I have always been a perfectionist. Even in high school, I always held myself to the highest, and frankly, most unattainable, degree for success. Since coming to the University of Texas, I have tried my hardest to reevaluate my standards. Of course, I make sure to work as hard as I can, but I try to be gentle with myself. I’m not one of seventy-five like I was in high school; I’m part of something much bigger, and I am allowed to give myself grace when I can’t run at one hundred percent all of the time.
Despite my best efforts, I still struggle from time to time. This became especially evident to me when I received my grade for my first assignment here at the University of Edinburgh–an essay I wrote on the Border ballads. The notes left by the grader said that the work was excellent, engaging, with only a few critiques (that were honestly very helpful). However, when I looked at the number grade, I received a 71. I knew coming into this university that the grading scale was much different, that an A is in the range of 70-100, but seeing that number was like a blow to the chest. There was a gap in my brain between knowing I should be proud of my hard work, but feeling so inadequate receiving what would be considered a low C at UT.
In addition to this dichotomy, I have also had trouble adapting to the course expectations and organization at my host university. For most classes, we are provided with all of the materials that we are expected to learn, and then we meet up either once or twice a week to discuss the materials and answer any questions. I am no stranger to hard work, and as an English major, I am very familiar with having a plethora of readings. However, to give you an idea of what the course work for one of my classes was like, I was expected to read a 400-page novel before the Monday of my second week of classes, and I was only given a week notice, as they did not upload the course materials until a few days before the start of term. Back home, a book of that length would have been spread over at least two weeks, and even then, we would have read to certain pages before class and discussed each section in class. Here, I am to read the entire text before I show up to class on Monday, and we discuss it for an hour, and that is it. Next week, it is a new book, a new discussion, rinse, and repeat.
When I describe the academic structure here, it is not to point at my host university and say: “Look at them. They are doing it wrong.” Instead, I am trying to show just how different the expectations are. What seems outlandish to us at the University of Texas and other institutions in the States is very normal to my peers here (except for the novel on the second week of class. Even my British counterparts here admit that was a lot). It is difficult when you grow up with a certain academic system, with its pacing and expectations, to come to a completely new system and try to adapt. That, paired with my disabilities and the fact that I am in a physical classroom for the first time since I was a freshman, creates an environment that makes adapting an increasingly slow process.
Reviewing everything I have written up to this point, it looks as though I’m painting the study abroad experience in a very bad light, but that is not what I am trying to achieve in this at all. Yes, there are parts of this experience that are very stressful, but there are also parts of it that are exemplary. I have a support system here in the form of my personal tutor (very similar to an advisor at UT), new friendships that I’m sure will last a lifetime, and, of course, I’m living in a city that has very quickly become my favorite place in the whole world. Studying abroad will never be a semester of vacation with a little bit of knowledge thrown in, nor should it be. It is going to be demanding and busy, just like any other semester is. The difference is, the experience will change whoever was strong enough to get through it, making them all the more ready to tackle whatever life has to give.
This post was contributed by Nellie Downie, a Global Ambassador for fall 2021. Nellie is a junior English major studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. Read her first post here.