London abroad experience:
An Account of the Abroad Experience - By Arisbel Henriquez and Ryan Guidice
Study abroad programs, or educational programs that take place outside the geographical boundaries of the country of origin, have increasingly gained popularity. Much of the motivation behind international excursions has been rooted in the cultural enrichment that an abroad experience creates. Studies focusing on study abroad outcomes have provided evidence that these programs enhance students' worldview, global perspective, interest in travel, art, foreign languages, history, and architecture, as well as increase reflective thought, self reliance, self confidence and personal well being; additionally, these result in higher levels of international political concern, cross-cultural interest and cross-cultural cosmopolitanism compared to similar groups of students who did not participate in such programs (Kitsantas, 2004). Abroad programs deliver a cultural experience that not only develops lifelong skills, but also prepares students for global challenges.
Sitting at Holloway Commons after a long day of orientation, the 2010 McNair fellows thought about the announcement that the director had made earlier. The director had presented an opportunity that some knew we would not have the chance to be part of without the help of McNair. The first UNH McNair Summer Research Abroad Program to London, England sounded appealing from the moment we heard about the opportunity. Upon entering college, many of us knew we wanted to do some type of abroad program, but the thought of being away from home and family for more than a month pushed away the idea. On the other hand, five weeks in England did not seem that bad, and after a number of conversations with friends and family, we decided to go through with the application. After getting accepted to the program and a great deal of preparatory meetings, the idea of spending five weeks in England became more and more real.
As the date for the flight was fast approaching, we began to think about the country’s culture and its people and how we did not know much about either. Because both countries use the same language, we figured that in some way or another life could not be too different from in the states. After five weeks in the country, we were definitely proven wrong and were surprised by how different things are. One of the things that many people told us over and over again was that the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) are “two countries divided by a common language.”
After the six hour flight, departing Boston’s Logan Airport at night and arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport in the morning, the confusion over the time zone and the jet lag was one of the most disorienting things that we experienced. It was really hard to adjust to the five hour time difference. After blaming our exhaustion on jet lag, we were able to get on with the planned schedule. Traveling for an hour and a half from West London, finally arriving in East London was a cultural shock unto itself. Unlike the rest of London, East London is the most diverse part of the city. It was quite astonishing to see the number of Asian, Caribbean and other people from different countries of the European Union living in this part of the city.
The Adjustment: Functioning in a Foreign Society
On our first day in England, many differences in transportation, communication systems, and general technology became apparent. While attempting to complete tasks related to research or everyday living, these dissimilarities created a range of minor inconveniences to significant road blocks. Although each of these categories provided headaches for us, the actual processes of resolving the issues at hand were invaluable for our personal development.
The transportation system in England, possibly the most different infrastructure feature when compared with the US, required many adaptations from other citizens of the western world. As it was one of the first unexpected things that we noticed as soon as we left the airport, it was particularly odd to see the driver and the steering column of the car on the opposite side of the vehicle. Further, as US Americans who were accustomed to the convenience of on-demand car usage and travel by roadways and we quickly discovered that this method of travel was impractical for our location in London. A vast train network within the UK countered this lack of convenience with very affordable public transportation services.
Although convenient, the public transportation system in the England was the source of some challenges. The main concern was whether to get a pay-as-you-go Oyster Card or a one month unlimited pass for the London Tube. Through some calculations it was determined that it made the most financial sense to opt for the pay-as-you-go card. Obtaining a card and “topping-up” the card also involved a good amount of searching, but within the first few days transportation around London had been resolved. Utilizing the Tube did possess a moderate learning curve, but with practice, we gained valuable experience related to travel by train in a European nation.
As London was not the only place that we would visit, there was also a need to use the National Rail Services. These trains were independent of the London Tube and required a different method of payment and scheduling. Fortunately, travels to Southampton and Cambridge were frequently made by the trains and it was not difficult to receive a favorable fare on these trips. Moving luggage from the University of East London Tube Station to a National Rail Station did provide some problems because we had multiple pieces of baggage; but, overall trips throughout England were executed with general ease and affordability.
