Monday, September 7, 2009

The long overdue "reflection" post

Well, I've been back in the country since June 27th, and I've had lots of time to reflect and think back on my 5+ months in Scotland.

If you have read any of my posts, my feelings toward the country should be pretty obvious. I love it, adore it, and miss it dearly. It was the best decision I have ever made, and I don't regret a single second of my stay there.

But since I need to go into slightly more detail, I'll stick to the list of prompt questions Northeastern has provided and hopefully that will both be interesting and satisfy my requirements!

1) What have you done that has made a significant difference in your life?
I'm trying to answer this question without just saying "living in a foreign country on my own was life changing!" because that's probably a cop-out. But it's also pretty true. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Scotland- I applied to the University without doing much research, and I had very little prior knowledge of the country. The thought of Scotland produced images of kilts and bagpipes in my mind, and a strange curiosity of whatever "haggis" was. But, I was very eager to find out and submerge myself in their culture.
My best friend Kristine was also studying abroad in Edinburgh, so I knew I'd have at least one friend built in. If all else fails, I thought, at least Kristine will be there. This was pretty important to me, because I was afraid of having to put myself out there...alone, and make new friends in a weird land. But despite having Kristine around the corner, I knew that playing it safe wasn't the reason I traveled 3000+ miles to a new country. So I decided to join university-sponsored groups (Edinburgh Swing Dance Society and the Film Club) in hopes of meeting new people. worked! Not only did I find an unlikely activity such a swing dance that I really enjoyed, but I also made what I hope will be life long friends. Quickly I discovered that it's not so bad joining something alone or trying to make a new friends. Of course I was a little nervous at first, but it wore off fast. And that taught me a lesson. So now, back at Northeastern, if I want to join a club that none of my friends are interested in, I won't be hesitant. I think that's a pretty significant difference.

2)What advise would you give to future study abroad students?
This might be related to my last answer, but do NOT hesitate to join clubs and put yourself in situations that natives are in. That's the point of going! Get out there, don't waste your time watching television or chatting with your home friends on Facebook. You'll be home soon enough, probably sooner than you'd like, so just go out and do things. My flat had no TV and intermittent internet access, and it was probably the best thing that could have happened. It's easy to use those things as a crutch, so don't start the habit.

3) What did you learn about your host country?
Scotland is a proud country with a rich culture and extensive history. They have a very distinctive sense of national pride, partly stemming from the abuse and mistreatment suffered at the hand of the English. They are the underdog, constantly trying to break free from the confines of England, hoping to forge their own separate national identity. And I think they've succeeded. Despite not being even slightly bit Scottish and heritage, I couldn't help but develop an overwhelming sense of Scottish pride. I'm a history major, so after years of studying British (but mainly English) imperialism it was easy for me to go along with their "SCOTTISH NOT BRITISH" campaign. They want to be on their own, independent and with their own goals. I respect that, and that characteristic really helped me to fall in love with the country. Perhaps I just really like underdogs.
But the people are friendly, courteous, and seem to appreciate the important things in life. TV seems less important, family time and experiences seem to take precedent. When I returned back to America, I found myself being bombarded by flashing advertisements, televisions in supermarket aisles, and a million ways to distract yourself from your current situation. I can much more appreciate a country that hasn't quite figured out Wi-Fi like Scotland than one that constantly offers you ways to escape your life.
However, my perception might be a little skewed. I lived in Edinburgh, the capitol city and home to fairly well-off people. Had I lived in Glasgow, a more working-class and industrial town, or a village in the sparsely populated Highlands, I might have a different understanding of what it means to be Scottish. Scotland, for the size that it is, has a little bit of everything. Wealthy coastal towns, broken housing projects looming outside cities, isolated sheep farms, tourist-fueled towns, and everything in between. It's way more complex than people give it credit for. However, understanding all the separate regions of Scotland are essential to understanding the country as a whole, which is something I strove to accomplish. I traveled to Glasgow, Stirling, and different areas in the Highlands on numerous occasions, and it just re-enforced the notion that Scotland is much more diverse than one might expect.

4) What did you learn about yourself?
In short, I learned that I can handle a lot. I enjoy putting a lot on my plate. I took three Third Year Honours Courses, which are the top level the university offers. While my other friends were taking classes pass/fail that didn't relate to their major, unfortunately I didn't have that luxury. I had to really learn how to balance school work with play time. I knew I didn't want to lock myself in the library all semester long, as that would prevent me from fully experiencing the country and take full advantage of my abroad opportunity. However, I could not afford to blow off my responsibilities and do poorly. Ultimately I think I balanced it pretty well, without procrastinating too badly, and without leaving myself no time for fun. I ended up doing fairly well in my classes (US equivalent of an A- and two B+'s) and still having an exceptionally fabulous time. Not to mention, I had to deal with some bad news regarding the health of some relatives, the death of my 16 year old cat, and dealing with the normal unfortunate events that can happen to a family and other loved ones over the course of 6 months. It wasn't all easy, but I'm fairly confident that if I was able to handle that....I'll be able to handle whatever else that comes my way. Since my mother's cancer has just reoccured, and I'll be starting the graduate school search very soon, being able to handle a large amount of stressors is going to be vital to my sanity. I think my time in Scotland has helped prepare me for this.

5)What is your favorite memory?
I do not even know where to begin! Taking a tour of the Highlands and Loch Ness with my friends was certainly fun and memorable, memories of my parents coming to visit during Spring Break are something I'm sure I'll cherish for many years to come. Every week my friends and I would get together in one of our flats and cook fancy dinners, drink wine and have fun. But I guess if I had to choose just one, it would be our bittersweet trip to Tantallon Castle in North Berwick, Scotland. We went on the last day of finals, which also happened to be one of the nicest and sunniest days Scotland has to offer. When we arrived it was beautiful, and located right on the coast with gorgeous rocky cliffs. We barely explored the castle...instead, we lied on the grass in the courtyard and reminisced about the previous 5 months. We were all set to leave in 2 days, and everyone was extremely unhappy about doing so. But lying in the sun with such a beautiful setting in rhe company of people who had become among my best friends was priceless. Later that day, we traveled back to Edinburgh to celebrate our friend's 21st birthday, and then went out dancing to a club on campus that prides itself on playing "cheesy 90's music." All in all, it was a glorious day and ridiculously fun night, and was the perfect way to end such a fantastic stay in Edinburgh.

As my final thought, I will just say that no matter what lies in store for me, or what the upcoming months and years will bring, my time in Scotland will probably rank among the happiest and most fulfilling months of my life. I would trade it for nothing; I have not a single regret and enjoyed every single day. To anyone who is even casually considering studying abroad, please do not hesitate. It was the best and most special experience in my life so far, and if you pick a country that fits your needs, it will most likely be the same way for you. Go Scotland!