Though I had an incredible time making friends, traveling, living in a foreign city, and enjoying independence broad, my academic experience at UCL was something I carry with me every day and remains the most influential on my daily life. To my surprise, I was the only American in a few of my classes. Which also meant I was the only liberal arts student in most of my classes. While I found this intimidating at first, as I was in seminar discussions with UK students who have been studying philosophy exclusively for their three years in uni, I ended up gaining a great perspective and respect for my liberal art education. While my classmates were skilled at hyper analyzing a topic or question within the lens of the specific discipline, I was able to take a much more broad and creative approach that lent itself to the more interdisciplinary issues we may have tackled. I left my semester abroad with a newfound appreciation for the academic experience I was getting back home.
As I mentioned before, I did grapple with feeling intimidated in my courses and seminars a bit. I was not entirely prepared for the culture shift, going from an institution where I was speaking up in discussions several times each class period to acclimating to an academic environment where discussions were reserved for the most polished, thought-through points (which meant less frequent participation). Not that my points were always less thought-through or polished, but I was used to thinking out loud and learning through guided discussion, where it was okay if my point was not fully thought through or developed yet. But in my UCL classes, especially in the philosophy department, I had a harder time balancing my urge to participate with quality of spoken contribution. I would speak and instantly get debated with, and I wasn’t prepared quite yet to defend my point with such fervor. It made me feel embarrassed and anxious, but it felt so unnatural to me to spend a several course periods in silence. Another element that played into this was that, as I said before, everyone in these courses had been studying exclusively philosophy since their A-Levels and felt much more academically adept than I, as I’d spent my prior two years at school taking philosophy. politics, science, and math classes. The IFSA office, in our check ins, was really helpful in counseling me through this shift. They were really attentive to my concerns and were quick to assure me that this discomfort with participation I was having was by no fault of my own and gave me helpful tips for preparation and how to approach this mentally so as not to get too stressed about it. I ended up getting the hang of seminar discussions and worked hard on preparing much more in advance. Once I got back to my home institution, I realized that my experiences grappling with this participation issues actually positioned me to be a much better student at home. I was able to be much more confident in my own voice and commentary in class, and I gained (interestingly enough) new study skills that helped me prepare for class and read assigned readings with much more direction.
One of the most important things I took with me from my time abroad was career exploration. Because UCL offered courses my college didn’t, I was able to take
classes tailored much more specifically to my interests. Most notably, I took a course outside of the Philosophy Department called “Policy Issues in the Life Sciences”, where I was able to look at major public health crises that the UK faced and analyzed the policy decisions made by the UK government. At my home institution, I’m a philosophy major and a government minor with an interest in public health, so this class fit my academic profile perfectly. I loved this opportunity to examine policies surrounding health with an ethical lens, and my readings and final paper pushed me exponentially as a student and ended up being my favorite assignments I had completed in my college career. When I returned home, I found myself thinking back to that course often and wishing I could have more academic experiences like the ones I had in Policy Issues in the Life Sciences. I also ended up missing UCL as a whole; the incredible professors I had and impressive peers, combined with the different academic and course structure (not to mention how much I loved being in class with people with British accents) made the academic experience I had abroad incredible. During a time of a ton of senior-year post-graduate reflection, I kept coming back to how fulfilled I felt at UCL and in that class. So I decided to take a look at the graduate programs they offer at UCL and found two that aligned perfectly with my interests. I spoke with my parents and academic/career advisors and made the exciting decision to apply to them and try to return to UCL. I just submitted my applications to those two programs last night! Regardless of my acceptance. I am certain that I would not have this newfound career direction and academic affirmation were it not for my study abroad program and the helpful encouragement that the IFSA onsite staff gave me when I was doubting myself.
Though I have loved my time at my home institution, I realized I limited myself a lot by staying inside of my academic comfort-zone. I needed the challenge and fast pace of a new academic system and institution, carrying with it a different culture and set of expectations, to push me into exploring the potential I have as a student and person. I am certain that without the continued support from IFSA while I was there, I would not have had such a smooth and supported time abroad that made me feel confident enough to try and return to the UK for post-graduate study independently.
Halle Paredes is an Philosophy major at Connecticut College and studied abroad with IFSA at University College London in Fall 2019.