I chose the University of St Andrews as my study abroad destination because, coming from Bowdoin College with just over 1,800 students, St Andrews would not seem overwhelmingly large. The fact that Scotland is English-speaking and not wildly different from the United States was also a huge plus. And IFSA orientation in Edinburgh, I felt at ease with cultural immersion and confident with my decision. We were given reference guides in case we encountered culture shock or homesickness.
“Culture shock?” I thought, “in Scotland?”
Out of my comfort zone
I arrived at my hall and unpacked. Unfortunately, I was the only IFSA student in my hall and assigned to a single, which felt extremely isolating. I decided to go for a run and see the town. In the U.S., I live in a small town, just one square mile in size. I often went running with my dad, who insists I say hello to every person I pass. As a result, when I run, I at least wave or smile at strangers.
Yet in St Andrews, I was shocked at how unfriendly people seemed. I passed nearly ten people on a trail, and they averted their eyes or responded quietly and were seemingly confused when I said hello.
After returning to my hall for dinner, I faced another challenge: Choosing a table of strangers to eat with. Most students in my hall were first years. That first experience eating in my hall was extremely uncomfortable. The students at my table hardly spoke. If anything, this took me out of my comfort zone.
Rethinking first impressions
Within the first week, I met other study abroad students in my hall—including full-time students at St Andrews from a variety of nations, including England, Australia, and Norway—and began to feel more comfortable. Over time, we formed a group and ate most meals together.
Eventually, I revealed my first impressions and we candidly discussed cultural differences, sparking interesting conversations. I slowly modified my initial impression from unfriendly to reserved. The fact that many St Andrews residents are less likely to greet a stranger does not mean they are unkind. Plus, my experience was only a small sample of Scottish culture as a whole.
Consider my homestay experience. Less than a month after arrival, I went on a weekend homestay with a family—parents and adorable 9-year-old twin boys—who owned a farm between Stirling and Glasgow. I was constantly made to feel at home and the family could not have been more hospitable.
We ate homemade haggis and black pudding and visited historic sites, including the grounds where Mary Queen of Scots played as child. From this family’s overt kindness and generosity, I learned my initial impressions of Scots were quite wrong.
At Thanksgiving, in addition to a Thanksgiving meal with IFSA, the Americans in my hall cooked a Thanksgiving meal and invited our non-American friends. I knew I finally felt at home when I didn’t feel homesick or nostalgic as I talked with my family via FaceTime.
First impressions, I learned, are not always as telling as we think. From my experience in Scotland, I also learned not to make hasty judgments or underestimate cultural differences.
Though I appreciate my friendly hometown and college, I would not trade my study abroad experience for anything. I gained new perspectives and grew a lot as an individual. I now appreciate my home more than ever, and Scotland still holds a special place in my heart.
—Julie R. (Bowdoin College), University of St Andrews