This post is part of an series of interviews with travelers who have studied abroad.
Meet Rachel Gardner from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The voice behind The Northernist, she studied English literature and history at Edinburgh University from September 1999 to June 2000 as part of Butler University’s Institute for Study Abroad (her home university was Smith College in Northampton, MA). Rachel loved Scotland so much that she returned to do a Master’s in art history between October 2002 and December 2003.
1. How often did you have class? Were classes easier, more difficult, or the same as you expected?
I had class almost every weekday in undergrad. Some days I only had one lecture, other days I might have had back-to-back tutorials or discussion sessions. In total it added up to under 12 hours a week in the classroom, which was much less than I was used to. The students were expected to be quite self-motivated and independent. The grading system is much different; an A can be anything from 70 to 99 out of 100, a B is 60 to 69, etc. It was almost unheard of to get anything above 80 – you got used to seeing 60s on your essays and thinking you’d done well.
For the postgraduate degree, there were seminars twice a week and a department-wide lecture one evening a week that grad students were expected to attend. You were given a lengthy syllabus and expected to spend a good part of the week in the library.
2. What surprised you about your host country?
Scotland is famous for having beautiful scenery like the Highlands, but I didn’t expect it to be right on my doorstep! My flat had a view of Arthur’s Seat and I used to go walking in the park surrounding it at least once a week. I had no idea I’d fall in love with Edinburgh, but by the end of my year there I knew I’d be back. Two years later I returned to do a Master’s degree in art history, which I only started studying while abroad because I had a slot in my schedule and my advisor said I should take the intro class.
3. What was your favorite thing about Scotland?
There is so much I love about Scotland, but my favorite thing is the annual Edinburgh Festival. It’s a one-of-a-kind event that everyone should try to attend at least once in their lives. The whole city has this energy all month long—tourists are everywhere, fliers get jammed in your hands, random street performers draw crowds on the Royal Mile and random comedians perform standup in pub basements. It’s hectic but brilliant.
4. Least favorite thing?
The weather! Actually it’s not that bad, I grew up in Pittsburgh and it probably gets the same amount of sunshine in a year. It rained far less in Edinburgh than you’d expect given the stereotypes of British weather. And while it doesn’t get below freezing very often, Britain has a kind of damp cold that gets inside you and can be hard to shake.
5. Sum up Scotland in one word.
‘Independent’ – Scotland is part of the UK, but has its own identity and is quite proud of its history and culture. Don’t ever refer to it as England unless you want to annoy a Scot.
6. What song reminds you of your time in Scotland?
I was listening to a lot of late 90’s dance music thanks to my flatmates, so it’s all a bit of a blur. I’ll go with Tori Amos’s album To Venus and Back, which was usually in my Discman (those things we used to listen to music before iPods
7. Did you get to do any other traveling?
Yes, one of the best parts of studying in Edinburgh was an entire month off for spring break! So I went to Dublin for St Patrick’s Day, then used my Eurail pass to visit Florence, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Nice and Paris. I spent a couple of weeks in southern England, mainly Hampshire, Sussex and Cambridge. Additionally, Butler had arranged trips as part of their program, so I got to go to Mull and Iona on the west coast of Scotland, which were amazing islands, as well as Dublin and Belfast.
When I was in grad school I didn’t have as much money or time to travel; I went down to England a few times for exhibitions or thesis research, and made another visit to Paris. My favorite trip was the Perthshire Highlands with my boyfriend (now husband); we stayed near Loch Rannoch, which is beautiful and I visited my first whisky distillery.
8. What was it like coming home?
I think I probably went through a bit of reverse culture shock at first, but was looking forward starting my senior year. I’d become a big tea drinker in Scotland and gotten used to having an electric kettle—I think I must have raved about them so much that my grandmother got me one for Christmas!
After I finished my Master’s and my student visa expired I had to go back to the US. My boyfriend had another year to go on his PhD so there were a lot of emails and early-morning/late-night phone calls (before broadband connections were good enough to make Skype commonplace). Effectively I now had two countries I called home, but was only allowed to legally live in one of them. After he successfully defended his thesis and got a job, we could start the immigration process and back I went to the UK, indefinitely this time, and got married in 2005.
9. Do you have any advice for future students in Scotland?
While the UK is similar to the US in many ways, do not expect everything to be exactly the same as at home. Learn to appreciate (or at least accept) the differences—that’s why you’ve gone abroad in the first place, right? Take advantage of student discounts and travel as much as you can afford to. Study abroad can change your life in ways you never expect.
10. What was the biggest difference between studying abroad and doing a full degree abroad?
Because I was studying abroad through a program not affiliated with my home college, all I had to do was pass my classes to get credit. That was definitely not the case with a Master’s degree! The expectations were a lot higher for the quality of writing and intellectual effort, though I think that’s probably true for most postgraduate programs. My degree was a taught program, so I had seminars a couple times a week for the first two terms, then spent the summer researching and writing my dissertation. There were about a dozen of us doing graduate study at different levels, so that made for a close-knit group.
Rachel’s Edinburgh must-dos:
Go to a ceilidh: it’s a traditional Scottish country dance; no you don’t have to wear a kilt or know what you’re doing (a caller explains each dance). Ceilidhs (pronounced kay-lee) can draw big crowds, especially around the Hogmanay celebrations at New Year, so get a group together and have a blast.
Climb Arthur’s Seat: you get fantastic views across the city and Firth of Forth from the top of this extinct volcano. Bonus points if you do it at dawn.
Pub-crawl: there are numerous opportunities for pub-crawls across the city centre. Grassmarket in Old Town and Rose Lane in New Town are both historic pub-filled streets, you can’t go wrong with either of them.
Rachel’s a thirtysomething expat who fell in love with Scotland, married an Englishman, and now lives in Cambridge. They spent three months traveling around New Zealand and Australia earlier this year, driving 6000 km in a van called Mushroom. Rachel blogs about travel, art and occasionally food at thenorthernist.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.