As an Owl Abroad, I find myself happily overwhelmed with how much there is to do. Studying in London allows me all the historical significance of a place that has served in a multitude of roles, from Roman outpost to the center of the world in the imperial age. I have been visiting a museum at least every other day (they’re all free admission in London!), trying out a coffee in each new place I visit (in order to train my tongue for my job at Coffeehouse next semester), and meeting people from all over Europe and the world—not just Brits.
However, I want to take this moment to make every student, whether a prospective Owl or a current one, aware of a key fact regarding the abroad experience: it’s pointless without immersion. Since coming here, I have realized that immersion is akin to Maslow’s self-actualization—you may think you are doing it, but you really have a long way to go. Immersion isn’t just using an alien currency, speaking a foreign language or trying food you never would have had at home. It goes beyond the typical channels of long-term tourism, and is attained through continuous engagement with all sides of a culture. Immersion takes time, and in order to do it properly, you need to see parts of the abroad experience you never would have considered.
Consider my recent trip to Wembley Stadium, the home of the English national football team (yes, I’ve converted to saying football instead of soccer. At least for my remaining 6 weeks in England. I hear it helps with the immersion process.) I found the trip informative, thorough, and generally enthralling. Heck, I probably even thought to myself something along the lines of: perfect. I’m doing the abroad experience. Seeing the sights. Doing the things. However, my most revealing interaction with “the beautiful game” happened not in a stadium, but on a national rail line train returning from Dover last night. It was around 9pm, and my favorite team—Chelsea FC—had just bowed out of the FA Cup in a 2-1 defeat to West Ham United. At the match, some fan violence had broken out, resulting in several injuries and arrests. At Stratford, the penultimate stop, about 30 fans of the two teams boarded. I got into a conversation with a West Ham fan, who had attended the game with his two sons. In that intimate 5-minute conversation before we arrived back at the King’s Cross/St. Pancras station, I learned more about soccer than I had on the entirety of the two hour Wembley Stadium tour. I hereby teach two lessons: First, that immersion is better attained through a small conversation than a big destination. Second, that you grow more as a person through the former.
Many students from universities across the United States use their time abroad to explore a number of places they haven’t been to, not necessarily just in their host country. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. I myself have visited Germany since crossing the pond and will be heading to a couple other countries before my visit is through. Travel is vital in becoming a more worldly citizen, although when done in excess one runs the risk of missing the entire point of the abroad experience. I wholeheartedly believe I got more out of my trip to Canterbury than my visit to Munich, not to mention that my combined visits to Canterbury, Dover, Oxford, Cumbria and (when I visit them) Bath and Cambridge all cost less than 1/4th the price of one plane ticket to Munich.
With all this in mind, I advise traveling. Do so wholeheartedly, even spontaneously, and with an open mind! However, do not neglect the smaller sites, the more minute opportunities for interaction with the respective native culture. At the end of the day, those will be the most important moments.