About My Study Abroad Program
Major/Minor: Quantitative Biology and English
Program: King's College London
Location: London, UK
Term: Fall 2019
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you select your program?
Living in the Silicon Valley for most of my life, I have always enjoyed experiencing new ideas and cultures and was lucky to grow up surrounded by both. Food, foreign languages, and a myriad unfamiliar religions and folklore all sat basically on my doorstep. This exposure fostered in me an endless thirst for adventure, and the little I had seen of the world outside the United States left me with an incurable case of wanderlust. These developments represented the first steps in becoming a global citizen, but I wanted more. I knew I wanted to study abroad in London long before I even knew I wanted to attend UNC. English history and culture have always held a special place in my heart, both from a personal and a familial perspective. Between both sides of my family, our genealogy traces back across all four corners of the UK. As for me, I waited years for my Hogwarts letter and grew up fascinated by Arthurian legend, the events of World War II, and the genius of Sherlock Holmes. So what better place to take my first solo steps into the greater world than in London: the heart of it all? When I fell in love with and chose to attend UNC, the university's partnership with King’s College London made the next step on my journey to the UK that much easier. I ended up choosing my specific program for a few reasons. First, KCL's location in central London accorded me full immersion into all the city had to offer. While I was there, this location meant equal access to museums, festivals, monuments, cathedrals, and food halls, as well as full exposure to the most important sociopolitical goings-on in the UK, (including Brexit). As a biology and English double-major, King's also accorded me the flexibility to take classes in both academic areas. And their swim club provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share the sport I love with people from all over the world. The deciding factor in my decision-making process, though, was a conversation I had with a peer who had completed the KCL study abroad program a semester prior. He described his time at King's as, "the best time of his life." Now, having returned from the UK, I would have to agree. I would love the chance to share my study abroad experiences and inspire others the way he influenced me.
What did you learn about yourself?
As is the case for many study abroad students, last semester represented my first time living in a foreign country, let alone all by myself. I had never used a foreign currency before, had never seen people driving on the left side of the road, never made my own travel arrangements- the list goes on. Prior to mid-September, I had never even done my own cooking, let alone navigated a Tesco Metro. Between my classes and navigating a new country, I have never learned so much in the span of three months, (sorry, UNC professors). But most importantly, living abroad as an independent adult taught me how to thrive outside of my comfort zone. I am type A to a fault and like to know exactly what to expect at all times. Living in London forced me to grow beyond the comfort blanket of spreadsheets and concrete plans and to live in the moment.
What is one of your favorite memories from your program?
I have been a competitive swimmer since age seven, and at this point I probably have more chlorine than blood running through my veins. Watching Michael Phelps at the 2008 Olympics planted the seeds of a lifelong dream in my head; for a long time, I wanted more than anything to represent my country in the sport I love. While reality set in somewhere around 8th grade that I was never going to be fast enough to qualify for the Olympics, made one facet of my dream come true. I was ecstatic to get the chance to compete for KCL's swim and waterpolo society. After all, where else could I meet people from around the world who share my passion for swimming while indulging my curiosity regarding how the sport is similar and how it differs across the Atlantic? From the pool deck crammed with a rainbow of international caps on the first day of team try-outs, to the challenge of learning to circle-swim in reverse, to competitions and Wednesday night pub invites, swimming for King’s proved to be an even better experience than I could have imagined. While I may never win Olympic gold, KCL's swim team got to practice at London's Olympic Park Aquatic Center every Wednesday, and that was close enough for me. (We even got to watch British olympian Tom Daley practice his diving on a few occasions). I also found the universalities and cultural differences between British and American swimmers fascinating. Never before have I heard someone refer to a suit as a "swimming costume," for example. Halfway through the semester, the team traveled to Sheffield to compete at the BUCS Shortcourse Championships, and I have never been to a meet broken into three sessions a day. However, as I learned, differences in jargon and scheduling do nothing to change swimmers' proclivity for carbo-loading and hatred of long-distance freestyle sets. That being said, the most important thing I took away from my experience swimming for King's is the friends I made on the team and the people I met. Now it feels like I have friends all over the world, and I can't wait until a few of my KCL teammates apply to study abroad here at UNC.
