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The Carletonian

A year of personal growth

<re I say anything else: I am very wary of sounding like an admissions poster. I don’t want to be that person. But that being said, of all the ups and downs I experienced in 2018 I don’t think any had as large an effect on me as the spring term I spent studying abroad in London.

The biggest effect my term off campus had on me is perhaps not intuitive. It certainly was not what I expected to get from the program, before anything else. The classes were, in fact, rigorous and I learned a lot from the seven long books we read and twenty-some plays we watched. But it wasn’t the classroom where I changed the most, no more than a single term of classes at Carleton alters who I am as a person. Nor was it the simple fact of being in a large, strange, exciting city. That was important, yes, but the crux of it came from something far harder to pin down.

As someone who had lived in relatively organized spaces for all my life up to that point, with my family or in the dorms, I found the experience of living in a hostel altogether new. Food did not magically appear on my plate or in the refrigerator with the swipe of a card as it did in the Carleton dining halls; I was not at home in a familiar kitchen with a familiar nearby grocery store from which I could make familiar meals.

Even though I cooked sometimes at home, the psychology of my new surroundings changed the way I approached acts as simple as grocery shopping or meal planning. We were not buying family groceries anymore; this was my money, and these were my groceries, and, equally important, I would have to use them before they expired. I do not drink milk as fast as I thought I did.

Truth be told, I did not cook as much as I would have liked. The process of adjustment and an unknown, cramped kitchen made it hard for me to adjust. Most of the time I subsisted on grilled cheese sandwiches made from wonderful, cheap British cheddar, as my program mates can attest.

But I still found a degree of empowerment in the ability to control what I bought and consumed. I’ve always been a control freak, and the fact that I controlled everything I ate, bought, or did, so unlike my time at Carleton, liberated me in a way I didn’t know was possible.

Once I returned home, and later to Carleton, where I have since lived off-board, I found even the smallish amount of cooking I did abroad helped me make meals for myself. Now that I had few other options and more experience, meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking for myself seemed less like chores. They even became fun.
Even with all the eating out we did in a city notorious for its foodies, I saved money compared to my time at Carleton. A lot of money. Without all the overhead of dorms and dining halls, living there, once the plane tickets were bought and I had arrived, was cheaper than I would have expected. Think about our room and board: Carleton’s dorms are about as expensive as any big, gentrified city. And London is far, far, far from affordable.

The tube, which native Londoners seemed to hate, decrying its cost and crowdedness, seemed to me a miracle of urban planning. Coming from the Bay Area, I found it impossible to take London’s slick buses and short train headways for granted. Our VTA and screechy old BART can’t hold a candle to Transport for London.

Which brings me to the most unexpected way my term abroad changed me. I don’t drive—I have a mortal fear of cars—which made getting anywhere in the Bay a challenge growing up. I never really used the light rail before; the closest station is a half-hour walk from my house, so I tended to throw up my hands and ignore it as even a remote option. But, as I knew before London, and as living in that twisty city reinforced, I love walking. I find something contemplative in it. So when I returned to San Jose, I resolved to spend more time getting around with my own two feet and my transit card. I tried out the VTA and found that, while it’s far from perfect, at rush hour it could whisk me across the city at least as fast as a car, and for less money.

Since London, I’ve felt much more like my own person. The trip showed me just how sheltered and privileged I had been growing up, to take my transportation and meals and even my time for granted. Now that I could not, now that they were wholly in my hands, I felt at first overwhelmed and, eventually, deeply empowered.

More generally, after returning I found the very way I structure my time had changed. In London I didn’t have all the Carleton extracurriculars that propel me from hour to hour and event to event. I had to become deliberate about how I used my time to get the most out of it so I would not simply languish, puttering at the hostel.

I’ve tried to be more conscious of both my “on” time and my down time since the program. That doesn’t mean I’m always doing something, although I am busy, but rather that whenever I do anything now I try to be deliberate. Is this something I want to do? Will it help me? Will it make me feel better?

Perhaps this is the most significant development I’ve felt since last spring. I can’t guarantee it holds for anyone else, and there are many reasons for anyone to not study abroad, but at least in this one experience for this one person, the changes have been very real.

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