This post was contributed by Chelsea Cowan, a program coordinator for faculty-led programs in Education Abroad, about how she optimized her time abroad in London to include studying, service learning, and research.
Whenever anyone asks me what the strongest influence on my life has been up until this point, I always say the time I have spent outside of the US, particularly the two years I spent living in London, UK. I believe the best way to learn more about yourself, your unique values, and traditions is to actually submerge yourself in the ways of others. It often surprises me how much I have in common with someone who lives thousands of miles away from me, but it’s even more shocking, and humbling, to realize just how much I don’t know and how much I still have to experience and learn from others in my short time on this planet so far.
If you’re reading this, you may be wondering how an international education experience can serve you, and I wanted to share how I was able to live, study, participate in service learning, AND conduct research abroad during my time in London. My hope is that you can see the many different ways an international experience can enhance your learning and growth as an individual to impact your community and help you achieve your academic and professional goals.
Throughout my time in college and graduate school, I studied classical music performance. When I was debating where Iwanted to pursue my master’s degree, I knew that I wanted to study in Europe, as the traditions of classical music and some of the best performing ensembles in the world are rooted there.
After months and months of preparation and anxiety, I made the trip to New York City to audition for the Royal Academy of Music. I never in my wildest dreams expected to get in, as it is an extremely prestigious school, but the idea of studying internationally was a huge dream of mine, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try (and it was a great excuse for a small-town girl to visit NYC).
When my acceptance letter came, I admittedly jumped up and down at the thought of moving to such a glamorous, exciting city like London, surrounded by British accents, tea, and high-end fashion. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much those two years in London would completely change my concepts of community, relationships, resiliency, and essentially every facet of who I thought I was.
A brief list of some things I encountered being on a campus different from what I was used to:
- Being a conservatory in a major global city, there were no sports teams and no “campus” with a student union or dorms. This actually forced me to get out into my new community, find my own place, and really immerse myself in the life of a Londoner. It broke me out of my shell and demanded that I make friends outside of my school, many of whom were not musicians, and who I know will be friends for life.
- London is a MASSIVE international city! Most of my fellow students were not from the UK and being from a very small town in Michigan, this opportunity opened so many doors for me to learn more about the world and how many different ways people around the globe express themselves and build relationships. I now have friends scattered on every continent (except Antarctica, of course) and I truly treasure everything I have learned from each and every one of them.
- Performance styles in the UK are very different from the US. As a musician, we usually have a specific way we are taught to play, which usually comes with a distinct sound. In the UK, I had to learn a completely different way of playing. This was daunting and quite frustrating at first, but it proved to make me a more versatile musician when I came back to the US. I now approach differences in my professional life not with fear but with curiosity at the prospect of what knowledge they could bring to me.
- I was in London during the 2012 Olympics and during President Obama’s re-election. As an American abroad, these were extremely important events where I was lucky to be surrounded by non-Americans who could give me unique and thought-provoking perspectives on both. My views of my country and what it means to be an American have been shaped by pivotal moments such as these, and I never forget them!
During my time in London, I actively searched for service learning and educational outreach opportunities. These turned out to be quite plentiful, since I was on a student visa and was limited in the amount of paid work I could do outside of the Academy. The UK is well-known for their progressive educational methods, and London was the perfect place for me to explore educational outreach with music. I was able to work with children from minority communities and help them write an opera, aid adults struggling with dementia perform a song to strengthen their memory, and I even trekked through the Himalayas to teach music and connect children there with primary school children back in London.
One experience that was particularly impactful was a project with an outreach organization through Wigmore Hall, which allowed me to work with refugees and asylum seekers at a homeless shelter. The group I worked with was an English as Second Language class, and we had adults from El Salvador, Senegal, Russia, India, and many others who had left their homes, jobs, and sometimes families, behind. We used music improvisation sessions to get them more comfortable expressing themselves with each other, without the barrier of English, which most of them were really struggling with. I learned through this experience that finding and connecting with a person through a common human interest like music, art, or dance is a great way to learn more about a person who may superficially seem so different than you.
All of these experiences equipped me with the knowledge to return to the US and ask the important questions needed to help those in need in my own community. And now that I have done my share of moving across the US throughout my career, I have a stronger confidence and ability to connect with a brand new community and have more empathy for groups of people with which I am not familiar.
Research/Fieldwork in London, Ireland, Spain, and India
For my master’s thesis, I wanted to curate a lecture recital of flute repertoire based on folk music from different parts of the world. Because I was a broke international student and wasn’t able to secure research funding from the Academy, I took advantage of London being a diverse international hub and the fact that it is so easy to travel around Europe cheaply. Two of the pieces I performed were based on Irish traditional music and Basque folk music, so I was able to travel to those destinations during my school breaks and take video footage of traditional ensemble performances. I studied these and used these performances to interpret and apply to my own.
Other pieces I chose were based on locations much farther away, like Iran, Bali, and Argentina. So I took to the streets of London and was able to find random events happening throughout my time there, like a Persian classical music festival or an Argentine tango milonga. Actively searching and participating in these cultural events helped me to understand them far more than just reading up on the internet or watching a YouTube video, since understanding a genre of music relies so heavily on the knowledge of its social context. All of this research inspired me to pursue a doctorate, travel the world, and study music in India, which completely changed my life and career goals.
In just my short two years abroad, I felt like I experienced a lifetime of opportunities, and they were certainly ones that I still carry with me and use to define who I am. You can certainly find your own opportunities to maximize your time abroad, too! I encourage you to take advantage of this exciting opportunity here at UT Austin to do the same and bring back a ton of great experiences that will help you change the world and yourself.