Jessica Carlson - 2014 Program Participant

Why did you decide to apply for an international program?

When I was applying for college, I entertained the idea of going to university in the United Kingdom. I had chosen to attend the same small school in New York City for thirteen years, kindergarten to twelfth grade, because I felt connected to its values and traditions. Its familiarity every year was comfortable for me. College was my first step away from that, and UK universities seemed like the farthest step I could take. Although I did apply, I decided I was not ready for such a big change. I pocketed the idea of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to live and study until my junior year at Wesleyan.

Ceramic poppies surround the Tower of London in remembrance of Britains involvement in World War I

Ceramic poppies surround the Tower of London in remembrance of Britain's involvement in World War I.

I chose to apply for an international program for the same reasons I wanted to attend university abroad; I wanted to challenge myself and experience greater independence. Before going abroad, I had never traveled or attended an institution by myself. I had always traveled with family, school, or friends. My freshman year of college, I lived with a roommate I already knew. Before going abroad, I always had solid academic and personal support systems. I had advisors to look out for me, to guide me through course selection, and alleviate anxiety about exams. I had close friends to get meals with and to sit next to in my classes.

My junior year, despite extreme nerves and uncertainty, I felt ready to step away from familiarity and comfort. I wanted to feel content being alone, but also confident approaching and conversing with new peers. I wanted to travel and navigate new cities by myself. I wanted to be guided on my own intuition and learn to alleviate my own worries. I decided to attend an international program to gain greater confidence in my ability to be independent.

Why did you choose to attend University College London (UCL) through IFSA-Butler?

I chose to apply to University College London because of its location and affiliate psychology program. Students enrolling in British universities select their degree program when they apply, so their major is determined before they even begin classes. They are often permitted to explore different subjects, but only for their first year. The rest of their time at university is focused on their chosen major. I assumed that attending a British university would mean the same for me.

I wanted to study psychology; it was my major and the courses offered at UCL were vast and taught by experts in almost every field of psychology. Coming from a liberal arts school, though, I wanted to explore other subjects, ones not offered at my home university that I would never have an opportunity to take otherwise. I chose my program because it allowed me to do so.

I chose to apply to this program using IFSA Butler because of the unlimited support and assistance they provide. IFSA Butler staff was available by phone or email throughout my experience, through my application, departure, arrival and return. Whenever I called the IFSA England program representatives or emailed them with my questions and concerns, they were quick to answer me with patience and compassion. I appreciated that there was always a real person on the other end to speak to.

What were your courses at UCL like?

The UCL affiliate psychology program required students to enroll in a total of four credits with a maximum of two psychology courses. I took two courses that fulfilled my major, giving me credits towards graduation at my home university. I also took courses in the classics department, learning about ancient Roman life through literature and exploring ancient Egypt through exhibitions in London museums. The education I received while abroad was unique and varied, and the courses I took were specific to London and its resources.

How did IFSA staff support you upon arrival?

When I arrived in London, the IFSA staff welcomed me with smiling faces and helping hands; these staff members became my support system throughout my time abroad. I reached out to them when I was overwhelmed with coursework and assessments. I called them when I needed restaurant or travel advice.

They hosted several holiday parties with great food and exciting prizes (a friend and I won first place in the Halloween costume contest, which got us a trip to the Harry Potter Studio Tour!). They provided me with countless opportunities to participate in unique events and activities. They planned quick weekend trips to Dover Castle and Cambridge, as well as a full weekend excursion to the countryside. On the trip I went ghyll scrambling, an activity that had me hiking up a rocky mountain stream, crawling through tunnels, and swimming through waterfalls. IFSA Butler made it possible for me to travel to the English countryside and participate in these types of outdoor activities.

The IFSA staff knew my name, cared about how I was doing and worked to make my experience comfortable and exciting. Having their support throughout my experience, before, during, and afterward, was really essential to my success abroad.

An international student in a zebra crossing pole Halloween costume

Dressed up for Halloween as a zebra crossing pole!

What was your favorite part about living and studying in London?

My favorite part about the location was how bustling and accessible the city was. London had so much to offer, and it was all open and easy for me to explore. The UCL campus and my accommodation in Kings Cross were smack in the middle of the city. If something wasn’t walking distance, I was minutes away from a bus or Tube that would take me straight there.

I was close to Regent's Park, with a boating lake, the London zoo, and miles of green pitches and open fields; Hyde Park was a short ride as well. In the winter, it was transformed into a winter wonderland, with amusement park rides, ice skating, music, and warm cider. There were markets all across the city where I could pick up fresh produce and even try out food trucks and street vendors. Traditional British landmarks were at my doorstep: Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and St Paul’s Cathedral. My university campus was blocks away from Oxford Street, the biggest shopping street in London. It was around the corner from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, and the Wellcome Collection.

