Oxford and Beyond
The choice of whether or not to study abroad can be a daunting one. My first piece of advice for you is this: do not feel you are alone. There are many at Cornell who have gone before you and are eager to share their stories. Believe me, in the final days and hours leading up to your embarkment, you will come to rely on every word of experience that others have shared. And then, the plane will take off, and your own story will begin!
When I was 16, I spent a day in Oxford. I was smitten! That first week of Cornell orientation, when I heard of the possibility to study an entire year at Oxford, I was sold.
It is not easy for me to travel. I use forearm crutches to get around. Due to limited mobility from cerebral palsy, I also use a wheelchair, usually a motorized one, for longer distances. So it was quite dramatic during my first week at Cornell, when I announced to family and friends that I wanted to study abroad. The choice of an abroad program was easy for me. When I was 16 my parents took me for a week to London and a day trip to Oxford University. I was smitten! That first week of Cornell orientation, when I heard of the possibility to study an entire year at Oxford, I was sold.
The process was not simple: academic criteria had to be met, planning undertaken, and in this uncertain age, the visa process took a little longer than anticipated. Now I am here—and I have absolutely no regrets!! For you, the decision might not be as definite or may not come to you so early. Again, I say, you are not alone.
In choosing a country, city, or college, consider the most important factor first—location, location, location. Get good maps of the places you are considering and study the locations of the different sites before deciding. If you are a hiker and biker, your choice may be very different than that of a museum or theater enthusiast or someone who needs to be near bars, restaurants, or markets to feel at home. Having traveled to several large and some smaller European cities, I can report that each and every one of them has a unique grandeur and will be fun to live in.
Travel in Europe is easy, even for me. London is especially accessible, as ALL of the taxis are equipped for motorized chairs. With one phone call, I can ride the trains as well, and the disability offices have helped me get around even in inaccessible cities like Venice.
My travel rules include: travel light, plan ahead when practical, and ask for help from officials in charge. This even goes for asking directions, where shopkeepers count as officials! If they do not want to be helpful, they will let you know, and you can be on your way, but you may save yourself from being lost or isolated, something you don’t ever want to be.
So, you may ask, what are the benefits of packing up and moving halfway across the globe to study? Academically, learning European and British history from professors who were born and raised in Europe cannot be replaced. For example, the fact that the British Constitution is not written may seem just another thing to memorize in our classrooms, but here it is a big deal! Also, Scotland is not just a blob on the map between Ireland and London, but a vast, spectacular country that has a history with a far greater impact on this side of the globe than Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. In any culture, there are past conflicts that still reveal themselves in everyday prejudices and political alliances that have endured. Reading newspapers, interacting over dinner, and continually questioning what you observe offers insight into a culture and nation that can never be had in a classroom.
Studying abroad also offers constant reminders of how we as Americans are viewed by others. From my experience, many older Europeans do consider us the heroes of the second World War. On the flip side, we are still sometimes seen as the colony that broke away, one that relies on an overload of consumerism and greed. British people take pride in frugality and view extravagances as indicating ignorance that far less of something would serve the same purpose.
I have come to enjoy a meal that extends for more than an hour and to embrace light rain all day, dark afternoons, and music of all kinds wherever I go. For some reason, street musicians in Europe are at every corner making me feel like I am in a romantic movie.
I’ve found there is no shortage of political opinions about Donald Trump and Theresa May!
Outside the classroom, I have learned to wear clothes several times without washing, use any public toilet that is available—no small feat for someone with my needs—and go without a microwave or television. I have also come to enjoy a meal that extends for more than an hour and to embrace light rain all day, dark afternoons, and music of all kinds wherever I go. For some reason, street musicians in Europe are at every corner making me feel like I am in a romantic movie.
More than anything else, my abroad experience has taught me that no matter where one travels, people are people—good and bad. Some will make room for you, and listen to you, and take pride in allowing you to embrace and enjoy their country and culture. Others will dismiss you. This is no different than at home or anywhere else in the world. Something else I will take from this year abroad is a new respect for my country and a renewed interest in being part of solutions to make it better.