“Do what you want to do, go where you want to go, and acknowledge that the first week might completely suck.”
At the time of this writing, we’ve supported thirty-two students in their semester abroad experiences. And as much fun as it is for us to send out that initial “Congratulations!” email to our students, offering the good news that they’ve been selected as a recipient of the Ashley Soulé Conroy Scholarship for Study Abroad, often the best part comes later. When they send us photos and postcards and emails from their destination countries with words of joy and thanks and smiles that stretch the screen. Often, after their term has concluded, we all go our separate ways and we move one with the next round of recipients and they move on with their academic careers. And we’ve decided we needed a way of catching up with Our Scholars after their study abroad experience has concluded to see what they’d learned, to hear their stories, and to share with you more of an in-depth look at what our applicants are experiencing out there overseas. So that’s exactly what we’re doing here in a column we’re calling Spotlight On, which features casual Q&As from our scholars both old and new.
This month, we’re catching up with Victoria Garon. She falls more in the “new” camp of our scholars. In fact, she was our most recent study abroad scholarship recipient (Fall 2017). The reason we chose Victoria as our very first Spotlight On candidate is not only because she is an excellent writer who really wowed us with her essay last year but it’s also because she’s just a few weeks back from her trip. It’s fresh in her mind. And the advice she offers to students getting ready to study abroad is spot on.
1. Tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
I’m Victoria, and I’m from New Orleans! I’m majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. I’m also double minoring in Spanish and British Studies, and I love to read and write. Last semester, I studied in London at Richmond, The American International University. I was at the Kensington Campus, which means that I was in Central London, so right in the middle of everything! I really love exploring new places (especially finding new coffee shops), so being close to the heart of the city was a great experience.
2.You chose to study abroad in London. How’d you decide where to go?
I always knew that I wanted to study in the UK, and London was always a major contender, but I definitely considered other places. The College of Charleston has programs which go to Nottingham and Brighton, and I considered those towns for a while. I also thought about going to Ireland (either Dublin or Belfast), because my family is Irish and I thought it would be cool to study somewhere where my ancestors had lived. Ultimately I decided on England because I’ve always had such a fascination with British history, and I knew that a short trip to the country wouldn’t be enough for me. I settled on London because it’s so central and I knew that I could not only have some wonderful experiences in the city itself, but easily take day trips to other parts of the country.
3. What was your biggest fear before departing for your study abroad trip?
I’ve been dreaming of visiting London for a long time, so once it became a reality, I was so scared that I’d get there and hate it. It’s really intimidating, finally being able to go somewhere that you’ve wanted to go for years, and in the weeks before I left, I’d almost entirely convinced myself that there was no way it would live up to what I’d imagined and that I’d land and absolutely hate this city where I had to live for four months. Mostly, I repeated something my mom had told me before I left for college: “You can do anything for four months.” It was calming, and of course once I got there, that fear went away.
4.Likewise, what were you most excited about?
Like I mentioned before, I’ve had an insane fascination with British history for a significant portion of my life. London has such a rich cultural and political history, and I was so excited to be able to see things like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, things I’d only ever read about in books.
5.We all tell ourselves stories about what our next big adventure is going to be like in the months leading up to it. Inevitably, things shake out a little different in real life than how we’d dreamed. Did you have any surprises?
I went into my abroad experience expecting a cultural shock, but the culture of London itself was not something I expected. The vast majority of London is not actually British. I was in Kensington, which is colloquially known as “Frog Town” because of the huge amount of French people who live there. There are so many areas of London inhabited by people who aren’t British originally, but who are Bangladeshi, Polish, American, Spanish, and so much more. The fact that I could walk down the Kensington High Street and not hear English until I walked into the tube station was something so cool that I definitely did not expect.
6.What was your absolute best moment or memory from your trip? The thing you’ll never ever ever forget?
I think my best memory was actually visiting Edinburgh. I went to Scotland over Fall Break, and it was something I honestly hadn’t really thought about. I was excited to go in the sense that I was excited to see something new, but I didn’t know much about the city before I went. As soon as I got there, I completely fell in love in a way I hadn’t fallen in love with a place before. The city is breathtaking, and it really looks like something out of a fairytale. I’ll never forget standing in Edinburgh Castle, exhausted after having to get to the airport at 5 AM, and just looking out over the city completely captivated and not even worrying about how tired, hungry, and freezing I was. That was an incredible moment for me.
