The Overseas Series: Maddie Richards

Maddie Richards writes about her experiences as a year-abroad student in the Southern sunshine of William and Mary, at Williamsburg, Virginia.

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My name is Maddie, and I’m spending a year at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia studying International Relations and Spanish. I’ve lived in London all my life, but my mom is American (as evidenced by the fact that were I to type “mum” I would be immediately and irrevocably disowned) and I spent most of my childhood summers visiting relatives in the United States. I grew up with Americans, so I (somewhat naively, and a touch smugly) thought I was more than prepared to live in America. As it turns out, I was not.

Williamsburg is a hazy, quirky, confusingly mapped-out litt le town about halfway down the east coast. It’s a couple of hours south of Washington D.C., and only an hour north of a place legitimately called Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. There’s a whole section of the town called Colonial Williamsburg, which is a living museum of colonial times, located not far from the oldest college building in the United States. The resulting atmosphere is an odd blend of morally-questionable historical legacy combined with all- American college pep, but it makes for interesting tourism.

On an average day, I’ll wake up in my dorm room, which is less colourful than Zoey 101 led me to expect but lovely nonetheless, and head out to shower in the same room as 10 other people. I was blessed with the individual shower rooms of University Hall in first year, so this took some gett ing used to. Then, I return to the room that I share with a girl who was a stranger to me nine months ago, and is now one of my closest friends. (Disclaimer: this is not the universal roommate experience, I just got lucky.)

The overall lack of privacy here was extremely challenging at first. Orientation was like Freshers’ Week on steroids, and it was tough not having a place to be alone and switch off . I am not a crier, but I took full advantage of laundry day as an opportunity to turn my back on my roommate and fold laundry on my bed, pretending to watch The Office while having a good old-fashioned silent cry. Having said that, the lack of privacy has fast-tracked my friendships in a way that I am now very grateful for. And in those moments when I really did need to be alone, I could always take a stroll through the gorgeous woods that surround campus, or brave the risk of large Virginian bugs in a hidden corner of the laundry room to FaceTime a loved one. (An extra lesson for those fearful of long-distance relationships: it can work. DM me for tips.)

From dorms, I take a quick walk to breakfast (I walk everywhere, apart from regular bus trips to Goodwill, a goldmine for last-minute preparations for themed fraternity parties). Breakfast takes place at Sadler food court, which was the site of my near-religious conversion to Southern cooking and has yet to let me down for a decent meal, and then I walk to class. I take five classes a semester, each with three contact hours, 100-150 pages of reading and several hundred words of writing per week.

The American system is simultaneously more demanding and less presumptuous; the work is frequently easier, but much more voluminous. For this reason, I spend most of my time between classes and meals at the library. The students here have a ferocious work ethic; they want to be here, and they work to be here. It is a self-proclaimed school of nerds, and it rubs off on you.

This translates into the nightlife. The “frat parties” are fun and do include jello-shots, but are also significantly tamer than they would be in other Southern schools or in any college movies. Other than that, a lot of social life revolves around the plethora of niche clubs boasted by the college, including no less than 14 a cappella groups. There really is something for everyone. My personal favourites include open mic nights at the Meridian, a funky litt le concert venue the size of a small living room, and day trips to Busch Gardens, a theme park around 20 minutes outside of campus. As a means of letting off steam during exam season, the roller coasters are unparalleled.

The things I have most treasured during my time here and the things I will miss upon leaving reflect the things that are always most important to me: the people and the relationships. The same applies, as far as I am aware, to everyone. If you are passionate about academics, you’ll take away from this experience an appreciation for the academic rigour and opportunities aff orded here. If you love to travel, you’ll make use of the chance to explore Chesapeake Bay, or nearby Washington D.C. If there’s one thing I will not miss, it’s the workload. I have learned a huge amount and I am grateful to have been challenged academically in a new way, but the experience has taught me that I’d rather feel happy and healthy than freak myself out over academic achievement. My advice for any future study abroad students is clichéd and overused, for good reason: take risks. Studying abroad is a rare and precious opportunity for total self-invention with very low stakes; any social screw-ups have a shelf-life of no longer than one or two semesters, and any major baggage acquired will not fit into the overhead bins upon your departure. You get to put into this experience and take away from it whatever you want. A further cliché of warning: you truly will get out what you put in, so embarrass yourself by saying hi to every new person you sit next to, volunteering in class and signing up for a weird extra-curricular club. The conversion of British scorn to American sincerity will be kinder to you than the pound to dollar exchange.

If I have learned one thing from the Americans who have so generously taught and befriended me over this year, it’s to lean into cheesiness: studying abroad has been scary and lonely at times, but overwhelmingly enjoyable. I’ve gained friends, memories, ill-fitting Hawaiian shirts from Goodwill, several pounds of body weight from the aforementioned Southern cooking and a newfound appreciation for my home country and university, which has made me eager to go back. Though I’m sure if you run into me on North Street in February, I’ll be clicking my heels together to take me back to the near-eternal warmth and sunshine of Williamsburg.

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