One of my favorite parts about studying abroad is the chance to immerse myself in another university’s culture. When you are at OU for nine months out of the year it is easy to forget that the university is a unique environment shaped by the preferences and habits of the student body. Crossroads, Canes, Lloyd Noble, the Blender, the clocktower, and many other campus mainstays have much more significance to the students than they would to a passing visitor. These shared locations and accompanying experiences are the perfect breeding ground for inside jokes and the foundation of a community. In the past month and a half, I have gradually been absorbing the student culture here at the University of Sheffield. The first and most important aspect has been the food.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I am on a meal plan and have been adjusting to “eating out” rather than cooking my own meals. I usually make breakfast in my kitchenette and get lunch from one of the many cafes and coffee shops scattered around campus. Since some of the coffee shops do not have a full kitchen, the food they can offer is limited to pastries, fruit, and what I like to call “sandwich-in-a-box.” This refers to a prepackaged sandwich by Tiffin Sandwiches which can be found almost anywhere in the city. Here is a picture of the sandwich shelves at the main store in the student union:
There are many sandwich options and I have gradually been working my way through the flavors in search of the best possible choice. Unfortunately, most of the dining options close sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. which means that I often eat dinner at the Edge, a mere five-minute walk from my dorm. The Edge’s crowning glory is the £4 meal, an offering that rotates through a biweekly schedule. Particularly among international students, schedules are decided based on what is available at the Edge that night.
One dining option that is not university owned but is essential to student life is a small trailer called John’s Van. Serving burgers, bagels, and wraps, the traditional meal is a sausage or bacon sandwich served with either coffee or tea for £2.10, £2 if you bring your own mug. Parked outside the mathematics and physics building in the middle of campus, John’s Van is able to capitalize expertly on the tired and hungry students who pass the intersection daily.
All in all, I know I still have a lot to learn about this university and about Sheffield but I sincerely appreciate feeling more at home each and every day.
Compared to the United States, England is very small. I am frequently amazed by the number of historical sites that lie less than an hour away. The country is so densely packed compared to midwestern states. Anyone who has driven between Norman and Dallas or between Dallas and Austin can confirm the open stretches of fields and farmland. I cannot drive down the highway here without passing a town that has existed for centuries every thirty minutes. I might be exaggerating slightly, but as someone who goes to school in a state that has only existed for about a century, it is mind-boggling.
Curiously, most local students have not seen much of the British Isles, much less mainland Europe. Some travel to see football matches, commute to school, or visit family, but it does not seem common to go on day trips, or even weekend trips, to other cities only a few hours away. I am intrigued by this perception of distance so very different from my own.
This difference is just as interesting when reversed. Since the U.S. is so large, students want to know where exactly I live. Of course, this often leads to slight difficulties, since most people here are not familiar with Oklahoma. I cannot blame them since I am wholly unfamiliar with the internal geography of other countries. At one point I was explaining that Oklahoma is slightly left of Tennessee, which led them to believe it was next to California. Given how much of U.S. life is broadcast around the world in the form of news, movies, literature, and music, it is interesting to see which small distinctions are still unknown.
In my short time here, I have explored Sheffield and small parts of London, Manchester, and Leeds. Despite the modern buildings and business that have accumulated over the years, they still retain a beautiful charm of history. Plaques and neon lights are scattered in front of glass facades and ancient stonework. Even on my university campus, sleek, modern buildings with geometric designs stand next to ones that could reasonably pass for an unprotected castle. Given the many similarities between the U.S. and the U.K., I have struggled to explain to other students why I find the U.K. so interesting. I think this juxtaposition of old and new plays a major role.
It has now been about a month since I arrived in England and I cannot believe the time has passed so quickly. Since neither my hometown nor Sheffield are home to a major international airport, I spent almost forty hours traveling from my front door in the U.S. to my new home in the U.K. Although I ran into a few difficulties during my travel, everything since has been smooth and simple. I stressed about switching into the classes I needed but the add/drop period here is three weeks so I had plenty of time to sort everything out.
I am staying in university accommodation, in a single room with a communal bathroom. I am on a meal plan, which is very nice, and I have access to a small kitchenette on my floor as well. It is amazing compared to the towers at OU, although I have been told this is terrible compared to Australian dorms. My floor has only international students, about twelve in all. I have met more international students in the past month than students from the U.K. because we all came here alone, or with one other student, and are trying to make new friends.
My classes are very different from classes at OU. I spend a lot less time in class and there is a greater emphasis on individual study outside the classroom. Rather than the professor teaching you all the information you need to know, he or she simply points you in the right direct and then you are expected to research and learn the material yourself. So far, I quite enjoy this method of learning. I feel more connected with the subject and I tend to dive deeper into the material than I would otherwise. In order to make time for this independent study, classes rarely assign graded homework. Most of my grade is based on the final and one or two other assignments that are due at some point in the semester. I am nervous about the lack of feedback throughout the semester so I will be checking in with my professors throughout the semester in office hours to make sure I am on track with the material.