Prior to reaching England, it had been determined that we would purchase mobile pay-as-you-go phones in order to communicate while abroad. The workings of these mobile phones seemed rather inconvenient in that it was easy to frivolously waste the first £10 of minutes just talking to customer service representatives to establish a phone plan. This may have been a unique case, limited to the particular service provider, but without prior knowledge, this reality demanded quick adjustments to avoid losing large sums of money setting up the phone. Through persistence, the phones were operating effectively after the first few days.
In today’s world, it has become commonplace for technological issues to cause unexpected inconveniences. When traveling abroad, we learned that there is no exception. To compound this, the probability of technological miscues was amplified by minor hardware differences that exist in Europe. Accessing our appliances and using power outlets was easily solved by the use of converters and adapters, but in terms of connecting to wireless internet and using certain appliances, there were minor troubles. Additionally, it was found that access to websites may be restricted while abroad. Conducting research on the web sometimes led to obscure destinations where access is not permitted by the internet’s governing body within the region. Internet restrictions vary by nation and it is worthwhile to understand the barriers that may exist.
Converting US Dollars into Great Britain Pounds was one of the most elementary tasks that needed to be completed in order to function in England. Despite its basic nature, converting currency can be complex and without the proper investigation, one may overspend drastically to obtain the local currency.
Money matters cannot be understated while traveling. Learning how to effectively choose the most logical payment method can often save significant amounts of money. Between credit cards, debit cards, traveler’s checks and local currency exchange shops, the choices are extremely varied. Each choice has certain charges attached to it and understanding which should be used in each situation is crucial to cost effectiveness. Based on our experience, credit cards were always the first method of payment due to the 1% charge and favorable exchange rate. The worst method of obtaining currency was using a local foreign exchange shop, where rates were often found to be 15% more expensive than the going market rate. Understanding this was advantageous and will be valuable knowledge for future travels.
The University of East London
In the weeks spent at the University of East London (UEL), a vast amount of academic and cultural learning took place. The program offered interactive seminars with professionals from across the nation. The seminars were organized much like a small classroom where we listened to presentations while also having the chance to interject questions or comments. Societal issues and cultural differences were also brought out during casual conversation with lecturers. Topics discussed in both the structured program and informal chats consisted of the class system within the UK, living standards, and the UK education system (in particular higher education and the widening participation movement). As students who knew very little about English culture and even less about the education system, it was fairly difficult to understand and get a sense of the entire structure in a matter of weeks. Given the fact that our instructors pointed out that most British people do not understand the system themselves, it was bound to be a difficult journey. Further, comparing and contrasting the UK’s government operations with what occurs in the US was a beneficial exercise in the policy analysis of both nations. Overall, involvement in the academic program allowed us to gain understanding of the local culture and also grasp the complexities of the UK education system.
Although it was summer and almost all UK undergraduate students were on holiday with their families or were off working, at UEL a number of postgraduate and undergraduate students were working as student ambassadors on campus. While we were staying at the university dorms, we saw a number of students who were taking summer classes and most of them, if not all, were Asian or from somewhere in the Caribbean. In some sense we were expecting a predominately white city, and arriving at the university and seeing so much diversity, even more than what we would normally see at UNH was surprising and refreshing. The east end of London is a developing part of the city that has seen a tremendous amount of immigration, which has led to growing populations of ethnically and economically diverse people. In addition, East London has been going through significant renovation in the last few years as a result of the 2012 summer Olympics and Paralympics, which will be held largely in this part of the city.