7. Likewise, what was your not-so-favorite memory? A time maybe when something went wrong or didn’t go as planned?
My worst memory of London is probably when I first got there. I barely slept on the plane (and had barely slept the few nights leading up to my departure), and I was completely jetlagged. I remember looking around and recognizing nothing– no brands or people or places, and I felt so overwhelmed. London’s a really big place, and I felt so small that first day. Before anything was familiar, it was all so scary and new and I just wanted to go home. I think almost everyone has a moment like that, and it’s important to acknowledge it. After a few days, that feeling had pretty much vanished.
8. What was your housing situation like while you were there?
I lived in a traditional dorm (hall bathroom and all), which wasn’t bad! I actually ended up having my own room, so it was nice to have my own space. Our dorm was in a neighborhood in the Kensington-Chelsea borough of London, so I was very near everything. The biggest challenge was probably the lack of a kitchen in the dorm, which is something that pretty much every college student deals with. Our dorms didn’t even have a microwave or fridge, so it was pretty much either eat at the dining hall or eat out, which can get expensive pretty quickly.
9. What was it like meeting friends in a whole new country?
I was definitely worried that I wouldn’t make friends. It was hard to leave all of the friends I’d made at my home university behind, and when I first arrived I felt a little isolated. The important thing to realize is that, especially when you’re on a program with other international students, almost everybody feels the same way that you do. Once I attended some orientation events, I quickly clicked with a few girls on my tour and we were friends from then on. It was intimidating, especially in a whole new country, but after that first week it was fairly easy to talk to people and make friends.
10. Let’s be honest. For some reason London doesn’t exactly have the best rep when it comes to food. Did you find a way to settle into the food scene there or were you missing food from back home?
This question made me laugh. London for sure doesn’t have the best rep, and in my personal opinion, British food is certainly not the greatest. I was definitely missing food from back home, especially being from New Orleans where the food is extremely good. The good thing about London, however, is that it’s an incredibly multicultural city, so there are options other than traditional British food. I spent most of my time bouncing between French and Japanese food while I was there!
11. If you were to share offer a piece of advice with someone just getting ready to fly off for a semester abroad, what would it be?
I think the number one thing I would say is don’t put too much pressure on yourself. So many people come back from going abroad saying things like “This changed me!” or “This was the most profound experience of my life!” And it’s not that that’s not true, but I think there’s a lot of pressure now for students to have the greatest experience of their lives when they travel, and that kind of pressure doesn’t make for a good experience. Do what you want to do, go where you want to go, and acknowledge that the first week might completely suck.
12. How was it coming back to the US and settling back into life at CofC? (Things that you were happy to be back to, things you missed about London, etc.)
Coming home was a bit of an odd experience. Going home to New Orleans for the holidays felt mostly normal, because I do study out of state so I’m used to being away and then coming home. It was coming back to CofC that was the strangest for me. I was of course thrilled to see my friends and my campus, and it’s nice to be able to run to my usual coffee shops and cafes. But I do still miss my friends in London and the places I frequented, and it’s weird to not know when I’ll be able to go back.
13. People can change a lot through international travel. Now that you’ve just finished a full semester in a different country, do you feel like you’re any different than you were before you boarded the plane to England?
I do feel like I’ve changed since going abroad. Living essentially alone in a city like London makes you become very self-sufficient. I feel more confident about my abilities, and traveling somewhere else really does make you think about things on a global scale. It’s easy to fall into an America-centric frame of mind when you’re not traveling, so seeing people who don’t worry about America, but about their own processes and issues helped me gain a wider perspective of the world.
14. Do you think travel will continue to be a part of your life?
I do want to continue to travel. I definitely want to go back to Europe. One of the ideas bouncing around in the back of my mind right now is graduate school abroad. I absolutely fell in love with Edinburgh while I was visiting, and the University of Edinburgh actually has an incredible graduate-level creative writing program. It would certainly take a lot of saving, but that’s a program I’m definitely keeping in the back of my mind for the future.
15. You won our foundation’s scholarship out of hundreds of qualified applicants. Do you have any words of wisdom for students who may be seeking to fund their travels through scholarships like this one?
I think that the most important thing when considering applying for scholarships like this one is to be authentic. GPA and grades are obviously really important, but when you’re writing essays, don’t write what you think the committee wants to hear. Write what you really think. It will come off as so much more real, because it will be. And odds are it’ll be a far more engaging and enjoyable read.
(Those of us at Ashley’s Foundation fully agree with this! See our #1 piece of advice for essay writing here.)