Overall, this first month has been amazing. People in Sheffield are more reserved than in Norman but their friendliness still reminds me of southern hospitality. The university is large and well-organized, boasting all of the resources I have needed and then some. My housing and flatmates are great. The city itself has every sort of store and restaurant and park that I have wanted. Most importantly, my classes have been captivating and I am in love with this style of learning. I feel at home and I am looking forward to what new adventures the coming months will bring.
In my opinion, Oklahoma is a religious state. Most people belong to some kind of Christian church, are willing to discuss it with anyone, and will invite you to join them on Sunday after knowing you for a short five minutes. I am not trying to criticize, I merely find it quite different compared to my hometown. With their shared roots, it is interesting to compare Christianity, with its many varied sects, and Judaism. This semester, I attended a guest lecture hosted by the Schusterman Center about varied interpretations of the First Commandment.
This fall ,the Schusterman Center brought Dr. Jim Diamond , a distinguished Jewish studies professor from the University of Waterloo, to campus as a guest speaker. His lecture was entitled: “Do We All Serve the Same God? The First ‘Commandment’” Although different religious traditions divide the Ten Commandments differently, the gist of the First Commandment is, “I am the Lord, your God.” As Dr. Diamond discussed, there is some contention over whether this is a commandment or a statement. During his lecture, he discussed the different interpretations of the First Commandment through the years by different religious groups in different countries. As someone who is not particularly familiar with Jewish studies, it was very interesting to hear the perspective of an expert on the matter. As a math major, I prefer dealing with exact sciences, subtleties that can be extrapolated and proved beyond a doubt. I have never taken a philosophy class and I do not have a lot of experience with subjective analysis beyond a few literature courses. Dr. Diamond’s lecture made me think about the distinctions between religious sects resulting from the cultural differences that quietly divide countries, states, and even cities.
As strange as it is to contemplate, I only have three semesters left before graduating. As I finish up my finals, I am realizing that my once intimidatingly lengthy degree sheet has been mostly checked off. I still need a number of math classes, of courses, but otherwise I will mostly be filling up my upper-division hours with classes of my choice. This was an amazing discovery earlier this semester as I prepare to study abroad in the spring.
The main difficulty with study abroad is taking classes that you can actually use. Every school does things differently and schools in foreign countries do things very differently than schools in the United States. Particularly as a STEM major, it can be difficult to find courses that build on information you already know without relying on information you have not yet learned. Fortunately, I was able to straighten out my math courses and now just have to worry about electives.
Even after gen-ed, major, and minor requirements, I still have the flexibility to indulge in classes of my choosing. This is partially due to the math major and partially due to the the aggressive number of hours I have been taking each semester. On one hand, I could continue to pursue some of my interests that I have already been studying. There are several upper-division math and German courses which have caught my eye. I am qualified for a number of classes in the English department and in international studies. On the other hand, I could take an entry-level in an entirely new subject. OU is a huge university with a plethora of academic departments, many of which I have never touched. A good portion of my winter break will be spent determining which classes I should take abroad this spring and then at OU my senior year in order to meet my graduation requirements but still enjoy the ride.
During my first semester at OU, and during my first-ever German class, I was invited to attend a German poetry night hosted by the OU German Club. I don’t remember exactly why I went, although I suspect that my teacher offered extra credit. It was a lovely experience and it really opened my eye to German in new setting. The only German I had ever heard outside of class was in familiar Christmas carols sung every winter. My teacher encouraged me and everyone else in the class to participate, by reciting a poem or singing a song, but I was much too hesitant about my beginner-level German. Like most people, I get nervous talking in front of groups. My hands start shaking and my heart starts racing and I worry about how I’m standing, where I’m looking, and how I’m pronouncing my words. Everything gets worse when I’m not using my native language. When I attended the German poetry night this year, I decided to face my fears. In pursuit of extra credit, of course.
This semester I have been taking German Literature and Film, a course that dives into the expression of German artists as they process and reflect upon the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. It was difficult at first to process the metaphors and subtle insinuations that were tucked into innocuous, even simplistic events. Sarcasm is a great example. In English, I can follow the train of conversation well enough to recognize when a speaker is utilizing irony to emphasize a point or make a joke. This skill, however, has not yet carried over to German. In order to challenge my limits, I selected a poem by Bertolt Brecht. An esteemed playwright, Brecht is a master of provoking his audience and defying their expectations. When searching for the poem I wanted to recite, I found one stuffed with irony about the pursuit of education. It intrigued me, as did the poem’s effect on the audience. I think that as I move forward towards fluency, poetry will become a useful tool in exploring the subtleties of the language.
