I got off the plane in another country for the first time ever in my life. I was alone. I needed to get through customs, get my luggage for the next seven weeks, and get myself from the Heathrow International Airport to Regent’s University in London. I didn’t have a working phone, and the person I intended to meet in the terminal was nowhere to be found. Awesome. Luckily I had prepared for my classmates and my pre-arranged rendezvous to fail without the ability to communicate upon landing, and had instructions of how to get myself through London and to the university.
I decided the easiest method, with the fewest steps involved, was to take the Underground subway system into London. I was only required to buy one ticket, switch trains once, and walk a few blocks from that Underground stop to the university, where I’d meet my trip advisors and fellow travelers for an orientation. When I tried to pay for my ticket the Londoner in the booth replied with a look of annoyance, “Those are Euros.” I thought to myself, yeah, I am in Europe. He then informed me that they used pounds for currency. I couldn’t believe I was already contributing to the stereotype of “stupid American”, having pre-ordered Euros instead of pounds. Luckily I was able to use my debit card, and with the help of some kind locals, was able to make my way to the college. Without realizing it, I was already practicing what would become my most valuable take-away from my Study Abroad experience; that is, learning how I best learn.
I had no idea when I decided to study abroad that I would be changing the course of my life forever. It is a very different world when you’re in another country, in a culture outside of your own. Surrounding myself with good people in interesting spaces was a key component my London trip advisor, Jeff Grabill, stressed in terms of finding myself in a professional setting ideal for me. Managing work and school in this diverse environment was challenging, but extremely beneficial in being able to learn from those who are different from me, and also recognizing commonalities between us. The currency is different, people speak differently (language and dialogue), dress differently, have different tendencies, and behave in a way that is different from those of my own culture. I made sure I split off from our (American) group as much as I could to really immerse myself in these other cultures. I made several friends throughout the duration of our trip, and was very flattered when natives would complement me by saying things like, “You’ve changed our minds about Americans, guess you’re not all bad.” Again, from being made to feel uncomfortable, making me more alert, I was and able to learn about people and pick up on things from which I could establish with them a connection.
I was made aware of some interesting cultural differences right away in both London and Paris. In Paris the language barrier is an obvious difference that resulted in some serious culture shock, even for me, who’s studied French since the 8th grade. However, when you’re there, in the moment, and that’s all the person you’re trying to communicate with speaks, you freeze up, and forget everything. By the end of the trip, however, I was speaking French more fluently than I have ever previously, and had even more confidence in my newfound ability to do well in strange places. In London everyone asked, “You alright?” They do this as a way of saying, “How are you?” But before I realized this I’d think to myself, I’m fine! Why does everyone keep asking me that?! Do I not look okay?! These differences seem so minor, but when trying to get along in a new setting, these are huge differences, and it’s important you’re aware and alert and are able to pick up on and assimilate yourself into such practices and ways to living.
I found it was really good for me to be out of my element. I now understand the importance of being challenged to facilitate learning. I am so habitual; I realized this when I was in the car for the first time after being back home, and remembered nothing of my drive. I was already running on autopilot; it was so eye opening. I realized how much more aware, alert, and attentive I am when I’m in a new, unfamiliar setting; where I have to pay attention to details and my surroundings to get by. It’s very easy to get lazy and slack off when you’re constantly following a set routine. I now know that it is beneficial for me to move around and mix things up to keep me interested in, and dedicated to, my work. This is valuable realization to come to for someone who will soon be making a career selection.
Another massive influence contributing to my discovery of how I best learn, was through an amazing opportunity to do research abroad for an organization I interned with called The Cube London. For the internship, I was to complete research and writing that was published in the organization’s white paper document and was intended to go out to members of the London community. I learned a great deal about using Theory of Mind, cognitive flexibility, the brain, and its processes from our neuroscientist supervisor at The Cube, Araceli. It was fascinating to learn about the brain and how its functions are carried out. It really improved my critical thinking skills to learn to think like they do, and produce work through understanding and harnessing these processes. I learned many valuable things from my supervisors at The Cube that I will use for the rest of my life, both personally and professionally.The research I did for The Cube was all about the relationship between people and spaces, and the resulting behavior of people in these spaces and places. Again, at this time I had not yet realized I was learning about my own experience, as I was having it. I loved this research, and it was through this process that I was able to pinpoint the type of work I was really interested in doing in my professional career. This internship allowed me to discover that I need to be doing innovative work that serves to better the community.
On this trip I was able to discover some more about how I best learn through museum layout and setup. My two favorite museums in London were the Churchill War Rooms and the Queen Victoria Revealed section of Kensington Palace. You really begin to understand and feel as if you’re getting to know the people you’re studying when you’re able to feel what they felt; this makes them feel more like real people than historical figures who died years before I was born. Through museum tours and the study of participatory memory, I was able to obtain a better understanding of people in a context unlike any I’d been in previously.
I am so grateful I was given such a brilliant opportunity to better myself through an experience like PW14 Study Abroad. I got to go to three different countries; saw countless museums, galleries, and other cool spaces, contributed to an awesome team through my internship at The Cube where I was able to better my critical thinking and problem solving skills; made a ton of friends – both foreign and Spartan, saw Black Sabbath in Hyde Park, ate awesome food, witnessed the most epic firework show I’ve ever seen at the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day, and learned a massive amount about myself and the world.