Something I find fascinating about American culture is the need to have “The ___ Experience.” High school. College. Dating. First day/week/month/job/apartment. Study abroad. These Experiences™ are well-documented in books, movies, TV shows, social media, so most of us know what the life we’re “supposed to have” looks like, from Little League and princess dresses to a two-story house with a Golden Retriever. No matter how skeptical one might be, it’s very hard to be an American now and not have at least a fragment of The American Dream tucked away somewhere in the subconscious.
As an introvert, an HSP, a shy person, and a girl with curly hair and glasses, I don’t fit the American ideal. My little rebellious heart doesn’t want to fit the American ideal, it just wants me to be me. I’ve gone my own way (with varying degrees of success) as far back as I can remember, planting my flag in a mountain of books and declaring it my own. But aha – books are a very good, very sneaky (or not) way of talking about The Experience. And so, despite my efforts to turn off the path of the great superhighway of the American Dream, I often find myself on autopilot, merging back on.
And it never feels right when I merge back on. I’m like a mountain bike with a bunch of mud and rocks in my tires suddenly trying to keep up with a horde of sleek commuter bikes. I’m bumping along and I feel very out of place – which is good, because I am. I belong wandering around the mountains (very slowly) instead of zipping from place to place. Zipping around is great – I’m just not built for it.
Analogies aside, I have my little being that loves walking slowly and soaking things in, and I grew up in fast, experiential culture. And that gets me here to the country I’ve wanted to visit since I learned that castles were real, but somewhere along the way my childhood dream and adult curiosity got muddled in with the idea that I am A College Student™ and I’ve got to have The Study Abroad Experience™.
What I would do here for me and what I would do for The Experience look very different. Briefly, for me I wanted to take some European-style lecture classes, wander around the countryside and the ruins and the old bits of town, and go to music things. What I felt a study abroad student should do here is madly finish classwork to clear up time, leap-frog around Europe every weekend, and join a bunch of adventurous clubs.
I found myself – surprise, surprise – alone in a café, writing and people watching, and realized I was vaguely dissatisfied. Why? I wanted to be doing something more. What? …something. Why? Because I’d compared my list of “experiences” with those of other students and my list was much, much shorter and much less dramatic.
Most days, I wake up early. I go to the gym or run along the River Kelvin, make a cup of tea, and go to my lectures. I’ll spend the afternoon studying, either in my flat, at a café, or in the GU Catholic Association building. Evenings, I go to theological talks or choir rehearsals. It’s a comfortable, calm routine, I like it, and it leaves room for the handful of jaunts I’ve done outside of Glasgow and my many forays into shops, museums, and parks.
My routine is not glamorous. And, unlike the rest of the international students, it seems, I have yet to venture outside of Scotland. I’m definitely not having The Experience. But, as I’m coming to realize, the normal study abroad experience is not for me. It never was, and I used to know that. Realizing it again felt like the sun was coming out (a big deal in gray, dreich Glasgow).
My realization also gave me permission to recognize the experience that I am having. By spending so much time on my own, I’m growing in self-knowledge and self-advocacy. By staying in Scotland, not only am I taking care of myself, I’m learning about the country in depth. By focusing on my studies and tours of museums and ruins, I’m gaining a rich, nuanced knowledge of the last two thousand years of European history with a focus on Glasgow’s West End. I’m having my own experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
SCOTLAND – UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW, 2018 FALL
Alice Major is studying at the University of Glasgow in Glasgow, Scotland. She is a double major, focusing mostly on music and adding history because history is cool. Study abroad is Alice’s first time out of the country, and she hopes to come home in one piece and with a wicked Scottish accent.