“Have fun, take pictures, be safe. This is a once in a lifetime experience.” That’s what I consistently heard from my loved ones as I prepared to embark on my journey across the pond to the United Kingdom. Overwhelmed was an understatement and the pressure of seizing every opportunity this “once in a lifetime experience” had to offer was pushing me to a point of anxiety that was beyond my comfort zone. I just completed my second year as a BFA Dance Performance & Choreography major and Education Psychology minor at The University of Texas at Austin and am proud to say that my anxiety didn’t stop me from safely making it to my homestay in Cambridge, England.
Last Thursday, I started my four-week study abroad journey with 16 other aspiring UT students to take a course entitled Exploring UK Education. In the course led by Dr. Richard Reddick, we are observing the racial disparities within higher education in the UK and how that compares to our education system in the United States. We are doing so by visiting some of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious primary, secondary, and higher education schools, one of which we have already visited since arrival last week and that I will discuss later in this blog.
As mentioned before, I had a ton of anxiety going into this trip. With the exception of about three people, I didn’t have a relationship with anyone else on the program. The majority of the program was traveling together in London before, which heightened my anxiety even more because I felt I was missing the “get to know you” phase. Being the extrovert I am, I usually have no problems building friendships, however knowing most of the students came from schools like McCombs and the Plan II Honors program gave me a feeling of intimidation I wasn’t quite used to. On top of all of that I had questions constantly flooding my brain: What’s my homestay going to be like? Did I pack enough? What’s my roommate’s name again? Will my homestay parents like their gift? How cold is it there? Looking back only a week later, I realize these questions were all valid from someone who suffers from travel anxiety and that’s okay. But, let’s be real, I was being pretty dramatic in the grand scheme of things. My homestay is very quaint. I definitely packed enough. My sweet roommate’s name is Hailey. The Longhorn tumblers were a wonderful gift. And the weather is slightly chillier than I anticipated, but 100% better than Texas.
As aforementioned, I have been in Cambridge since last Thursday. Although my course didn’t start until Monday, June 3rd, we were all required to be here the Thursday before to move into our homestay accommodations. In order to protect their privacy, I don’t want to give too much information about my homestay family. Just know they’re a lovely older coupler who welcomed me to their home of 30 years with open arms, hearts, and minds. To avoid jet lag, I remained active my first night and ended up at my first pub with my roommate and host mom. Although I was exhausted and slightly missing home, I knew the town of Cambridge and my host family would make me feel at home right away.
Throughout the weekend, I was able to attend one of Cambridge’s most well-known events, Strawberry Fair. Think Woodstock and Texas State Fair have a love child! It seemed as though the entire town of Cambridge gathered to witness the music, food, shopping, and community that took place at Strawberry Fair. It was a wonderful welcome to the town! The following day, I traveled to London with a newfound friend on the program and quickly discovered the range of possibilities held within the city. I didn’t really go in with many expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised and look forward to spending more time there during my month in England. After what seemed like a week-long weekend, I started class and was able to formally meet everyone involved in my program. I know it isn’t conventional for a dance major to want to study education, so it was really wonderful to share my reasoning for choosing this specific course and to hear everyone else’s as well. In the future, I hope to pursue a graduate degree in applied behavioral analysis, so taking every opportunity I can to understand education and how that influences behavior from different perspectives is really important to me during my undergraduate research.
Wednesday, was arguably the best day on my trip so far! The day started with a group visit to Chesterton Community College, one of England’s top-ranked secondary schools. Secondary schools house students ages 11-16 and are the equivalent to what Americans know as middle and high school combined. The purpose of secondary schools is to prepare students for their GCSE’s, rigorous tests in each subject that alone determine their admission to sixth form schools or universities. In May of their 16th year, students spend three weeks in their GCSE examinations and at exactly 10am on a day in August they return to Chesterton to receive their results in an envelope that determines the trajectory of the remainder of their academic career. TERRIFYING RIGHT? It’s like our college admissions exams x1000! I can only imagine the amount of pressure that comes with such high stakes at 16 years old. Fortunately, we had the opportunity to speak with some students about their examinations, as well as tour the school, speak with faculty and discuss with the senior principal. My perspective on the UK education system and the way I am receiving education back home in the has already tremendously changed after just visiting one school. I look forward to the rest of the school visits in store and am humbled to have this new insight because of this hands-on experience.
The remainder of my Wednesday consisted of a visit to King’s College to hear their men’s choir perform, which is quite the story if you’d ever like to hear, and a picnic with my new classmates, which I can now call friends. We played some ice breaker games and celebrated making through our first week abroad. Wednesday has always been my favorite day of the week and this week proved no different, even halfway across the world!
As I sit on my weekend getaway flight to Paris to visit my best friend from high school, I can’t help but wonder if this is all a dream. At 20 years old, I am getting to travel the world to study a subject I am becoming increasingly passionate about every day. Additionally, I get to make some amazing friends who I don’t think I would’ve had the opportunity to meet otherwise. As cheesy as it sounds, I am finally understanding what “once in a lifetime experience” means to me and can genuinely say I am in the midst of one. I have so much newfound perspective that I just want to flood onto the page each night when I journal, but alas, my hand starts cramping. Being aware that I won’t ever be able to replicate this exact experience ever again has me doing everything I can to be present to every moment I get during this wonderful season of life! To have this outlet to share my experiences and gratitude is just the icing on top of the cake. Or as the British would say, the afternoon tea on top of the cake! If you’ve made it this long, you’re a real one! Cheers!
If you’re interested in hearing more about the United Kingdom’s education system or my travels this summer, please look out for my second blog post soon and feel free to follow me on social media.
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This post was contributed by Mykaela Johnson, a 2019 Global Ambassador.
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