I realized the other day that I was wrapping up my semester abroad in England 20 years ago this month. I chose to study in England because I didn’t have proficiency in another language…and I’m convinced that I was destined to start a love affair with England.
I went from studying at a small state college a 30-minute drive from my family to studying at a large research university with tens of thousands of international students thousands of miles from my family. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I’m eternally grateful for it. I studied at the University of Leeds with my two friends, Sam and Ellen, which eased the homesickness.
Many of my experiences were those of a typical college student. I remember that the coursework was tough and I was glad that my grades didn’t factor into my GPA at home. I joined the chorus and sang Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols in the city streets in December. Ellen and I joined a musical theater club and performed in the musical Chess. I subsisted on jacket potatoes with shredded cheese at the refectory (dining hall) and spent hours at a time doing this new thing called emailing in the computer lab. I lived in Clarence Dock, a dorm that was far from campus, so I spent many nights taking the “women’s minibus,” a shuttle that departed from campus and dropped people off at their dorms/apartments.
Not-so typical experiences included weekend trips to Liverpool, where we consumed everything Beatles; Dublin, where we drank Guinness in pubs and saw The Book of Kells at Trinity College; and London, where my wallet was stolen (I don’t remember anything else from that trip).
I consider that I started on the path to adulthood during my semester in England. Even though I had traveled abroad in high school, it was here that I really grasped that there was a whole world outside of the United States. I gained a newfound appreciation for my family and friends. I learned from people of other cultures and they learned from me.
Another opportunity of a lifetime tied to my semester abroad was the three-week trip around Western Europe that I took after the semester ended with Ellen and my friend Daisy. Twenty years ago at this very moment, Ellen and I were sitting in a bohemian bed and breakfast in a frigid Corfu, Greece, watching American movies with Greek subtitles and listening to Radiohead’s The Bends album with a small group of new friends.
We had just come from Rome, where we were blessed by the Pope on Christmas Day. We would be meeting our friend Daisy in Milan next and heading to Venice for New Year’s. And then back to Rome and on to Spain and France. Armed with Eurail passes, a thirst for adventure, and not enough clothing for one of Europe’s coldest winters, we visited countless museums, ate delicious and sometimes strange food, and made friends of fellow travelers along the way. If I could turn back the clock and do it again, I wouldn’t change anything.
As I sit with my Twinings tea and McVittie’s Ginger Nut cookies, I insist that if you are thinking about studying abroad or know someone who is thinking about it, you/he/she/they DO IT. It’s worth every penny of the extra student loans.
England now feels like a second home to me—and my mother! She visited me when I worked in London for six months after graduation (that 20th anniversary is next December). And the rest is history, as they say. We’ve visited England five or six times since and have many wonderful and funny memories. I feel lucky that we fell in love with the same place.