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   Study Abroad   Student Writing Contest   2015 Contest 3rd Place Winner
2015 Student Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Study Abroad in London: Planning and Living An Odyssey

Article and photos by Heather Robinette

Heather in front of Big Ben in London
Heather, during time off from study, in front of Big Ben in London.

“Study abroad isn’t for me.”

Sound familiar? There were countless times in classes, meetings, and just around campus that I would hear other students say that studying abroad isn’t for them. Before going abroad, I usually accepted their views and thought that like most things in life, it isn't for everyone. But after returning from my study abroad experience in London, I would ask students why they held such a point of view. I had discovered during my trip that anyone can study abroad. It is a great opportunity — and the I believe that one of the biggest reasons most students don’t want to study abroad is related more to the degree they must leave their comfort zone. However, I believe that is precisely one of the reasons anyone with the opportunity should consider studying abroad. You challenge yourself in new surroundings and not only learn about another culture, but about yourself.

From Kansas to London — How I Landed Abroad

Between the ages of 12 and 18, I had traveled to many states on my own with various People to People programs, but had never been outside of the United States. During my freshman year at Kansas State University, I knew I wanted to study abroad as a consequence of my previous experiences on the road…not only due to the welcome prospect of travel, but because of the people I had met in programs from all over the world. Once in college, I had the opportunity to speak with others who had studied overseas, and that’s when I knew I had to go abroad myself. I knew it would be a great opportunity to experience a new culture and see the world from a completely different point of view.

There were a couple of aspects I considered when making my decision regarding where to go. Aside from wanting to immerse myself deeply in another culture, my main interests included seeing historical sites and museums due to a love of history. I wanted to be able to see history come alive and have the opportunity to see historical events from a different perspective. Since I hadn’t studied a second language, I started by narrowing down my choices to English-speaking countries. I ultimately selected London, England for three reasons: it’s an English-speaking country, it has a rich history, and I could take a marketing class (my major) that would provide a different take on marketing than in the U.S.

Along with selecting a location, deciding how long to study abroad, and whether to go with a program or pursue direct attendance are other major decisions any student must consider. I ended up going during a summer term to the University of Westminster because it was a shorter time-frame and best fit my particular needs. I went with Academic Programs International (API) as the program provider because they were able to assist me during the entire process and offered onsite support.

The summer term classes at the University of Westminster offered organized weekend activities, and the API program provider offered other activities that took place during the week. The directors of API helped introduce us to London the first couple of days and took us to school for orientation; afterwards, we were free to choose our own activities or experiences. They would meet up with us for program-specific activities and were only a phone call away if we needed anything. While we were free to do whatever we wanted, the program directors provided a safety net if anything were to go wrong. Going with a program provider increased the cost of studying abroad, but I knew I had resources that I could rely upon throughout the entire process. By going during the summer term instead of a semester, I was able to balance out the cost, so everything worked out for me in terms of budget.

Selecting the Right Study Abroad Experience for You — One Size Doesn’t Fit All

  1. Meet with a study abroad advisor (or academic advisor) and learn about the process. Use this opportunity to ask questions about what programs are partnered with the school and how previous students have studied or worked abroad. Note: Start early so you have the largest number of opportunities available from which to choose.
  2. Attend a study abroad fair. Fairs are a great opportunity to speak with representatives and get additional information about programs, locations, etc.
  3. Research schools, programs, locations, classes, and cost. Use the information you’ve gathered and the Internet to research different options. A big factor for many people is the cost, but if you start early and do your research, you can find scholarships and other ways to meet your financial needs. Class credits are another factor, especially as students go further into their college careers, because not as many classes transfer over into credits.
  4. Talk with other students who have studied abroad. One of the best ways to get a better idea about studying abroad is to ask someone who has been abroad previously, because their first-hand experience can help you better understand what it’s like and what to expect.
  5. Make a priority list to help you narrow down your options. As you continue the process, you can start to narrow down your decision by making a list of your priorities, such as language requirements and program length.
  6. Picture yourself studying abroad at each location. When you are down to a few options, try to picture yourself traveling around and experiencing each country. Which one feels right?
  7. Make a decision. Once you’ve made your decision, meet with your study abroad advisor and start the paperwork (application, enrollment, scholarships, etc.).
  8. Continue to research. After your paperwork has been completed, continue to research and prepare until you leave.

Across the Pond — My Time in London

After arriving in London, I quickly learned some of the things I take for granted in everyday life in the U.S. were going to be very different during my time abroad, including something as simple as public restrooms! During our initial walking tour, I was told to never pass up a chance to use a toilet, because you don’t know the next time you’ll see one — and also that public toilets can cost money. After a long bus ride for one of our trips, I got off the bus and went dashing to a nearby toilet — only to find a payment booth standing between the toilet and me. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Public toilet in London
Public toilet in London.

Shopping at home is also different. While living in London, I did my grocery shopping at the nearby Tesco or Sainsbury’s, which offered what seemed a limited selection of food compare to my home in the U.S., though I soon adapted. Luckily, I was able to find many similar foods that I was used to from back home. In the UK, there’s also a shop called Argos. You simply select the items you want from a catalog and then you wait for your order number to be called. It was a different concept, but it provided an invaluable chance to learn how to adapt to new circumstances outside of my comfort zone. Because of all the variations  experienced in daily life, I became more comfortable adapting to the surroundings and was more open to embracing change.

Map of the underground tube in London
Map of the underground tube in London.

