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Illustration: Sibilla Grenon

While most students opt for the traditional path of spending four years at one university, sometimes with a semester or year abroad added into the mix, students enrolled in the joint degree programme between St Andrews and the College of William and Mary follow a less linear path.

The programme, which began in the 2011-2012 academic year, allows students to spend two years at William and Mary, a public liberal arts school in Williamsburg, Virginia, and two years at St Andrews. Upon graduation, programme students receive a Bachelor of Arts (International Honours) degree bearing the insignia of both schools.

“It’s unlike any other four-year university experience because you’re not going to school with the same group of people for [the whole time],” fourth year Patrick Williams said. “You don’t really have a sense of study abroad because you’re [switching schools] constantly. It’s [more about] different ways of adapting to a community.”

The goal of the programme is to combine the strengths of the two schools. Whereas St Andrews allows for in-depth study in one subject, William and Mary encourages study in a breadth of subjects. For example, a student studying history at William and Mary might take five or six classes a semester in topics ranging from American history to calculus and natural psychology.

Currently, only students studying international relations, economics, history or English can participate in the programme. “From a William and Mary perspective, you specialize in your degree more than you would be able to do normally,” third year Matthew Ramir said. “[The programme] allows you to explore your subject from a lot of different angles and with a lot more depth.”

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Adjusting to different academic styles is one of the main elements of transitioning from a student’s home school, where they spend their first year, to their host school, where they spend their second year.

After the second year, students can follow one of two paths: ABAB, where they switch between their home and host school every year, or ABBA, where they stay at their host school for the two middle years.

“It can be hard with the first transition when you’re coming to a university that has a very different academic pedagogy, because the expectations are very different,” Mr Williams said.

At St Andrews, there is a stronger focus on independence, while at William and Mary, learning is more of a collaborative effort between professors and students.

Ashley Brenton, a second year, said: “I love the level of personal relationships you get with professors at William and Mary because the classes are small. I emailed my teachers all the time and would go see them about papers whenever I wanted. I don’t think you get that same kind of relationship here with the lecturer changing regularly. It’s not the same continuity that can facilitate that kind of closeness.”

Ms Brenton also said the workload at St Andrews is lighter because tutorials are held once a week. At William and Mary, readings are due either twice or three times a week. Since St Andrews modules have fewer assignments than William and Mary classes, each assessment is weighed more heavily.

Academic considerations are one reason students choose the ABAB path versus ABBA.

Elizabeth Courtney, a fourth year, is following the ABAB path because she enjoys the working style at St Andrews and would rather do a capstone project here than a senior thesis at William and Mary. Alternatively, Mr Ramir is following the ABBA path in order to write his senior thesis under a William and Mary professor.

“[I want] to get that more positivist, mathematical statistics background,” he said. “There’s a huge gulf in international relations between the institutions.”

The other major aspect of deciding between ABAB and ABBA is the difference between social lives at the two schools. Hayley Grassler, a first year, said she thinks it will be hard to leave St Andrews next year because of the friends she has made here already. Students who have made the transition share the same view.

“You have to leave behind the best friends you made freshman year to go to a new school in a foreign country, and that’s pretty scary,” Ms Brenton said. “You basically have to start all over once again as a scared freshman, trying to meet people and figure things out.”

Mr Williams said he chose the ABAB path partly for social reasons.

“It would have been really difficult to leave William and Mary at the end of my first year and come back at the beginning of my fourth year just because there’s so much change that happens in those two middle years, whereas when you’re only away for a year, it doesn’t really feel like that long of a time,” Mr. Williams said. “It kind of forces you into a pattern of picking up and relocating pretty much regularly.”

For those who pick the ABBA path instead, a commonly cited reason is having the continuity of one school, including the same academic system and social environment, for at least two years rather than having to readjust every year.

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Students in the programme have a variety of reasons for choosing it over a traditional university experience. Ms Grassler chose it because he wanted to specialize in both American and medieval history, while Mr Williams said that every programme he applied to was a deviation from the norm.

“Over the course of my second and third year, I realized that I’m sticking with [the programme] really because I’ve learned more about myself doing this than I think I would have at a normal four year programme,” Mr Williams said. “I think there’s enormous potential for personal growth.”

In addition to working through academic and social differences, programme students must navigate a series of unique issues. Mr Williams cited not being able to take leadership positions at either school; Mr Ramir said that comparing the two schools is a common and unproductive practice.

“They’re different,” he explained. “There will be certain differences you’ll like, and certain differences you won’t like. You’ll prefer different schools for different things, but the point is to try and accept those differences… Don’t try to compare them because it’s like comparing apples and oranges.”

Mr Williams echoed Mr Ramir’s thoughts, saying the academic and social environments are “totally different” at each school.

In terms of differences, Ms Courtney said that while St Andrews offers independence and the ability to travel, William and Mary has a strong sense of community. She also said the school has more services and a bigger administration. For example, students can use the gym for free.

Mr Ramir found that the social lives of the two schools are “miles apart,” especially given the absence of fraternity parties at St Andrews, but said that both towns have historical charm and a distinct set of traditions.

Ms Grassler agreed, saying: “I really like the historical aspect of [St Andrews]. I like just being able to go out and sit on the ruins between classes.”

Given the variances between the two schools, Ms Courtney said that many students start at a school and get used to it, only to move to their next school and be disappointed by the many contrasts.

“You’re not going to have the same experience, nor should you have the same experience, at both schools,” she advised.

One response to issues students in the programme face was the formation of the WaMStA (William and Mary/St Andrews) Student Partnership. Ms Courtney, president of the partnership, said it was created to give students leadership opportunities and the chance to have a direct impact on their university experience.

The partnership organizes social events and works to make the transition between schools more fluid. One of its upcoming goals is to create a video explaining information needed during the first transition, such as how to get a bank account or a new phone number.

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Despite the challenges faced by students in the programme, Ms Courtney said that it provides an outside perspective, particularly regarding the strengths and weaknesses, of both schools. Additionally, because she only had two years at each school, Ms Courtney was more inclined to push herself to take opportunities.

“I have to have four years’ [worth of] experiences in only two years at a place, and that kind of made me come out of my shell in a lot of ways,” she said.

Mr Williams agreed, saying that the many benefits of the programme are often less discussed than the disadvantages. “There are all these problems that everyone talks about, but we also don’t talk about all the obstacles that have been removed, like the fact that you don’t have to be at the same place for four years to get your degree,” he said. “When you take the basic requirements off the table, you’re allowed to rethink the entire university experience, and that’s really where you get the sense of independence and creativity.”

To learn more about the WaMSta Student Partnership and how to get involved, go to their website: www. wamsta.wordpress.com.

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