As a German minor, I sincerely appreciate how active the OU German Club is on campus. Every semester, the club organizes a variety of events to bring together faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates of all skill levels in their mutual appreciation of German language and culture. Throughout the semester, the club meets weekly, usually at a local restaurant, for a Stammtisch. Stammtisch translates as regulars table. An old German tradition, Stammtisch involves sitting around a table weekly and discussing events both current and personal. The club’s Stammtisch is often conducted in a mixture of English and German.
Every semester, the German club holds one big Stammtisch, gathering together as many people from the department as possible. This year, the big Stammtisch was held at Das Boot Camp on main street. An offshoot of Royal Bavaria, Das Boot serves traditional German fare, including schnitzel, bratwurst, spaetzle, and gurkensalat. The Stammtisch filled most of the restaurant, tables pushed together and overflowing with people. I recognized several professors, graduate students, and undergraduates with whom I had shared classes, but many faces were new to me. We discussed classes and teaching styles, unusual German traditions and regional dishes, and swapped stories from trips to Germany or Austria. The professors are either native speakers themselves or have extensively developed their fluency in German-speaking countries. Most if not all of the graduate students have studied abroad at some point and the undergraduate majors are required to spend a minimum of three-weeks immersed in the language. Although Germany is geographically smaller than Montana, it is home to roughly 80 million people and the differences from one region to the next are astounding. The big Stammtisch is a great way to gather an otherwise scattered population and bring a piece of Germany to the middle of Oklahoma.
As I wrap up this semester in a flurry of assignments and papers and truly terrifying exams, I cannot help but be excited for the coming semester. I have been accepted to study abroad at the University of Sheffield. It is a fantastic school with a rigorous mathematics program and I am thrilled to try out a new style of learning. The minimal homework sounds fantastic, although the finals worth 80% of your grade sound intimidating. While I will not not much about the academic experience until I arrive, I have eagerly been researching the country itself.
Despite reading a thousand books set in the UK and having seen a thousand more films and television shows, I have not had the opportunity to visit in person. England’s rich history has been present in many of my history classes and my grandfather has frequently explained my English roots, many generations back, of course. In comparison with Oklahoma, or Missouri, or half the states in this country, the UK seems incredibly small. Sheffield is closer to London than Norman is to Dallas and I have gone to Dallas for day trips on multiple occasions. Granted, I will not have a car there but I am looking forward to exploring the UK and Ireland via bus, train, and ferry. At the university, I will be reverting back to freshman year and living in a dorm again. Fortunately, I will have my own bedroom, which is a vast improvement from dorm life in the United States. Not to mention, I am beyond thrilled to be on a meal plan again.
Since I am about halfway through both of my majors, I feel pretty confident saying that I made the right choice in my studies. Other degrees still tempt me when I hear students discussing their projects, but it is always my math and German homework that hold my attention and spark my curiosity, even when I’m so frustrated I could throw my textbook across the room. Now that I am settled in my studies, so to speak, my thoughts have been turning to plans after college. The semesters flip by in a blink and I don’t want to be caught at the end of my senior year with no idea where I want to go and what I want to do.
In a way, the Global Engagement Fellowship has made my decision both easier and more difficult at the same time. My increasing language skills and experience with international cultures mean that I am not confined to working within the United States. Rather, I could work with international companies from anywhere in the world. Here is where the choice becomes more difficult. In the face of such diverse options, how can I begin even to consider them? If I decide to pursue a graduate degree, do I turn first to the U.S., Germany, or to another country entirely? Although my attention this time of year is almost fully devoted to my studies, these broader questions lingering in the back of my mind about the future will certainly receive plenty of attention this summer and this fall.
As finals week quickly approaches, and with it the halfway mark of my college career, I am reminded of how much has changed in the past two years. During my first few semesters I met plenty of undergraduates, but the faculty seemed so mysterious and detached. My favorite part of college has been the people, hands down. OU has a broad student body pursuing such radically varied interests with great enthusiasm that the environment is unmatched in my experience. I fell in love with higher education my very first week here. Despite the papers and exams, the stress and the sleep-deprivation, this university is full of people learning, seeking to better themselves and to better the world. The man you bump into on the South Oval has worked with some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, the woman you pass in the Union on your way to lunch speaks four languages, the man in line with you to get lunch is a professional ballet dancer, the woman next to you in class has just won a Fulbright. It’s both intimidating and incredibly inspiring.
Over the past two years, I’ve slowly been meeting more members of the faculty, particularly those within my major departments. Their complete mastery of the topics they are teaching makes me yearn to understand a subject in such depth. Although I will likely not pursue graduate school immediately after graduation, I highly suspect it to be in my future. There are so many fantastic schools filled with the brightest and most dedicated people, it would be a shame not to meet and learn from at least a few of them.