My British invasion August 28 2003

Preaching the benefits of studying abroad

When I was applying to graduate schools, I was a bit shocked by the advice of admissions officers.

"Don't write cliched personal essays on how studying abroad changed your life," they said, "because everyone who has studied abroad says that."

I wasn't only shocked, I was miffed. These people just stomped my idea for an essay. But if it's cliche to preach the benefits of studying abroad, then I can think of worse. Like the typical response I hear when I mention my study abroad experience: "I always meant to study abroad while I was in college."

I'd always meant to study abroad as well. I never had the chance to travel until my junior year at the University of Georgia, when I happened upon a flier advertising a student exchange program with the prim-sounding Leicester University (pronounced "Lester") in Leicester, England. I applied and was accepted into the program. The deal grew even sweeter when I learned the program cost about the same as UGA, living expenses included; even the HOPE scholarship would cover my tuition abroad.

When I arrived in England, I met hundreds of students from all over the world in my position — young and ready to explore. Leicester was an hour-and-a-half by train from London, an overnight bus and ferry from Amsterdam, and a million miles from mom and dad. Back home, five English students moved to Athens and lived an hour-and-a-half from Atlanta. Guess who got the better bargain.

While England is hardly exotic and Leicester is just another small, post-industrial city in the British midlands, I found much to appreciate. In towns like Oxford, York and Glasgow, I felt a sense of history that put to shame the Cyclorama in Atlanta. London became a weekend paradise, with its countless museums, theaters and markets and its booming nightlife. Even the things I found initially odd or annoying, from the schizophrenic weather patterns to the deep-fried Snickers candy bars, grew on me. When I began to comprehend the most garbled of working-class accents, I knew I had made the country my home.

Culture shock came in many forms, especially academics. Leicester University expected its students to work more independently than anything I'd previously experienced. Instead of taking tests and doing homework, we prepared term papers that were enormous by UGA's standards. When I wasn't in lecture, I often burrowed myself in the library. Those who didn't develop this discipline early on found themselves scrambling at the semester's end.

But I didn't leave the States simply to study. During my nine months overseas, I traveled for more than two months and visited nine countries. The lifestyle was addictive: Once I slung my backpack across my shoulders and began walking, I never wanted to stop. During the university's five-week spring break, I slugged through Europe like a sightseeing hobo. Being a student brought added benefits like discounted rail passes and museum admissions and instant friends with a myriad of other college kids drifting from hostel to hostel.

But personal change arrived in ways I couldn't predict. For years, I was a strict vegan and a fervent animal rights activist. Although I survived on my stringent diet in Europe, ambivalence soon gnawed at my heart. Away from the people who thought the same as me, I met good, ordinary folk who stewed ducks, made lamb curry and ate fish and chips. Against my efforts, hardened ideals eventually melted, not unlike the grilled cheese sandwich I made for myself three months after I landed in England.

Most changes were more subtle. When I returned home, my friends said I seemed happier, more self-confident and more open. I couldn't explain why until I realized my experiences abroad forced me to reassess much of what I knew about the world and myself. Being exposed to so much that was new, from my Chinese roommates to negotiating through foreign lands, made my year more personal and unique than any before.

No way that could be cliche.

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