I remember attending the St Andrews open day in April 2015 and going to a lecture on the study abroad opportunities provided by the University for third year students. From that moment, I knew I wanted to study abroad at some point in my university career. Don’t get me wrong, St Andrews is an amazing and unique place to study and I wholly enjoyed my first two years there. But, after two years I was certainly ready to embark on another adventure, and I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunities that studying abroad can provide.
My name is Mark Edwards, I study Geography and Modern History, and I am currently at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – one of the oldest public universities in the United States of America, and the only public university in the US to have awarded degrees in the eighteenth century. Chapel Hill is a small town in North Carolina, and like St Andrews the University is an incredibly important part of the town and the town’s life; the campus makes the town what it is, the students are everywhere, and the student community is thriving.
The University’s population is somewhat larger than that of St Andrews, though, and that is noticeable; UNC-Chapel Hill feels like a big university and it’s great to feel like a small fish in a big pond, something you certainly do not always feel in St Andrews.
Day to day, my schedule is also somewhat different to back in St Andrews. My university timetable is busy, and much more like school, with three or four classes a day. Having spoken to friends back in St Andrews, who in third year seem to have almost half my weekly contact hours, I have to say that I am happy to have the structure! My lectures generally have around 20 people and are a mixture of lectures, group disussions, and questions. Participation also counts here (up to 30 per cent of my final grade in some cases). This means it is imperative to do the reading – no time for scrolling Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter here!
My final grade is also made up of mixture of weekly discussion or ‘journal’ posts on an online forum, posts that must refer back to the week’s reading and then essays and exams. Assessment is continuous here and, in many ways, I feel much less independent. Numerous teachers and professors have referred to the constant ‘hand holding’ here… This is not necessarily a bad thing, it has kept me on my toes and is a way of making sure I keep up with the work. However, for those who don’t work this way, this may feel like a rather straitjacketed way of learning. Saying this, though, major assessments are done through ‘projects,’ where you are given complete freedom in researching and writing an extended piece of work on a subject of your choice. This has given me much more freedom in pursuing my own interests within a subject.
So far, I have only been here for just over a month, but I have already had my fair share of experiences. On the night before the first day of class, the infamous Silent Sam statue was pulled down. Silent Sam was a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier that had been standing on University property from 1913. From the 1960s, Silent Sam had faced protest; it was seen to have portrayed an inherently racist message, and over the past few years, there had been a number of calls for its removal. However, under a North Carolina state law, which was passed in 2015, objects of memorial and remembrance were protected, so the removal of the statue was prohibited. Opposition to the statue grew exponentially after this law was passed and it culminated in the toppling of the statue on the night of 20 August 2018. In the aftermath, there were further demonstrations and counter-demonstrations and it was clear that the toppling of the statue would have a historic impact.
The news of the toppling made international as well as national news; I actually first heard about the events from a friend in the UK, who had heard the news on the morning radio. The toppling of the statue has been presented as a moment of great opportunity for the University; the UNC-Chapel Hill Institute of Politics presented it as an opportunity for dialogue between the two sides of the debate and a chance to create a new path for race relations at UNC. So far, I have yet to witness this new path, though. Nevertheless, these events were undoubtedly eye-opening, and I can certainly say that I lived through some important history not just for Chapel Hill, but for America as a whole.
A little over three weeks later, I then had my next adventure: living through ‘the Hurricane of a lifetime,’ Hurricane Florence. On Tuesday 10 September, with Hurricane Florence fast approaching, the University announced that classes would be cancelled for the rest of the weekend, and that all students should aim to leave the Chapel Hill campus.
Having been in St Andrews when ‘The Beast from the East’ reared its ugly head in March, I thought I had seen it all. That was nothing in comparison; all the shops were quickly out of supplies, there was talk of power outages across the campus and so naturally, all the students were quick to leave, some leaving North Carolina completely in search of a safer shelter. I was lucky to be put up in the house of an American friend who lived in the west of the state, near Charlotte.
Other students used this opportunity to travel around the US; some went to Washington DC, others to Boston and some made the transcontinental trip to San Diego. Despite the fact that, unlike some, I had to endure the full force of the hurricane, I am so glad I stayed and experienced some ‘true’ American life. I witnessed the beautiful ‘Southern hospitality,’ something that essentially means being welcomed into the home of strangers as if you have been best friends for years.
I experienced rural America, which really is like what you see in the movies and managed to taste an amazing array of new food and drink (Moonshine really is a thing here!). By the
end of my evacuation I was luckily completely safe, and only faced a few days of constant rain and wind. However, I know that others, especially those who hailed from the North Carolina coast were not so lucky, seeing their neighbourhoods flooded and their infrastructure ruined. These are just two of my many adventures I’ve had so far while being abroad. I hope I have much more to experience (I have already planned to go to Denver, New York, and Washington DC). But so far, I would certainly say that studying abroad is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had; it has put me into situations I would never have believed I would be in, it has introduced me to new people, and it has opened my eyes to new ideas.
In my first year of St Andrews, someone said to me, “Mark, you don’t seem like the sort of person who would want to study abroad. I think you want the cosy life of St Andrews for four years.” I think this could sum up a lot of people in St Andrews. St Andrews is a great place to spend four years of your life, but to all those thinking about the opportunities of abroad, I would strongly suggest you take them. After this point in your life, it is unlikely that you will be able to spend a year in a different, crazy, and amazing country in the same way you can on a year abroad.