AN AMERICAN ABROAD: THE HIGHS AND LOWS
Sophie Browning was in London when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020. She said, “I remember wearing a mask on the train and thinking, ‘This is so funny,’ because it was hitting Europe but it hadn’t hit America yet.” She thought she’d be back in Scotland in May, so she only packed a small suitcase to take home.
Browning did not return to Scotland in May. Instead, she found herself preparing for her sophomore year from thousands of miles away, participating in online school like so many other students. That being said, unlike many students, she did get to go back to Scotland in September, and has been living the life of an international student during these unprecedented times.
Browning is a second-year student at the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland, studying sustainable development and geography. She is originally from Sag Harbor, a small town in Long Island, New York.
“I grew up with a big international background,” said Browning. “I always knew there was more to see than my tiny town.”
Browning’s mom grew up in Aberdeen, Scotland, which is less than two hours away from St. Andrews, and her dad moved around during his childhood, living in places like Morocco, Hong Kong, Jamaica and Luxembourg.
“The idea was to try it for a year and see if it worked,” said Browning. If it didn’t work, she’d go home with a year abroad under her belt, and she’d go to American college. But it did work, even with a global pandemic to interrupt her first year.
After adjusting to the initial culture shocks of different food, living conditions, education and healthcare, Browning said “there are so many highlights.”
The biggest of those highlights is the ability to travel. Last year, she went to Amsterdam, Budapest, and London multiple times before the pandemic hit. Her favorite memories include sneaking into an old hotel in Budapest and swimming in a sky deck pool with her friend, as well as staying out until 6:30 in the morning in Amsterdam, experiencing the Netherlands nightlife and club culture.
On top of that, she has been able to travel to various places within Scotland, which included: seeing a reindeer farm in Cairngorms National Park, viewing the home of the Loch Ness Monster in Inverness, and getting to feel like a nomad in the Isle of Skye.
Browning found that her travels abroad in college were different from her previous experiences. “When I travel now, I’m not just doing it for the lure of something new, I’m finding myself along the way while I’m doing it,” Browning said. “It’s a new adventure.”
“I feel like I’m more one with nature here,” Browning added. With the ability to go sailing, surfing, golfing and camping, and also be able to have tea at all hours of the day, St. Andrews is a combination of all of her favorite places.
“I love experiencing new things, so the new culture and the new food are all part of the positives,” she said.
While there are so many up sides, like anything, being abroad for college does come with a few down sides.
Browning noted that, on the surface, people see an amazing experience with traveling and adventures, which it is, but “behind the scenes is the hard stuff, like the adjustments and the homesickness.”
“I can’t just drive home,” Browning said. In the different time zone, “I can wake up and feel homesick, and I have to wait until 1 p.m. to call anyone.”
And, unlike last year, she can’t just fly home either. Scotland’s strict Covid-19 restrictions require a two-week quarantine. It costs thousands of dollars to go home, between airfare and quarantine hotel costs.
“I think the hardest thing is that in the US you always know someone nearby, and can see your friends and travel from school-to-school,” Browning said. “It’s so hard when I have close friends who are together. Sometimes I just want to be there.”
Additionally, the United Kingdom education system is completely different from the United States education system. Instead of homework, quizzes and tests, there are one or two big assignments that make up for all of your grade.
“No teacher would know me by name,” Browning said. “There’s no homework or quizzes or anything, and then that one assignment comes along that you haven’t been thinking about, and if you fail it you could be out of university.”
Living in the United Kingdom comes with a sense of independence that American students might not be familiar with. There are fewer eyes watching to make sure that you’re doing your work, and fewer check points that allow students to make up for academic mistakes. The expectations are different.
Still, Browning says that she plans to stay in the U.K. after she graduates. “Now that I’ve been in the U.K. for almost two years, when I come home I feel split between the two places,” she said. “The four years of college which really shape what you think you’re going to move on to, I’ve spent that in the U.K., and I don’t know if I’d be ready to come back and live in the U.S..”
Next year, Browning is going abroad to Norway for her spring semester. She says that when the pandemic is over, she is looking forward to being able to travel again, starting with exploring the subway systems of post-Soviet countries with her roommate.
“I think everyone should go abroad. I’m going abroad from being abroad, and I’d go abroad from there,” she laughed. “I do love it. It’s like anything, it has so many ups and downs, but overall, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m so thankful.”