Everyday on my walk home, I passed Euston Station and St Pancras, the two major train stations running in and out of London. I took advantage of these close city escape routes on several occasions, taking trips to the countryside and the Harry Potter Studio Tour. London showcased its tradition and history, while still accelerating forward as a modern and iconic city. Studying in London provided me with an endless list of exciting things to do and new places to explore.

What made your study abroad experience unique? 

IFSA Butler is a unique study abroad program because it goes beyond coordinating students abroad, by providing a greater cultural immersion with more personal and comprehensive support. They made the entire process of studying abroad easier. IFSA Butler coordinated my application to UCL and arranged my housing once I was accepted. They picked me up at the airport and provided a three-day orientation, with workshops on transportation, safety, academics, and culture shock. They advised me during course selection and alleviated my worries during my final assessments. They organized weekend excursions, holiday parties and sport outings. They visited my campus to get coffee and chat. They were available 24 hours for medical emergencies.

Upon my return, they processed and converted my transcript. They provided me with resources for my re-entry at home and at school. They assisted in every aspect of studying abroad. I felt fairly severed from my home university while I was abroad. Advisors and friends were difficult to communicate with given time differences and busy schedules. I felt like all the support I had at home was no longer accessible. But, IFSA Butler filled in those roles and supported me throughout my time abroad.

Tell us more about the support you received from local staff.

The local staff supported me academically and personally throughout my four months in London. On two occasions, the director of academic affairs and the academic officer came to the UCL campus for a few hours to chat with students. They bought me cake and coffee, and asked questions about my classes and holiday travel plans. I felt that they really took these opportunities to get to know me and the other IFSA Butler students. They did these drop-ins for all the universities in the London area, which meant they put tremendous amounts of time and effort into knowing all of the students in their program.

These same staff members were also available and very accessible over email. I reached out to them on several occasions when I was overwhelmed and worried about my courses; I had some trouble adjusting to the new education system, and they were quick to answer my emails, invite me to their offices to talk, and relieve my worries.

The local staff also threw parties in celebration of Halloween and the winter holidays and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner. These events were fun and made me feel less homesick, because I had somewhere to go and people to be with during the holidays. They wanted me to have a great time abroad and would do whatever they could to help me achieve that; the local staff truly cared about me and my experience. They called us by our names and remembered what our interests were. They offered suggestions for weekend excursions and sightseeing. They took the time to give advice and talk through essays and other assignments. They asked that we let them know when we would be traveling outside the city, so they were aware of our location and could assist in our safety. They were nurturing pseudo-parents, approachable academic advisors, and insightful travel guides.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently? 

One thing I wish I had done differently was to more fully participate in the many clubs UCL offered. At the beginning of the semester, I attended several introductory club meetings for the Sign Language Society, Writer’s Society, and Salsa Society. The introductory meetings were welcoming and encouraging, and I was excited to get involved in the extracurricular activities at my new abroad university. However, all clubs and societies required a membership fee, which, although inexpensive, deterred me from continuing to participate. I was a study abroad student at UCL for only four months, half the academic year, so paying a fee for an entire year did not seem logical at the time.

I never felt like I had too much free time on my hands either. I was sufficiently busy juggling my courses and assessments while also exploring the city of London. However, looking back I wish I had continued to participate in these activities. The clubs would have introduced me to more people and rooted me more deeply in the UCL student community. It would have added to my goal of challenging myself and exploring my independence and confidence in a new place. Although I was a temporary, study abroad student, in the eyes of the university I was fully enrolled like everyone else. Having access to these clubs and societies was my right as a UCL student. The variety of groups available was an unexpected bonus in studying abroad, one I wish I had taken more advantage of during my experience.

Hyde Park turns into a Winter Wonderland with lights, music, and rides

Hyde Park transformed into a Winter Wonderland full of lights, music and rides

Describe a day in the life of a UCL international student.

I had class three times a week for about two to three hours a day. I was enrolled in a total of four courses, some of which were large lecture-style classes and others that were smaller seminars. My classes were a mixture of first and second year students fully enrolled in UCL and study abroad students like myself.

On days that I had class, I would spend my time on the UCL campus. My classes did not have daily homework assignments, and instead required me to keep up with assigned and suggested reading to prepare for each lesson. There were no required textbooks, so all readings could be found in the UCL libraries. In addition to regular preparation, I spent time in libraries researching and writing my final assessments. All four of my courses had two finals essays, each worth fifty percent.

