1 in 10 American students study abroad while pursuing their undergraduate degrees. Of these students, 3% study for what is considered to be “long term” (an academic year or longer).
Thoughts from the three percent.
If you’re reading for the first time, welcome to the waffling zone.
People call me Shelbs. I’m tall and I’m talkative. I drink too much coffee. I’m from Saint Louis, but occasionally let “y’all” slip into my vocabulary.
I am a member of the three percent.
I’ve lived, worked, and studied in the UK for exactly 305 days; close to a year. A few days ago, I boarded a plane to return to the United States, where I’ll complete my final semester as an undergraduate student at the University of Arkansas. While I will continue to update this blog domain, this is the last post I’ll pen in relation to living in England…for a while, at least.
If we move too fast, we’ll break things. If we move too slow, we’ll miss things. And if we don’t move at all…we won’t see things for how beautiful they truly are.
On the daunting, but desirable.
It was a rare sunny afternoon in England as I sat in a car, in transit on the opposite side of the road, staring at the pavement ahead from a position I’d previously known to be the driver’s seat.
“It seemed like you adjusted pretty easily to English culture.”
My stomach dropped at the phrase; a casual, off-the-cuff statement that meant very little to this person, but a great deal to me….much more than they probably realized.
Starting over can be daunting.
….even when it appears otherwise.
This is not to discount or disregard the privilege that is new opportunity. But, it’s worth noting that confidence and self-assurance do not merit simplicity in life experience. This person didn’t know how tricky the initial process had been for me. In fact, no one in England really did. Everyday routine and activity had suddenly become foreign to me; little tasks I previously conducted out of habit a learning experience. At one point, I recall staring at a washing machine for nearly 15 minutes attempting to figure out the controls. I refused to ask for help from the reception desk around the corner. (Maybe because I’m stubborn…maybe because I’m stupid….maybe a little bit of both.) Without a doubt, there were moments of unexplained confusion as I eased into a new lifestyle.
I’m cannot put my finger on the exact point I made the transition from an “international student” to a “student who is also international.”
But, there came a moment of comfortability where I no longer felt as though I was staying in the UK, and came to the beautiful realization I was actually living here. Temporarily, of course, and hardly in a manner comparable to British natives. But, with a new sense of comfort, nonetheless.
As we speak, I am a member of the three percent.
…..Three is a pretty small number.
My hope that this statistic will not remain static.
Most European countries, including England, strongly encourage those who pursue educational programs abroad to commit to a full year. They call it a “placement year.”
Everyone should experience the world, in any way they can, regardless of time frame or context. However, my hope is that, as a nation, our numbers associated with “long term” programs will rise over time. The optimism inside of me begs that, together, we’ll continue to embrace the possibility that lies in promoting and encouraging involvement in “long term” programs abroad.
A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to it’s old dimensions.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes
On lessons: the helpful and the humorous
I try to practice what I preach; more often than not, I fall short. Nonetheless, a few takeaways from the year…..
1. Learning to say nO is important, but Learning to say yes is crucial.
Prior to moving to the UK, I received a recruitment message from a local PR and promotions company. I knew nothing of the country or the culture, and this uncertainty loomed in the back of my mind. Originally, I didn’t follow through on the opportunity.
For fear of the unknown, I said “no.”
If I hadn’t backtracked on these plans once I arrived, and turned my initial “no” into a “yes,” my time in England would have been very, very different. It was a little decision that made a lot of difference.
Fast forward to a year later- I met some incredible people, including some of my close girlfriends, through the outlet. I gained cross-cultural sales and marketing experience, to which I largely credit new professional opportunities in major markets like NYC and Los Angeles. I said “yes,” and in turn, unexpected opportunity unveiled itself.
Say “yes,” even when you may feel unsure. Personally, professionally, and everywhere in between. The worst that can happen is you change your mind- in which case you pick up, walk away, and say “yes” to something new.
2. You can teach an old dog new tricks.
So you’re a 5’11 singer + pianist, who’s had dance training while working as an entertainer, but has no cheerleading/ tumbling experience?
Try out for the British cheer team, anyways.
Watch, learn, and take in what those who are experienced have to say. It’s humbling, and it’s helpful.
3. One Month doesn’t make you “like the locals.” Six months Doesn’t make you “like the locals.” One Year doesn’t Make you “Like the Locals.” It will take all of that time, if not more, to even determine what it means to be local.
In a year, I took in much of what it meant to be British, courtesy of personal relationships; slang, customs, and random quirks. For this, I am thankful. I hold a greater understanding of the authentic substance of this cultural, in ways I do not think I could have achieved in a different context.
That being said, I could spend the rest of my life in England and STILL learn something new, everyday.
A year in, I still occasionally made the mistake of assuming the driver’s side was instead, shotgun. “Wrong side, Shelbs.” was said more often than I would like to admit. I tried desperately to refer to braids and bandaids by their English reference (“plaits” and “plasters,”) simply for the sake of communicative clarity (if you ask the front desk at the gym for a bandaid, they’ll look at you like you’re missing a limb) but simply couldn’t kick the habit.
Point being: your cultural roots are innately, and significantly, a part of your identity. Practice adaptability and flexibility with an open mind and an open heart, while still recognizing that no amount of time, relationship, experience, or setting can alter your roots.
And to those who have inquired as to whether I struggled to get back behind the wheel and on the right side of road when I returned to the States….
