While writing my previous blog post, I was in the reception area of a cheap hostel in Cologne, France, with a game of football playing on a nearby TV. Now, I’m typing in my luxurious single dorm room in London, more than twice the size of the closet-sized singles in Jewett into which I’ll most likely get thrown next semester. Seeing as the setting of my writing is dramatically different than last month, I’m having difficulty recounting everything that has happened to me over the last few weeks. I’ll give it a try, though, for the sake of my (three) readers. (Hi, Mom!)
THE GRAND METROPOLIS OF LONDON
Upon first arriving in London, I had a love-hate relationship with the city. I loved the insane amount of history that had taken place where I walked—just about every three blocks in London boasts a blue, circular plaque on a building signifying that [insert famous individual here] lived, studied, or just hung out there.
I didn’t so much love the actual process of walking around in London, in that getting from point A to point B usually involved detours to points C, D, E, Q, X, α, etc. It became painfully apparent to me that the simple grid-like street system of New York City was the exception to the rule of city planning; compounding the problem was the fact that half of the streets’ names changed every two blocks. Throw in speeding cars and pedestrian crossings that required more luck than skill to survive unscathed, and London initially struck me as one of the least friendly cities I’ve ever been to.
After a few days of exploration, however, I grew used to checking the city maps placed on the sidewalks every five minutes, and I slowly learned to love London, enamored by the beauty of Big Ben, the grandeur of Buckingham Palace, the bustle of Trafalgar Square, and the imposing London Eye.
Even though a lot of the main attractions like St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London carry huge price tags to enter, the outsides of such tourist spots are spectacular themselves; there are also discount passes available for those who plan ahead. Also, many museums such as the Tate Modern and the British Museum are completely free of charge. I haven’t even come close to finding everything that London has to offer, so I’m definitely glad to have two more months of exploration ahead of me.
THE ESTEEMED UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
After having already spent a month in Europe, I finally began “modules” (what the Brits call “classes”). Most universities in the UK don’t start fall term until October 1, meaning that everyone at Vassar will be four weeks into school before I’ve even sat down in a classroom. You can’t even imagine the amount of gloating potential this gives me.
The UCL campus was about what I expected: big and sprawling, with some nice-looking buildings (though nothing compared to Main Building, Thompson Memorial Library, or Rockefeller Hall). While the concentration of cheap cafès and bars run by the UCL Union was a nice surprise, the main campus showstopper is the Wilkins Building, a stately building with architecture inspired by ancient Greece that houses the library.
My favorite campus building, though, is the Cruciform, which houses labs for the division of biosciences.
Being a bioscience student at UCL has definitely been a fish-out-of-water experience. Most UK schools require students to choose a major before the beginning of the year, after which fellow majors take the same fixed sequence of modules for at least the first two years. This means that the first week of my second-year Animal Physiology module was composed of a quick “review” over all of the hormones that the Biomedical Sciences students had learned last year.
My Animal Physiology experience, however, pales in comparison to my ill-fated decision to take Classical Mechanics. While I assumed that it was an introductory physics class, it turned out to be an “introduction to physics” for physics majors, meaning that the students enrolled in the module already been studying physics for the last two years. I would tell science students studying abroad in the UK to be extremely careful when selecting courses, as what looks like an easy first-year class could suddenly become your worst nightmare. But hey, at least I got to see a first-edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica!
While I wouldn’t want to be in a lecture hall of 100 to 200 students for my entire time in college, I think the novelty such class sizes here at UCL will keep me content for three months. In any case, most humanities courses are divided into lecture classes and discussion seminars (kind of like Intro to Art History at Vassar) so it isn’t like I won’t get face time with my professor if I want it.
Probably the hardest transition I’ve had between Vassar and UCL is the changed dorm experience. I chose the self-catered option, which means that I share a hallway and kitchen with five other students and fend for myself in terms of meals.
As an abroad student, I’m guaranteed student housing, as are “Freshers” and postgraduate students. This makes for unusual flat dynamics, as mine is made up of a fellow study-abroad student from the U.S., three Freshers, and a postgraduate student from China. Although some of us are more open than others, it’s been a great experience getting to know them and comparing British customs, systems, and slang to their American counterparts. Plus, my hall-mates baked me chocolate chip treats for my birthday!
Compared with my freshman experience at Vassar, there is not nearly as much focus on dorm cohesion here. Oh sure, people party in the dorm basement, but I don’t think that most people have socialized beyond their floor, and there’s really no “dorm spirit” going on. That might be because all of our “spirit” evaporated when we realized that our dorm was a 20-minute walk from campus.
Even considering the issues I’ve had with UCL (let’s not even talk about my “attempts” at cooking), I expected to encounter most of them before coming to London, and I’m still convinced that studying abroad here was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Next blog: The social life in London, extracurricular activities, and hopefully some more traveling!