The Olympic Park is being built on former industrial land. The government’s intention is that these events will leave a legacy of sports facilities and housing, which they hope will help regenerate the area. There are mixed emotions about the future and impact of the Olympics. Many of the young people are hopeful that this will have a positive impact on East London and will aid the area’s rise from poverty. On the other hand, many adults are a little doubtful of the impact that it will have, and fear that the plan may backfire and eventually dig a deeper financial hole. However, renovations are well underway and the area is already making huge improvements in the business sector and shopping development located in Canary Wharf.
The UEL Dockland Campus, which has been selected by the US Olympic team as their base during the games, is located at the heart of London’s regeneration and plays a vital role in the local development, inspiring educational interest and learning. The institution began as the Polytechnic of East London, and in 1992 became the University of East London. With the majority of its students coming from non-traditional backgrounds, many over the age of twenty-one and many being the first in their families to attend university, thus making UEL one of a kind. The university works with students in the nearby communities, and it is dedicated to equal access and inclusivity. Even though the time that we spent at the campus was short, and the amount of students who were on campus was small, the diversity of cultures and ethnic backgrounds made it an enriching environment.
Education in the UK
Unlike the education system in the US, which is a structure where students either take one route or the other, the English education system has a number of different schools, colleges, and paths that students have the option to take. The terminology is also very different, with schools being a broad term for any type of education in the US, whereas in the UK schools are solely primary and secondary education, which is compulsory until the age of sixteen. At this point pupils can choose to leave school and look for a job, get a vocational qualification, or continue onto further education. When we originally heard the term further education, we immediately thought that it would mean university or college. Contrary to that thought, further education is the key point where students take an exam called A-level which can be compared to the SAT’s in the US. This exam enables students to apply to higher education institutions. Once in higher education, a bachelors degree will normally take three years to complete, a masters can be finished in a year and a Ph.D. can be finished in about three years. Each level of education in the UK has a number of requirements and examinations that have to be met in order to move on from one level to another.
The focus of our seminars at UEL was access to higher education and the Widening Participation (WP) movement. The meaning of the concept is similar to what we think about when we hear those words. The WP movement is concerned with improving participation in higher education by addressing the large discrepancies between different social groups, and promoting and providing opportunities for successful participation (HEFCE, 2009). The targeted students are underrepresented groups, including those from working class backgrounds, low participation neighborhoods, and families that have no history of attending higher education institution. One surprising attribute about the WP movement and the challenges being faced is the significant under-representation of men from lower socio-economic backgrounds, in particular white ethnic males. This was notable because when we think of underrepresentation in higher education we tend to think of ethnic minorities. The fact that the UK is having trouble with working class white male entrance into the higher education sector is astonishing since in the US we would be hard pressed to find under-representation of students from white ethnic background.
When it comes to professors and lecturers in the higher education sector, there are a number of differences between the two countries. What goes on in the classroom is very similar in both cases, but many mechanisms are significantly different. We were surprised to hear of the limited control that professors have over their courses compared to the autonomy that professors have in the US. There are a number of national bodies that professors have to go through in order to get approval for one exam and the course syllabus. With regards to the WP movement, professors’ perceptions about its goals and progress have not been expressed in the most positive way. Many faculty members perceive the movement as something that will make the English education system similar to the education system of the US, but not in a good way (Gaines, 2010). The British class system affects the way people regard the WP movement. Many believe that higher education is “not for the likes of those targeted by widening participation” (Gaines, 2010). If higher education is accessed, what will such students do with their degrees since it does not guarantee that they will get the middle class jobs that they desire (Bola, 2010). The question that is raised is: to whom does the responsibility of helping underrepresented groups obtain middle class jobs belong, the government or higher education institutions? There is a belief that the employment responsibility for students should rest on the institutions because they can better prepare the students for the job market (Bola, 2010).
