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Which Way to Go?

American Programs Abroad vs. Direct University Enrollment

Enroll directly at University of Cambridge in England
You can enroll directly at University of Cambridge in England.

When choosing a study abroad program I was faced with the decision, like many other students, of whether to enroll directly in a university or apply to a program designed specifically for Americans. As a student of English literature I narrowed my search to schools in England and chose the American program in Bath called Advanced Studies in England (ASE), rather than direct enrollment at a British university. Looking back, I do not regret my choice, but I do wish I had known a few things about the differences between life at an American program and a regular British university.

My Bath program offered mainly British literature and history classes taught by Oxford tutors accustomed to working with young Americans. My heart almost stopped as I read in the catalog that the program offered a whole course on Thomas Hardy, along with a study trip that would take the class to the settings for his novels and his life. This was just the kind of course of study I was looking for, complete with educational day trips designed to enhance a visitor’s image of the influences on Hardy’s writing. I knew I would not get this kind of hands-on learning approach in a regular British university. Because the courses on my program were designed for Americans, we got a special outsider’s look at England and its literature.

The many study trips and planned excursions for all 50 of the students in the program sounded good from 3,500 miles away, but once I got to England I realized that I didn’t need the staff of ASE to plan my itineraries. Although organized trips are helpful to the first-time traveler, I found that more often than not it took away from my freedom to travel where and how I wished.

My twin sister went on an American internship program in London through Boston Univ. There they had optional trips on weekends to Windsor Castle, Oxford, Canterbury Cathedral, etc. While these planned excursions were easier than traveling on your own and possibly enticed students to see places they would have never gone by themselves, I felt that my sister also missed out on the essence of traveling for the first time—choosing your destinations on your own.

Then there’s the social scene. Friends of mine who enrolled directly in Lancaster University and King's College London got to meet many English students because they lived with them and were in classes with them. On an American program, I found that I had to make much more effort to meet and become friends with the actual British people.

Those students who choose an American program are likely to be more insecure about leaving home than those who enroll at a university. I was one of those who was insecure about leaving home, but once I got to England I wanted to branch out and meet as many people and see as many things in Britain as I could. There was a university nearby that we were encouraged to visit, but the activities offered often conflicted with our study trips or class schedules. I could have easily just hung out with my American friends and never met one British person outside of my professors and the ASE staff.

Near the end of the semester I met an Englishman in our local pub. We instantly hit it off, and soon he became my personal tour guide through England, taking me on road trips to Manchester and Liverpool and to the beautiful beaches of Devon and Cornwall. From him I learned much more about English life and culture than I ever would have on my own or with my American friends. I got to hang out in the local pub with his circle of friends and watch football matches—something I never thought I would enjoy. I got to visit his family and decipher northern English accents. I’ve gone back to Bath several times since my semester abroad to see more of the country and visit my friend.

But many of the people on my program weren’t so lucky. I think it’s a shame to leave a country you’ve lived in for five or six months without any native friends.

My advice to people who choose an American program is to branch out and don’t sell yourself and your ability to travel alone short. While there is a great community feel to an American program—and I admit it was nice to hear those familiar American accents on the first few weeks away—it’s not the best way to become a part of a culture.

You need to be especially outgoing and confident in order to make the experience worthwhile. I suggest trying to get a sense of what you want out of your abroad experience before applying to specific programs. American programs are good at showing you the historical and cultural aspects of a foreign country from a distanced point of view. In a regular university you are expected to pick up on this by yourself. Think about how well you adapt to new situations. If you are not as confident in your ability to make new friends, then enroll in a foreign university and throw yourself into the mix; otherwise, you’ll end up hanging out with your new American buddies and feeling like you’ve never left home.

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