During my time abroad, I took two businesses classes. The first class was called "Marketing in Everyday Life." One class event that I found interesting included visiting a museum in London that was completely dedicated to branding, packaging, and advertising. We also had several hands-on assignments that required us to walk around central London and look out for different types of marketing in stores. The second class was called "Business Communications," and the best part of the course was the final project involving a presentation about our favorite part of London. At the beginning of the class, the professor explained to us how her normal classes are structured to give us an idea, but the summer classes at the university are geared only for study abroad students. The university does not offer summer classes, so everyone in my classes was from different parts of the world, which made for an even more diverse study abroad experience.

Deciding on living arrangements was another key aspect about my study abroad experience while in London. Some students chose to live with a host family, while others lived in a flat (similar to a dorm). I chose to live in a university flat in central London. All students were given their own rooms, complete with a desk, bed, and closet. Each floor had a full kitchen and restroom, but there the bath and toilet were in separate rooms — where a bathroom was a room with a bath, and the toilet was a room with a toilet. I shared a flat with a diverse group of people from many countries, and it was an eye-opening experience to share the kitchen because each culture cooked and ate very different foods.

My room in a student housing flat in London
My room in a student housing flat in London.

Some of the highlights during my time abroad included visiting many museums (Museum of London, British Museum, and Churchill War Rooms), churches (Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s), and walking tours (Harry Potter, James Bond, and Jack the Ripper), as well as traveling to places like Bath (Roman Baths), Oxford (Oxford University), and cities in Wales (castles and a coal mine museum). While there is a vast amount of things to see and do in London, but there are even more activities outside the city that are well worth the trip.

I currently write monthly posts in my blog about studying abroad in London, everything from transportation to changing of the guard to museums, and would encourage you to check them out... I provide a great deal of information on a variety of topics. You can also find in the blog posts from the period during which I studied abroad in London.

During my time in London, I tried to assimilate into the culture, but still acted with respect and with the understanding that when I started talking most people knew I was from the United States. I tried to leave a good impression, because Europeans often see Americans as loud and obnoxious. I consciously sought to help change people’s image and act as a brand ambassador for the United States.

One view of London skyline
One view of the London skyline.

Starting a New Chapter — Returning Home

About five months after returning from London, I had the opportunity to travel abroad again. I went on a faculty-led study abroad tour to Argentina and Chile. I am currently pursuing my MBA, and I hope to study abroad as a graduate student. I would strongly recommend studying abroad whenever possible, as each trip is a great opportunity, and provides unique experiences.  

Key selling points for studying abroad include the intercultural skills you develop during time away from familiar surroundings. These skills have been instrumental in my career and are sought out by employers. You start to see the world through different lens, and those skills are what employers are increasingly seeking. Employees with such experience abroad bring a different dynamic and can help a good team become a great team.

As a result of my time abroad, I have gained many valuable skills that have been useful in both my collegiate life and professional careers. I pay more attention to world events, am able to better adapt to new situations, and feel better equipped when I work with international customers and partners. My ventures abroad helped me achieve the goal of having a better understanding of what it means to be a global citizen. After studying abroad, I have become more open-minded and have international experiences that can be beneficial to my future career. In sum, the totality of my experiences while overseas helped form me into who I am today, both personally and professionally.

Staying Connected While Studying Abroad

Prior to studying abroad, I had never left the United States or been outside of Kansas for more than two weeks at a time. Studying abroad was not only a big change for me, but for my family as well. The best way to prepare your family is to make sure you have a realistic communications plan in place prior to leaving.

The first part of the plan should be determining the form of communication upon arrival. Your family will be anxious to hear from you as soon as you land, but let them know that it could be several hours before you are able to get in touch with them.

The first few days can be the toughest, as you figure out communication tools, but in time, you will develop a routine. My mom and I decided to communicate via Skype. Before I left, I made sure my mom was set up on Skype and knew the basics about how to make it work. We decided on a regular time to chat. I did have a cell phone, but it was reserved for emergencies due to the high cost of international calls. But one advantage of cell phones is the ability to send text messages using Wi-Fi at no cost.

I kept a blog to keep everyone updated regarding my day-to-day activities. I also made use of social media while in London, as it was the primary communication method for the group since we did not all have access to cell phones. Trying to establish a balance in terms of time spent communicating before and at the beginning of the experience will help set expectations. Every family is different, but eventually you’ll find what works best for you to stay in contact with your family.

Staying connected abroad

Still Think Studying Abroad Isn't For You?

Studying abroad is a big decision, but I would strongly encourage you to go. From my personal experience, it is the chance of a lifetime and a unique experience you’ll look back upon fondly. Some of my favorite parts of studying abroad were experiencing a foreign culture and learning about local history. However, the one moment that stays with me occurred when I was walking down the street after just a few weeks in London, and someone stopped me to ask for directions. I was able to point them to the correct path, which was a great feeling. At that moment, I no longer felt like a mere visitor, but like a local living in the country who belonged.

For More Information on Study Abroad Program Providers

Academic Programs International (in which I participated)
API is an independent study abroad provider based in the United States. Programs are currently offered in the following locations: Argentina, Bhutan, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Scotland, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. API offers international internships in Argentina, Chile, England, Ireland, and Spain where participants have the opportunity to earn college credit. API arranges housing and educational logistics, as well as excursions for each program. A scholarship of $250–1000 is also provided, the amount being partially based on financial need, and partially based on the student's merits (essays/recommendations).

Other Program Providers

Heather Robinette was born and raised in Great Bend, Kansas, she recently relocated to Las Vegas from Texas with her husband, Chris. She studied marketing at Kansas State University and is working on her MBA through Emporia State University. Heather currently writes monthly London study abroad posts and hopes to travel abroad again soon. More information on her work can be found at HeatherRobinette.com.

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