Attending the Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE) Conference
During our orientation week in England, we became two in the first group of students to ever attend the annual conference of the Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE). The FACE Conference was another learning experience from which we gained much. It was the first conference that we had ever attended and because we did not know what to expect, it made the experience that much more worthwhile. It was hosted at Solent University of Southampton and took place over three days. Participants attended daily lectures and research paper presentations related to higher education access in the UK. During the conference we had the chance to network with professionals whom we later had the opportunity to interview for the data collection of our research. The lectures were a great opportunity to further understand the university policy environment of the UK, and the research paper presentations provided interaction with international researchers and practitioners.
In addition to attending conference sessions, we presented our own paper session about preparation for postgraduate study where we discussed the McNair Program and our individual experiences as research Fellows. The fact that McNair scholars were the first group of students to attend the conference was valuable as well. Many of the professionals were interested to hear our thoughts about the education system and the WP movement. The different sections of the conference were separated by multiple break periods where participants could converse casually. Given that we required interviews to meet our research objectives, it was a perfect atmosphere for networking and receiving advice related to conducting research in the UK. Attending the conference provided us with essential information and cultural interaction in the early stages of the program.
The research portion of the trip and the data collection process were interesting and different in a number of ways. Given that it was our first research project, it was really challenging. There were a number of questions on the interview schedule about policies, as they relate to higher education access. We focused on education policies and the impact of economic factors. One of the problems that we encountered was the different uses of terminology, which meant the ways our questions were worded did not necessarily apply for some individuals with whom we scheduled interviews. We were able to fix these problems through the assistance of one of the seminars received at UEL, which pertained to ethics in research.
Once the interviews were scheduled, we traveled around the country to meet with the professionals, in some cases for at least two hours. Because most of the interviews were scheduled for the third and fourth weeks of our time in England, we had learned how to get around by that time, so when it was time to travel to locations where we had not been before it was not difficult. Once we arrived on site, the professionals were welcoming and willing to answer questions in the allotted time period. Because the interviews were semi-structured, we were able to ask probing questions, which led to a better understanding of the WP movement and yielded insight into what needs to be done. It was intimidating interviewing professionals and entering their work places as foreigners who did not know much about the education system or how they do their jobs. One of the benefits of being able to ask probing questions was that it facilitated our ability to follow the answers that were being given and increased our understanding of the role of the professionals being interviewed. While we were able to record the interviews, sometimes there was trouble with the devices, which would stop recording, but we would not notice because we were too engaged in conversation, a testament to the hospitality of the professionals participating in our study.
Implications of the Research
The experience of interviewing professionals was exceptional because we were challenged and forced to work outside of our comfort zone. One thing that we learned from interviewing the professionals about access to higher education was that they all agree that even though the WP movement is fairly new and received a great deal of attention with the last government, there is much to be done to improve the number of underrepresented students in the higher education sector. We also learned that there is little work being done to help students from non-traditional backgrounds get successfully through higher education institutions and there is definitely a lack of support once students have graduated to continue onto postgraduate studies or find suitable jobs.
The higher education sector and the WP movement are fighting an up-hill battle. The task is not only about the number of underrepresented students for whom they open the door to higher education, but about the number of those students who graduate and successfully obtain jobs related to their degrees and education. For instance, while at the UEL campus our research team encountered a number of people from underrepresented backgrounds who had professional degrees working as security guards, taxi drivers, and supermarket cashiers. It is not to say that this phenomenon does not occur in the US, but the number of people we repeatedly came across who were in this situation was astounding. After a couple of seminars, we came to understand that the reason why this occurs is due to the social class system of the country, which has been in place for many generations.
“The middle class are still securing the best jobs and the best education” (Gammell, 2009). Underrepresented graduates find it difficult to find jobs that are suitable to the education that they received (Bola, 2010). Students, whose parents have limited amounts of money, received little to no education and have limited social connections, have narrower choices; this is the case for many students from underrepresented backgrounds (Gammell, 2009). Social mobility is deeply affected by the class system, which prevents opportunities for working class students to move up. As Gammell (2009) noted about British society, the majority of people with positions in law, finance and government were educated privately.
