When you ask your older friends and classmates about their experiences abroad, you’ll hear crazy stories about traveling across Europe, how they made lifelong friends with Wake Forest students they had never previously met and that the lower drinking age was a game-changer. If you ask them about their classes, you’ll most likely hear that it was pretty easy — or maybe that it was hard, but only because they were unlucky enough to have a more challenging Wake Forest professor in charge of their program for the semester.
Something you rarely hear about, however, is the actual experience of getting an education in another country. Now, Wake Forest study abroad definitely uses this as a selling point, but that’s not the same as talking to another student about how it affected their life.
I am currently studying at Queen Mary University of London, a school boasting a total of 18,000 undergraduate students, which feels like a behemoth compared to Wake Forest’s 5,000-something population. Although changing classes and finding a spot in the library is a lot easier at Wake Forest, having the opportunity to learn in the United Kingdom definitely outweighs the reality that I now have to pay £7 to do laundry.
Despite the fact that my courses are taught in English, there is nothing American about the way my professors approach the subject material. My two politics courses, concerning the theory of modernity and the interplay between colonialism, capitalism and development, deeply challenge me to think within a Eurocentric framework. These classes, from their foundational arguments to their exemplary materials, are both produced by and facilitated through European history and thought. For instance, a discussion of “Developed versus Developing Countries” in one of my seminars focused solely on the United Kingdom and Europe as examples of the former until I brought up the United States. This exists in stark comparison to the ways in which we discuss political theory in the United States, for example. We take John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, all rooted in European history, and immediately apply them to the American experience. Even my English course on James Baldwin, a quintessential African-American writer, is flipped on its head to account for it being taught at a British university. My professor’s point of view on race relations and historical events in the United States has challenged the way that I approach my understanding of them.
Following this, I feel that my classes seem so “un-American” due to the sheer diversity of perspectives in the classroom. One of my politics seminars consists of the following national breakdown: British, German, Albanian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Iranian and Indian. Of the 17 people in my class, I am the only one from the United States. This creates such a fundamentally different experience when discussing concepts, ideas and texts — people are coming from all over the world with contradicting and complementary understandings of human existence.
Sometimes, I find myself wondering why I didn’t end up at Casa Artom. While trying to get to my classes in the pouring rain, I can’t help but be jealous of my classmates whose rooms face out onto the Grand Canal of Venice. At the same time, however, I remember that being there would mean living and learning with the same 12 people for four months and never getting to listen to a British student explain their understanding of the civil rights movement, or never stopping for coffee after a lecture with my Albanian and Spanish classmates. After a bit of reflection, I realized that I wouldn’t trade my experience at Queen Mary for Italy, or any other place, no matter how many days it’s been since I’ve seen the sun.