When I wasn’t in class, I was either studying in one of the libraries, grabbing lunch in one of the many on campus cafes or exploring museums in the surrounding area. The UCL campus is a very short walk from the British Museum and houses its own archaeological artifacts in the Petrie Museum, as well. The center of the university is around the corner from the Wellcome Collection, a museum showcasing the connections between medicine and art.

On days I did not have class, I explored further out into the city. I went shopping on Oxford Street and picked up fresh produce at Borough Market. I toured the Tower of London and found Peter Pan in Hyde Park. I walked through the Columbia Road Flower Market and shopped for vintage clothing in Camden Lock. Every day was different and busy. I loved having time to explore and really dig my heels into the city, while also having time to study and participate fully in my courses.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time?

On days when I did not have class, program activities, or any other commitments, I chose to spend my time walking around the city. When I arrived in London, I walked to Trafalgar Square five times within the first three days. The first time was to visit the square, to see Nelson’s Column, and climb up onto one of its guarding lions. The second was a trip in passing on my way down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. The third was to visit the National Portrait Gallery. The fourth and fifth times were not for any particular event or destination. I walked back and forth to Trafalgar Square because I wanted to practice and test my ability to navigate the winding streets of London. I wanted to feel confident and comfortable, to became more familiar with the route each time I walked it.

One evening I ventured to Brick Lane because it is known for its rows and rows of Indian restaurants. After the meal I walked from Brick Lane to my residence hall at King's Cross. A simple, direct forty-five minute walk turned into three hours because I chose to cross five bridges on my way. I walked past the Gherkin in the financial district and across the London Bridge. I strolled along the Thames until I got to another bridge crossing, and I went back over, zigzagging up and over the river the entire way home.

I went for a run one afternoon and came across a park gate that opened onto the Regents Canal. Among the many riverboats, I came across Word on the Water, a secondhand bookstore on a barge. I browsed through their selection before taking a break in the sun on the grassy steps that lead up to Granary Square. Everywhere I walked, I expanded my knowledge and appreciation of the city.

With or without a map, towards a destination or just for the sake of wandering, walking became my favorite activity during my time abroad.

What type of accommodation did you have? What did you like best about it?

I lived in one of the University College London halls of residence near Kings Cross. This accommodation was primarily for first year students, although any UCL student is permitted to live there. My accommodation was an apartment-style dormitory with en suite single rooms and a communal kitchen. My apartment housed seven students, including myself. My room contained a single bed, desk, closet, and bathroom. The rooms were situated along a hallway with the kitchen branching off near the apartment entrance. In the basement of the building, all residents had access to a computer lab with printers and a common room with televisions, couches, and a pool table. The residence hall was monitored by a security guard 24/7 and required card access into the building complex as well as the apartment building itself. There were laundry and mail facilities within the complex.

The location of my accommodation was perfect. Being in central London made transportation easy and quick. I could hop on a Tube or bus in less than five minutes. Grocery stores, banks, museums, parks, and restaurants were all within walking distance. I often walked to classes as well, since the UCL campus was only 20 minutes away.

I was very happy with my accommodation because it allowed me to have my own personal space within a larger community of first year students. Meeting people was a major concern of mine, but upon moving in, I had six immediate acquaintances and I became friends with them within the first few days. Because they were first years, they were also new to the university and the city. It didn’t matter that I was in my third year back home at Wesleyan, because I was on the same page as them in London; I was also new.

The best part of living with them was that we were all from different countries: Switzerland, France, Italy, London, Australia, and America. I had never been a part of such an international experience, and I attribute this amazing opportunity to my accommodation. I had chosen to attend an international program to study abroad for a semester, but my experience in England ended up branching out into other countries around the world.

Now that you're home, how has studying abroad impacted your life?

My experience abroad impacted my life by making me more confident and independent. Living in London was my first time cooking, traveling, and living in a different country by myself. I was buying my own groceries, purchasing my own flights, and exploring London in my own way. It pushed me to be active, to go on long walks and really see the city, to make plans to visit museums and tour historic landmarks. I was in charge of my own experience and had four months to plan it according to my interests. I was independent at home, living away from my parents at university, but being abroad presented me with even more responsibility and autonomy.

American universities are known for holding students’ hands through their schooling, advising them every semester and making sure they are on track and doing well. British universities don’t do this, and it helped me learn to fully take the reigns of my education; I was in charge of keeping myself afloat. Although initially I was terrified, once I had that push, I was able to exercise my independence and see that I could succeed on my own. Coming home, I felt more resilient and flexible in all facets of my life. I felt capable of much more intellectually, socially and personally.