In addition, in the UK there is a sentiment that educators may be hesitant to change their teaching styles to accommodate underrepresented groups of students. Teacher-focused strategies are one of the ways that lecturers can cope with a diverse student population (Hockings, Cooke & Bowl, 2007). The drawback of this technique is that even though the strategy might be effective when it comes to handing down sizeable amounts of information to a large group of people, it is ineffective when it comes to exploring the ideas and experiences of the students. This can be detrimental for underrepresented students, because it can make them feel more isolated and facilitate a sense of not belonging to the university community (Hockings, Cooke & Bowl, 2007). This leads us to question what it is that higher education institution are doing to prepare professors and lecturers to teach the increasing number of underrepresented students? And, how can teacher’s perception about the widening participation movement change?
When it comes to teaching, we think it is important for professors and lecturers to remember that each student brings to the classroom a different point of view and different life experiences that if incorporated to the learning environment, can really change the way a student will engage and learn. Awareness of the diversity in a classroom and the affect of a professor’s practice on a student’s learning can change the student’s engagement and experience in the classroom; and this can create a more inclusive learning environment.
This pilot program, although hosted in London, England, included visits to Southampton and Cambridge. Throughout the five weeks, it was the goal of the program to expose students to research in a foreign country, while also providing a rich cultural atmosphere. Through the various seminars, lecturers, conference sessions, gala dinners, and interviews, we were able to learn much about the English education system and the widening participation movement. In addition, we were also able to conduct original research.
Despite maintaining a significant workload and achieving research commitments, we also found time to venture off to well known historical sites, national parks, and other attractions in England. The experience of being in a foreign country, amidst a culture and people different from the US was exhilarating. It was an experience that was not only about learning about our host country and its traditions, but we also learned about ourselves and what it takes to work and live with different people.
Although two of the four weekends within the UK were pre-booked for cultural excursions, the other two weekends were free for individual planning. By planning a trip within a foreign country, there was a great increase in reflective thought, self reliance, and self confidence. The amount of budgeting, logistics, and other factors that make a trip possible all rested on us as students and this created a sink-or-swim environment. Operating in such an atmosphere proved positive for us and allowed the acquisition of lifelong skills that are applicable in any profession.
Finally, the programming involved connecting with residents and there was an overwhelming amount of cultural activity in which to participate. These events were crucial to the success of the program, encouraging intellectual dialogue with locals to obtain otherwise unknown perspectives. Extensive social interaction was at the core of our cultural development on this trip. Overall we found the time in the England to be an immersive cultural and academic experience that will be looked back upon favorably for years to come. The McNair 2010 Summer Research Abroad Session to London was an opportunity like none other and one that we hope the McNair Program will maintain for future students.Sources
Bola, F. (2010, July 8) Widening participation – employability & WP: Getting your degree to work . Seminar conducted at the International Summer Institute of the Continuum Research Centre at the University of East London, London, England, United Kingdom
Gaines, S. (2010, July 22). Similarities and differences in college teaching in the United Kingdom and the United States. Guest lecture presentation for INCO 410 – Introduction to College Teaching. Lecture conducted at Brunel University, London, England, United Kingdom.
Gammell, C. (2009, April 17). Britain's class system 'alive and well', claims research. Telegraph. Retrieved August 7, 2010, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/5165594/Britains-class-system-alive-and-well-claims-research.html.
Higher Education Funding Council for England. (2009). Widening Participation. Retrieved August 7, 2010 from http://www.hefce.ac.uk/widen.
Hockings, C., Cooke, S., & Bowl, M. (2007). 'Academic engagement' within a widening participation context – a 3D analysis. Teaching in Higher Education. 12.5, 6, 721-733.
Kitsantas, A. (2004). Studying Abroad: The role of college students' goals on the development of cross-cultural skills and global understanding. College Student Journal.
Review Ryan Guidice's Research Presentation
Review Arisbel Henriquez's Research Presentation