the York Minster; one of them was a history major and I learned so much more about the history of the cathedral from her than I would have otherwise.
Location, Location, Location
One of the most valuable lessons that study abroad teaches you is how to make decisions; now reflecting on my experience, I know that choosing York over a program in London was the best choice that I could have made to fulfill my goals for study abroad. I found that with no friends or IFSA employees nearby, I learned more about myself, English universities, and my host country, enabling me to return to the United States with a new-found confidence in my abilities to succeed academically and live in different environments.
Indeed, shortly after I left, York was also named “the best place to live in the UK”, an assessment that I am in complete agreement with. Though the article cites fast wi-fi speeds as a major contributor to this ranking, I would emphasize the friendliness of the people, who always humored the questions of the American, and the unique residential experience of the university’s incredibly scenic campus.
The best advice that I can offer other students is to set concrete goals for their time abroad and then take time to seriously consider what program would help them achieve those goals. Some students’ objectives will probably align better with opportunities in London or other big cities, but do not be easily seduced by the bright lights and take the time to think clearly about where you can be the most successful personally.