It was 10 a.m., July, Kingsway Street, Central London. I was on my way to the New Academic Building at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I had been studying for the summer. I probably looked lost as I glanced around in a sort of amused awe. Despite all of the excitement and beauty of London, I felt like I could have been in any city, anywhere.
It was a beautiful day. The sun shone vibrantly in a bright blue sky, dotted with fluffy white clouds. Women and men in fancy suits and store clerks in their uniforms walked briskly past as I meandered toward campus. I couldn’t help but laugh. How did I get here?
Nothing really compares to the feeling that I had in finding myself in a situation so different from what I had ever previously experienced. The city — with its tall buildings of shiny pained glass, crowds of people, incredible population, diversity in profession, background and lifestyle — was something that I had not really experienced growing up.
I’m from a suburb of Detroit, but growing up, my family and I would spend our summers in a small town in Northern Michigan. There, we would swim, sail and play in lake Michigan with family and friends. The town wasn’t where I was from, yet these experiences helped shape me almost as much as the place where I grew up and went to school. In combination, they provided a stark contrast to the city where I had found myself at the moment — London.
I reached campus and walked through shiny glass doors, touched my LSE student ID to the sensor, and walked into my class on the ground floor. After an hour and a few pages of notes later, I left with a few classmates to get lunch.
We walked to a nearby restaurant, got food and took it to a nearby park. The two girls I was with, both Americans, had very different college experiences than I had, yet we shared so much in common. They were from smaller, East Coast private schools, were older, and were studying different things than I was. Yet, we talked about everything from politics to ex-boyfriends as if we shared far more experiences than we really had.
I missed my home, family and friends. I missed the familiarity of my own bed, and the easy availability of peanut butter at the grocery store. I wanted to see my parents and brother who were enjoying the summer up north without me. I missed being able to walk five minutes down South University and be at my friend’s dorm. I wanted care packages from my family without having to venture into a distant part of town to pay customs charges to receive them.
The support system that family and friends provide is important to me, and was something that I hadn’t previously lived without. For most of my time in Europe, I was pretty much on my own. I made incredible friends that I still keep in contact with, but there is no replacement for the people that that have been there for me my entire life.
My study abroad trip, as it probably is for most people, was a transformative experience. But, unlike most characterizations of these sorts of experiences, it wasn’t one big, momentous event. Most lessons were smaller, gradual and mundane. Having only completed one year of college as an in-state student, the biggest thing I had to learn was how to take care of myself, a lesson that I realized was more difficult than I had imagined. I somehow contracted some sort of stomach flu, with no family members or familiar doctors to take care of me.
But the entire experience of being abroad seemed underwhelming. There were, of course, a few dramatic moments. I got the opportunity to see inside Buckingham Palace, looking at some of the most beautiful art and interior decorating I’d ever seen. Classmates and I watched Antony and Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I rode on a big tourist bus that drove us out into the middle of rolling fields so that we could walk around Stonehenge for a while. We listened to an expert legal academic discuss human privacy rights in a period heavily impacted by big data.
The gravity of these few places impacted me at the time, but that wasn’t the case for the majority of my trip.
The political and historical significance of so many of the places I visited and lived were certainly consequential. I had, in part, come to London to experience a city that had such a pivotal impact on the development of the world, and still plays a driving role in international economics and politics — and I certainly appreciated these aspects of my trip. Yet despite the consequence and weight of what I was doing and learning in London, the best, most impactful experiences came from little moments.
Exploring the city and attending class with the new friends I had made through my program, I felt as though I really could’ve been anywhere. Though I was with entirely different people and in a completely new place, I felt at home.
After time passed, though, my real home didn’t end up seeming so far away. Even with the time change, it wasn’t very difficult to call home to my parents. Because London was five hours ahead, I could call once I was back in my room doing homework. I learned to appreciate my family in a different way since we were disconnected by time zones.
One of the last things I did in London before I left was visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was there that I realized what an incredible summer it had been. The culmination of each day’s events added up to something that was far greater than anything I had expected to experience. I was so extremely lucky — not because of all the things I was able to do and see, but because of the people I met, and the ways in which I was able to grow that I really couldn’t have in Ann Arbor.
But that isn’t something that I could’ve known, standing in the middle of a crowded street in Central London, in July. It was too early to know that the places and people I was meeting that day would do so much to shape my college experience.