Monday, March 23, 2015

"My Future is in My Own Hands": A Student's Decision to Go Abroad


Summer Drum is a student at the Lloyd International Honors College at UNCG. Born and raised in North Carolina, she is currently on the adventure of a lifetime studying history and education abroad at Plymouth University in Plymouth, England. You can learn more about Summer and her journey abroad by following her travel blog at summerdrum.wordpress.com.

I believe that a heavy fear of mediocrity rests within many of us. For me, this fear has crawled to the forefront of my mind and constantly whispers into my ear. The first semester of my freshman year in college, I was sitting in a classroom at UNCG, fighting sleep as my professor droned on about a topic I had no interest in. That night, a wave of worry washed over me. “Sure, I’m only 18,” I thought to myself, “But I feel like life is so much more than this.” I pictured myself sitting through more uninteresting classes in the future, the sole purpose to check off a box so I’d be able to graduate; I saw myself with my college diploma, rushing to get a job; images of a house and a family began to surface; and, soon, I was in a fit of uncontrollable tears. That illustration of my future depicted me settling for a life of mediocrity, a normal and expected path, and it frightened me. I realized what I was craving- risk. Deviation from the norm. Adventure.

At the Oxford University School of Divinity, used as the
Hogwarts Infirmary in the Harry Potter films
Shortly after this little breakdown freshman year, I began planning my study abroad experience through the Honors College and the IPC Office. I’d always been interested in travel, and yet I had very little experience with it. Study abroad sounded like the perfect prescription for challenge and exploration.

Today, I am writing this from a dorm room at Plymouth University in England. It is my second semester of my sophomore year, and I am currently 19 years old. I am living in a country 3,000 miles from the comfort of home, an entire ocean apart from the people I love. I almost can’t believe that I’m actually here.

When I gave my teary goodbyes to my family members and boarded my plane to the UK, I envisioned something close to a perfect vacation; endless traveling, incredible food, crazy stories, and consistent activities. However, study abroad is grittier than a glossy vacation ad. It’s hard. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s emotional. It’s frustrating. It’s… incredible.

Plymouth is a port city on the southwestern coast of England, located in the county of Devon. The Pilgrims left from Plymouth on their famed Mayflower voyage. The weather is typically cold, windy, and cloudy. Because it rains so often, the grass maintains a vibrant green color year-round. The city is close and compact, so you can travel almost everywhere on foot. The university is one of the world’s leaders in sustainability. 33,000 students learn here. With such large numbers, one would assume the campus would be quite large. Instead of growing outward, however, the campus grows upward. Most school buildings are very tall, but that means that I can cross the entire campus in five minutes.

Plymouth was bombed heavily in WWII, so the city center consists of mostly modern buildings with the occasional historical treasure thrown in. The harbor area is called the Barbican, and its streets contain some of the oldest buildings in Plymouth.

View of Plymouth Sound
English culture has its similarities to American culture, but the differences are what make things interesting. Fridays are for eating fish and chips, while Sundays are for traditional English roasts. Instead of saying hello, strangers greet you with, “Are you alright?” Because British drivers travel on the opposite side of the road, you must be extra careful crossing the street. When someone says “That room is on the first floor,” that means the second floor to Americans. Most courses have only two graded assignments scheduled for the entire term. Coursework is submitted anonymously to a faculty office and not to the specific instructor. The steady accumulation of these little observations is what has made me fall in love with England.

The challenges I’ve experienced so far are what have sparked growth and change. I live in the cheapest dorm on campus. The ceiling in our bathroom fell in, the lock broke, and the flat above and below mine stay up until six in the morning blasting music. However, given the chance, I wouldn’t move to another dorm. I am simply thankful to have shelter and a place to stay, and in a nicer dorm, I probably would not have as much of an authentic experience. I spend a lot of money on groceries every week, and have had to learn how to cook all of my food. I have to balance my schoolwork alongside my other endeavors, as well as an online class through UNCG. On a bus trip to Oxford, the bus broke down seven times. We spent twelve hours on the bus and only managed to have three hours to explore the city. It was a miserable feeling, but when the group of Germans behind me cracked open some hidden beers and toasted to the tragic adventure, the whole bus fell into hysterics.

International friends
It’s extremely easy to become homesick, but the amazing international students I have met serve as the best medicine. Study abroad tears down the walls of comfort zones and envelops students in vulnerability. Each student is going through similar challenges, so it forms connective bonds between us. We travel together, eat together, and go shopping together. I now have a priceless network of friends from all across the globe. I could not ask for anything better. The best part? I still have three full months left in Plymouth, which means that those friendships are only going to strengthen.

The risks I’ve taken studying abroad have opened my mind to trying a whole variety of new experiences. I’ve gone mountain-biking, joined a weight training class, attended church services for various religions, booked spontaneous trips, and tried new cuisines. I even got a tattoo to commemorate my experience. It says “fearless,” and it inspires me to give everything new and interesting a try.

Exeter Cathedral
While study abroad isn’t the vacation I dreamed of, I think it’s better. Without this experience, I
would be still fighting the desire to sleep through a boring lecture. I wouldn’t have stood in awe on a busy London street corner. I wouldn’t have spent an hour in solitude, overwhelmed by the beauty of the Exeter Cathedral. I wouldn’t have spent Valentine’s Day stuffing my face with pizza with fifteen other amazing souls around me. I wouldn’t have a twenty-day trip around Europe on my itinerary. I wouldn’t have the ability to ask random strangers for directions. I wouldn’t know how to rely solely on myself. I wouldn’t know just how strong I actually am.

My time here at Plymouth has lit a spark within me, one that pushes me to constantly better myself. I’m in love with this area, these people, and this opportunity. I feel more connected to myself than I ever have before. I am no longer scared of living a mediocre life, because I realize now that my future is in my own hands. There is no limit to what I can achieve, and I am going to consistently push myself toward success. I believe that a heavy fear of mediocrity rests within many of us. For me, this fear has crawled to the forefront of my mind and constantly whispers into my ear… except now, when I look around me at the beauty of England, it is silenced.

To learn more about study abroad opportunities, visit the International Programs Center website at uncg.edu/ipg.

To learn more about Lloyd International Honors College, visit honorscollege.uncg.edu.

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