What advice do you have for future study abroad students?
To future study abroad students: First of all, get excited about all the places you want to visit, the modules you hope to take, and all the brand new foods and experiences you’ve been dying to try. Planning ahead is part of the fun. Look into societies and sports clubs at your host university that you might be interested in joining for the semester or year. They’re a fantastic way to meet new people who are not necessarily study abroad students. Submit that module request form early. The same goes for applying for housing. Talk to an advisor at UNC about transfer credits before going overseas, and keep that line of communication open. Do your research. Google and travel books quickly became my best friend, and they should also be yours. Talking to friends and classmates who had completed the same study abroad program or even had spent time in London previously was also a great way of preparing. Not only could they recommend museums, restaurants, and activities all over the city, but they also had plenty of advice to offer. A few conversations earned me information about everything from bike lanes, to favorite digestive and tea brands, to choosing an international SIM card, to weather and even what to pack. That being said, I also want to point out the importance of keeping in mind that there is only so much you can do to prepare for your study abroad experience during the pre-arrival phase. This is something I wish that someone would have told me beforehand. Speaking as a person who generated an entire folder’s worth of planning material months before setting foot on English soil, realizing that not everything was going to go according to plan proved to be a critical shift in my mindset. Residences can be overbooked, as my friend’s was. Modules you planned on taking could conflict, or finding cheap bedding in Central London might prove a lot more difficult than you anticipated. And that is absolutely fine. Adaptation, flexibility, and learning to roll with the punches are all part of the study abroad experience. Beyond that, if I could give incoming study abroad students one piece of advice, it would be this: above all else, plan to make mistakes. You’re going to mess up. Royally. Hilariously and irrecoverably. (Forgetting military time when booking flights, anyone? Yep, I did that.) Mistakes are almost a guarantee, so embrace them. I know I learned more than I ever thought I would from mine.
Would you do it again?
Absolutely, in a heartbeat. I can't wait to go back someday.
How were your classes abroad different than if you would have taken them at UNC?
While many aspects of living in London last semester felt familiar, the same cannot be said for the academic environment at King’s versus at UNC. First, King’s places great emphasis on independent learning. Modules there tend to consist of slightly less instructional time than is commonly associated with American college classes. This is not to say that I learned less. Instead, the slightly lighter class schedule granted me the flexibility to learn on my own outside the classroom. As a study abroad student, this flexibility made it much easier to balance academics with my desire to explore London and beyond. Instead of sitting in front of a computer with daily homework assignments, I got to pursue more immersive learning experiences, touring places such as the Cliffs of Dover, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London. Second, enrolling in modules related to both my majors at King’s allowed me to approach familiar subject areas with an entirely different perspective from what I was used to. For example, Literature of Empire module introduced me to an entirely new geography of literature. Mid-semester, we read a novel by French-Algerian writer Albert Camus. During our discussion section, the professor asked how many of us had read Camus previously. Everyone raised their hand, except for me and one other American exchange student. This experience, among others, opened my eyes to how Western-centric the American education system can be. Seminar-style learning at King's exposed me to the viewpoints of students from all over the world. Film, Poetry, and Style, another of my classes, encouraged me to harness my creativity into approaching poetry through the lens of iPhone cinematography. I'm pretty sure the professor who taught the course came up with the technique himself; as a result, I don't think I would have had the opportunity to take a similar class anywhere else. And finally, I was also enrolled in a class called Biomedical diagnostics, where each week featured a different set of speakers who lectured to us about current and emerging diagnostic methods in different disease areas. This represents another class different in both structure and content from what is available here at UNC. I found the module fascinating not only because of its relevance to my future career interests, but also due to the insights it provided into the differences between the British and American healthcare systems.