Embracing England Through Study Abroad

Caitlyn Schwimmer knew if she was going to study abroad, she was going to England. She shares what it was like studying in a new country, from the classes, to the food, and more!

Caitlyn Schwimmer is from Wilmette, Illinois. She is a senior majoring in psychology and minoring in small business management and entrepreneurship at Indiana University. Cailtyn shares her study abroad experience in England in 2011, from the food, architecture, cultural customs, and more!

I had my sights set on England from the moment I decided that I was going to study abroad. I knew I wanted to be in Europe, I don’t speak any other languages, and as a Psychology major I needed a program that would teach similar theories and methods. The University of Kent in Canterbury (UKC) pretty much fell into my lap—it’s the English sister school to Indiana University which meant I was guaranteed to receive credit for all of my courses, and it was a year-long program. It was perfect.

Two of my best friends, Steph and Oli, joke that I was destined for Kent—I met them not long after I’d begun seriously investigating the program, and as UKC students on their year abroad at IU, they were able to tell me all about it. We quickly became inseparable, and their presence only intensified my enthusiasm. It was Steph and Oli that fed my daydreams of Canterbury’s quaint city center, of its magnificent Cathedral, of pubs and fish’n chips and TopShop. It was Steph and Oli who, when I had some second thoughts, convinced me that a semester would not do, that it had to be a year. And it was Steph and Oli that were waiting for me at the gate of Heathrow Terminal 1, holding sparkly “Caitlyn Schwimmer” signs and throwing English decorum to the wind by shouting to me from across the crowd.

Cailtyn and her friend Oli in Cambridge

Leaving was hard. But arriving, actually stepping off the plane and out of my comfort zone and into a new level of independence and maturity and all the corny stuff people talk about (all of which is totally true) was euphorically unnerving. Steph and Oli took me for a traditional pub lunch immediately, where we celebrated my legality by ordering a pitcher of Pimm’s while munching on our chips and meat pies. I spent my first 3 weeks in England traveling around with and between the two of them—highlights include Cadbury World, the Chapel Hill Beer Festival, Bath, Cambridge, and my first visit to London. When we weren’t off exploring we were at home drinking tea, or at a pub drinking cider.

It wasn’t until I actually arrived at Kent that I started to feel like I wasn’t just in England on vacation, probably because I was able to unpack my suitcases, and because I was in possession of a key. Starting at UKC was similar to being a freshman back home because it was all new territory; only this time there was the added bonus of charming accents. Uni culture in England is fairly similar to the U.S.—students are just as social and outgoing, and everyone still likes a drink. Drinking was actually one of the more major differences. It isn’t a big deal in England; where you would normally invite someone out for coffee in the states, in Britain you invite someone out for a pint. The university had a bar or pub in every dorm, and there was a liquor store as well as a union-sponsored nightclub on campus. Needless to say, for all the orientation that’s meant to take place during Fresher’s week, it was just as disorienting at times.

The curriculum took some getting used to. Each of my classes only met once a week, and each only had one assignment per semester—either a 2,000 word paper or a presentation. A couple of my classes had an optional term paper (4-6,000 words), but most of them had final exams that were to be taken in the summer term. My friends had warned me that at Kent you only take away as much as you’re willing to put in—as a result, the curriculum boosted my self-motivation, independence, and writing skills.

The Canterbury Cathedral—view from a campus bus stop

The other, smaller nuances are so vast that it’s hard to think of everything. There were obvious things, like all of the architecture (bridges older than my country), and the double-decker buses, and the cars driving on the wrong side of the road. People talk more quietly—I didn’t realize that I’d adopted the volume until my older brother came to visit and I felt like he was shouting at me every time he spoke. Greetings can be tricky (handshake, hug, or kiss? Or a hug and a kiss? A kiss on both cheeks, or just the one?), as well as sign offs to texts—everyone leaves an “x” (kiss), and if you don’t some people might even assume you’re mad at them. Chivalry still exists in England, as does a higher standard of fashion.

I spent the whole of my first semester as a sponge, soaking up the town and the campus and the accents and the slang and the people and the clothes and the food and the alcohol and the weather—actually the weather soaked me. I made friends with people from all over the world: England, Spain, Italy, France, Holland, Japan, America. Every time I thought I’d grown used to it all, something new would come along, like the British pronunciation of “oregano”—ore-GAH-no—and every time I thought I had a handle on the cars, I’d look the wrong way before crossing the street, or I’d go for the driver’s side of Steph’s car. In the midst of all this immersion, I was able to take a mini-holiday to Paris and host my mom for a week. I also had a role in a student play, which kept me busy during periods of already minimal coursework.

Cailtyn's last night in England at Oxo Tower with friends, Oli and Steph

I spent my break traveling elsewhere in Europe (Germany, Christmas at Steph’s, then Ireland and Italy), and when I got back to Kent, I realized I was finally settled. So settled, in fact, that I had my first bout of homesickness. It didn’t last long, but it was the catalyst for a very defined shift. Prior to it, I rarely thought of America—I was too busy discovering England. But afterwards I found that home was at the back of my mind far more frequently. It made me a little sad, feeling like the novelty was gone, but it was also a good thing—it helped me realize that as difficult as it would be to leave, I would be glad to be back. Regardless, I had every intention of delaying my return for as long as possible. The semester flew, as did Easter holiday (which included a trip to Amsterdam) and exams. Before I knew it I was packing up my room, and 3 suitcases, 2 pints, and a 3-hour car ride later we were back at Steph’s. We spent a week at Glastonbury music festival (mind blowing), and then pretty much relaxed for another month before it was time to say cheerio.

Leaving was hard. Arriving was emotional. I let a few tears escape at takeoff and landing (pretty sure the guy next to me thought I was scared of flying), and again when, not to be outdone by a couple of Brits, my mother, brother, and two of my best friends were waiting at the gate of O’Hare Terminal 5 with sparkly signs, cheering my entry. It was strange to be there with them in person after having an ocean and a computer screen separate us for 11 months, and it was a little nauseating to drive on the right. But the weirdest part was that I didn’t feel like I was back. I felt like I was just visiting. This lasted for about 3 weeks, during an awkward sort of limbo between being at home and moving back to school, but the excitement of reuniting with all of my friends made up for my yearning to be back in the UK.

Cailtyn's welcome home party!

I think that pretty much everyone who goes abroad comes back more grown up, independent, confident, and capable. It’s just inevitable. What I hope most people come back with, though, is a better ability and desire to seize opportunity—Steph and I call this being a “yes person.” My year taught me that so frequently we stand in our own way with assumptions that lead us to saying no, and we miss out. When I was in England, I learned to say yes. Yes to midnight kidnappings for spur-of the moment picnics, yes to impromptu ventures to London, yes to getting lost, finding our way, discovering the best sushi place, taking a mini holiday, or even just going to the pub for a pint when I was going to spend the night in. I said yes to study abroad, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Can’t get enough of Caitlyn’s story? Read her blog!

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