Ever since I was a child, I’ve been obsessed with the United Kingdom. Growing up hearing stories about Scotland from my parents, I was eager to embrace the culture of royalty, Jane Austen and “The Great British Baking Show.” I drank tea, watched the BBC, listened to radio theater (“Cabin Pressure” is everything) and dreamed of coming back to the place where I was born.
London and Edinburgh were exactly what I imagined when I thought of the big cities you see in movies and on TV. The excitement I felt at our UCEAP orientation in Edinburgh was almost bubbling over as I pictured myself studying in such a historic place. We were told that we might go through culture shock or experience discomfort in the weeks ahead, but really, I almost laughed. How different could it be?
But out of the about 40 UCEAP Scottish university students in Edinburgh that weekend, there were seven of us who weren’t staying to go to the University of Edinburgh. We were going to St Andrews, across Midlothian, over the Firth of Forth and into Fife. (Say that six times fast).
The nearly two-hour train ride was beautiful, but as we left the city behind us, it became more and more clear that we were going to be lost somewhere in the midst of the Scottish countryside. When we arrived at the train station in Leuchars, my heart sank.
There was nothing there but fields. Instead of the rolling hills, everything was flat as far as the eye could see. “I’m so glad I chose to come here instead of Edinburgh,” a UC Davis student gushed next to me. I could only nod.
With all of the preliminary research I did on the university, I can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into, but as I was assisted by a porter who carried my broken suitcase up to the third story of our elevator-less apartment building, I did have to wonder if I had made the right choice.
My brother and I met up after we’d dropped off our things to eat the complimentary hamburgers made in front of my residence hall. They tasted different, but we were tired and grateful. We started down one road to go into town, and we were soon joined by two other members of the “St Andrews Seven” (or what I named our UCEAP group chat).
To my relief, the stark landscape that I had begun to imagine with maybe two or so market stalls, a pub and some sheep didn’t seem to be true at all: There wasn’t a single sheep to be found, as my UC Davis friend sadly noted.
There were (and are), however, plenty of cafes and boutiques, including a Starbucks, a Subway and even an H&M. There is one movie theater. It plays about three films a day, once a day. You would think this would mean the cinema would be packed when a new film finally hits it. It isn’t.
The university system does work differently than our own. As an upperclassman, I am considered to be in the “honors” studies, so I’m only taking two classes this semester: a seminar on Jane Austen and a creative writing class. Each meets only once a week. It feels very strange, almost like cheating, but as they’ve told me, St Andrews greatly values independent study.
And yes, there may be a long, long walk across flat, fielded land in order to get to class, but there’s cobblestone and history in it, too. Walking across the long pathway from my dorm to my brother’s, or toward town, I can’t help but feel a bit like Elizabeth Bennet on her way to Netherfield Park. Well, me and everyone else.
There are many international students here, for study abroad or for other reasons, and it’s kind of funny to know you’re almost equally as likely to speak to a Scottish person as someone from America or somewhere else.
During St Andrews’ own welcome session for study abroad students, the school planned a Ceilidh — a Scottish sort of partner dance, maybe a little more refined than the American hoedown and not something you’d fail to see in a lot of Regency-period films.
Just before we learned to dance that day, the hosts of the program spoke, and their words stayed with me. “It’s more important than ever to study abroad right now,” they said.
We may be here for a fun learning experience, but we are also ambassadors for our schools, our state and our country. So maybe I don’t romanticize the United Kingdom anymore, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.