…..I was a bad driver longggg before I moved to England….
There was really nowhere to go but up in that department.
4. Work Hard, Play HArd is Totally a thing. it can absolutely be done.
Embrace leisure (in whatever format you fancy) when you can and if you can, especially if you’re a workaholic like myself….you’ll go insane otherwise. Give yourself a break here and there- it’ll pay off in the long run.
So, you care about someone…something….anything, in any context.
Take a step back. Remove yourself from any personal opinion, need, and want. Replace any selfish personal desire with selflessness (to the best of your ability, anyway…we’re only human) and ask yourself: what is the best thing I can do for this person I care for?
Then, go out and do it.
Step in with commitment if the timing is right, and step aside gracefully if it is not.
You could argue that if you forget about your own needs and your own wants….you’ll get walked all over. You could argue that you must care for yourself before you care for others. You could argue that if you only focus on what other people need….you’ll never get what you need.
I suppose, in some ways, this is true.
So, do some things for yourself.
But first, do things for other people.
5. Your true friends are your true friends- point blank.
Distance cannot not change that. In fact, some of them may even come to you from afar.
True friends will show up for you; if not in person, then by any means available.
1. Halloween can hold a very different meaning for different people.
Dressed to the nines as a Greek Goddess in a white dress, heels, and headband, I arrived on Halloween in true American fashion…..in a cutsey, dressy costume.
….I didn’t get the memo about the blood…..or the gore…..or the black….
Fortunately, a friendly face carried some fake blood and I made a quick recovery.
It’s fun, games, and fear for these guys. Nearly everyone dresses to scare.
2. Bikes are, more often than not, a bad idea.
No seriously, those things are only good for an Instagram post.
I have the scars on my knees to prove it.
3. When the Brits say “You alright?” They’re not expressing legitimate concern.
“yeah, of course I am….why, do I look upset?” isn’t an ideal response.
It’s just a standard greeting.
4. ….and tea and biscuits? One of few stereotypes That hold true.
The scene is a cross cultural one… a messy bachelor pad.
There’s trash on the floor. Cups, dishes, and other unidentifiable objects consume the coffee table. The residue coating the glass could be tobacco, but it could also be dirt. More than likely, it’s a mixture of both.
Naturally, like all clever 20-something men, these guys have an adorable, tiny pet running around the place as bait (admittedly, the sole reason you’ve disregarded your common sense, and returned to a space you already knew resembled a life-size trash bag.) As the small animal plays inside of a used plastic bag, you’re genuinely concerned for it’s welfare. You bite your tongue, and coax the animal to safety (i.e. a Snapchat selfie. Or ten. )
FIFA plays in the background. Many- and by that I mean….every– man in the room is fixated on the game. Banter, coupled with the sound of buttons clicking on Xbox controllers, is the soundscape that fills the space.
“Does anyone want a cup of tea?” one of the guys asks nonchalantly, as he ads some custard creme biscuits to the coffee table clutter. His eyes do not waver from the television.
Don’t ask questions.
Just tell him how many sugars you take.
5. Student Government calls for more comittment, but less campaign material.
While American student government candidates launch borderline pre-professional campaigns for office positions, photoshoots and all…..the English aren’t about that kind of unnecessary stress. It’s about the substance, not the sparkle.
Their elected candidates have more say on campus than here in the States.
6. Brighton: A Big City with a Small Town social scene….amiright?
They say the first few faces you come across when you arrive, in a sea of people, you’ll likely never encounter again.
Assume that everybody knows everybody.
7. Men’s Skinny jeans are the way of the future.
So, maybe I’ve beat this joke into the ground.
But, Europeans are historically 3-5 years ahead in relation to global fashion trends.
“She was a little all over the place, that was for sure. But the good news is when she loved, she loved big. And if she loved you, you knew she loved you. you never had to wonder. “
Complacency makes for a weak cocktail.
I much prefer life in strong doses.
England wasn’t the first occasion in my life that I picked up, packed up, and moved somewhere new in pursuit of new experience and growth. It probably won’t be the last.
That being said, the goodbyes don’t get easier with time.
If anything, with each change of setting, they get harder; in all the best ways.
Leaving my friends and family in in America was surely difficult, but there was a kind of unexplained solace in knowing exactly when I’d return. I left knowing, with clarity, I’d see them again in July.
As I leave England, this “goodbye” is unlike anything I’ve previously experienced.
It’s difficult to put into words the way it felt walking away from those I’ve come to hold dear to me this year with confidence that I’ll see them again in time, but uncertainty as to when. While I know I will be back, I do not know when. It could be this year for a visit; next Fall for a Master’s Program at Sussex; in a few years, to build a career. In the midst of a number of opportunities and possibilities, my return date is unknown.
In fact, I made a concious effort to avoid using the word “goodbye” in it’s entirety.
There was a shift in behavior and dialogue as my departure date loomed, of course . I hugged everyone a little bit tighter than usual. I put together small going-away sentiments, signing them with extra “xoxo’s” and overusing the words “love” and “always.” But, I refused to use the word goodbye.
Because while I may leave, rarely do I leave behind.
I have roots in a number of places, and can say with transparency that I carry the people I’ve met and who matter to me on my shoulders and in my heart with each and every step. While a bit cheesy to the eye, these words are not embellished.
Until next time, England. ❤