How best to describe a semester that was supposed to happen, then wasn’t, then was pushed back, then almost wasn’t again? Funny enough, it was the best.
My Spring 2021 semester in London, England was supposed to happen in the fall, before I deferred in hopes that the pandemic would be much more controlled and that this shift in plans would be for the better. So, trust me when I say that I fully understand what it is like to be unsure or to adjust plans in hopes that your experience abroad will go as smoothly as possible.
I got to watch the fall students, my original supposed-to-be peers, go on the infamous Friday walking tours with Jeremy, tour other parts of England, go to Sunday Roast, all the quintessential aspects of time spent living in the beautiful U.K. capital.
Once their semester wrapped up and mine was next, excitement and optimism were electric all around me. Until that is, the U.K. lockdown restrictions tightened up due to an unforeseen (don’t you appreciate that I didn’t say unprecedented?) change, once more.
Quarantine went as it was supposed to and ended up being an incredibly productive and introspective time for me which set my semester off on the right foot. For those that may have struggled, both the U.K. National Health Service (NHS) and USAC offered amazing support during that period spent inside.
By the time that my self-isolation period was over, modules (classes) had begun and orientation through both USAC and London Metropolitan University had wrapped. Restrictions were already beginning to loosen intermittently, and everything was looking up again, which brings me to the word of the reflection: flexibility.
To study abroad in the first place requires a level of curiosity about the world, the desire to see what is beyond the scope of what you know to be “the way things are done,” and so follows flexibility. In a “standard” year, this could mean anything from open-mindedness about a language or national religion to trying new foods or meeting local friends. In an era of COVID-19, that all holds true with the addition of being just as flexible with oneself. Some things won’t be the exact same as they would have a year or two ago, but that’s OK.
I realized that for me, personally, this flexibility came in the form of taking time daily to reflect on my thoughts and feelings. This introspection and seeing how I reacted to new situations and changing regulations was vital. It offered me a great personal routine that made me feel balanced and secure in the knowledge that I was making the most of my semester in a safe and respectful way.
As vaccines continue to roll out both in the U.S., U.K., and other countries, the world is beginning to feel more familiar all over again. Studying abroad is becoming increasingly available through USAC in more locations and finding the right fit (or committing to plans you may have put on hold) is finally starting to feel “right.”
This semester was one full of growth, in the most unexpected ways. For me, it seemed to be the perfect way to finalize the other study abroad experiences that I have had. From being around people and in new places almost constantly, to a homestay in South America that was a bit more centered in Santiago, to exploring my neighborhood in Islington and getting acquainted with many forms of “solo travel,” the progression of my experiences has been interesting. I’ve found that it is easy to lean on others, even in moments of discomfort.
However, navigating certain experiences like modules and exploring London on my own allowed for the perfect balance of introspection and self-motivated connection with the relatively restricted space around me. While some might think of growth and challenge as being catalyzed by the unknown and language or cultural barriers, I found the most discomfort yet in a semester that was characterized by the English language and relatively tame travel experiences.
I might have continued to walk around my local park, Finsbury, or visited even more local restaurants as restrictions lifted, but I found myself falling back into the pattern of going outward and searching for a version of “more” that tends to be fueled by my love of experiencing things that are new.
All of this being said, I do feel that the balance I was able to attain this spring was one that would never have otherwise been found. I know the Holloway/Islington area so well and can name so many other areas (with directions to get there!) in a way that would have slipped my grasp had the experience been “typical.” The relative abnormality of the world in which I experienced my semester in London ended up being the best thing for me.
I am so proud of my newfound capacity to be alone. I grew up as a pretty reserved kid but found so much value in community and interactions with others as my undergrad experience developed. I would have never expected that I might need to get back to a level of comfort with experiencing things by myself. However, once I was forced to do so through quarantine and the nature of being one of three students on this program, I realized that was exactly the thing I was missing. I have found so much balance in being successful and happy, both on my own and with others.
While I would have loved to visit some friends in European countries that were so close to me while I lived in London, I also don’t feel like I particularly missed out on anything significant. I’ll see those people eventually and it’ll be a good excuse to come back again. I was lucky to have the opportunity to visit a few cities and countries within the U.K. during my semester, as well. Starting with Brighton and Oxford USAC trips, to individually planned adventures in Bath, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and some towns in Cornwall, we ended the semester with a daylong USAC hike over the Seven Sisters cliffs. Seeing so much of England, and even London itself, was a more immersive and rewarding experience than it might have otherwise been, one that I will continue to cherish and reflect on in the future.
The biggest takeaway for me from all of this is how full of gratitude I am for such an amazing support system through USAC, as well as finding the beauty that was hidden within the lack of “normalcy” that I experienced this spring.
Anna Shoultz studied abroad in London, England during Spring 2021. She is also an alumni of the USAC Santiago Program. Listen to more of Anna’s experience studying abroad in London during COVID-19 on the Students Beyond Borders Podcast.