When you listen to people talk about studying abroad, they all start to sound the same after a while. It was amazing… I traveled as much as I could… I met so many great people… The food was AMAZING… I walk so much… It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Granted, most students (at least at OU) travel to European countries which share many general similarities. Furthermore, these students are all coming from the same place, Norman, Oklahoma, and something that is new or different for one person is likely to be new or different for most or all of them. Unfortunately, part of the uniformity comes from the tendency to show only the good memories, the highlights. It is easy to get the impression that there is one way to study abroad which necessitates having oodles of fun and taking tons of amazing pictures. It can be easy to feel that because your experience doesn’t match others’ social media feeds and in-person extolations you’re doing something wrong. This, you should know, is completely untrue.
I’ve written on this blog before about the difficulties of studying abroad. Picking up and moving to a new country for a couple weeks or a couple months is very different from taking a vacation there. Personally, however, it took off a lot of the stress and pressure when I realized that I could do whatever I wanted and I was under no obligation to follow in the footsteps of my peers. During my semester in England, I traveled on weekends and over spring break, went to concerts and pubs on weekdays, and met as many people as possible. I’m pretty extroverted at times. These were the stories I shared with my friends and family, about wilderness hikes with friends and art museums in Paris. Looking at the semester as a whole, these adventurous stories made up only a fraction of my time.
Being at a different university, I had the opportunity to take classes that weren’t available to me at OU. I shifted my enrollment a number of times during the first few weeks before finalizing a schedule full of classes that interested me with professors I enjoyed. I spent hours tucked away in some corner on campus, not only studying for my classes but also exploring the subject on my own with the resources that the school made available to me. I was prepared for lectures and was able to engage in meaningful discussion with students from different majors and from this foreign country. One of my favorite parts about the University of Sheffield was the educational structure. It promoted independent learning and exploration and I absolutely loved it but it would have been easy to miss out on this aspect of the semester.
I also treasure the time I took to explore the many corners of Sheffield. It was small in my eyes, maybe three miles across if you include the skirt of shops and small homes that accented the central ring, but practically everything was within a two-mile walk from my dorm. For reference, that’s about the distance between Lindsey and Robinson. On my free days, I explored the city. U.K. chain stores, such as Waterstones and M & S, were just as intriguing and unique to me as local establishments, such as The Wool Baa (a yarn store run by delightfully crotchety women) and Within Reason (an eclectic gift shop). The town was rife with coffee shops, both mainstream and artisanal, where I would nurse a cappuccino for an hour, absorbed in the pages of a thriller while rain pattered the windows and the street outside.
Not all adventures are great spectacles to write home about. They don’t all involve taking a cheap flight with nothing but a passport and a backpack. Those are great, of course, but there is an understated value in slowing down and truly immersing yourself in the far-flung locale where you have landed and to which, after the program ends, you might never return.