Cathy is an Ambassador who studied abroad in London
Why did you choose to study abroad and how did you decide on this program?
Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am the first in my family to do anything like this. I wanted to inspire my siblings to take chances on being uncomfortable in new opportunities and to think on a global perspective.
When I started looking at study abroad programs, I scrolled past the London Semester Abroad Program because I did not believe I would be challenged enough. I searched for a program where I could gain new cultural experiences, become more open-minded, and study a language. However, I traveled outside the United States for the first time and visited a friend on the London-Fall program. My assumptions about life in London were all wrong, and I was surprised to see diversity. When I returned to school, I decided to apply to the program because I wanted to study British culture, gain professional experience through an internship, and challenge my assumptions.
The program offers a wide array of classes from politics and religion to business and art. Students are required to take British Life & Culture to learn how British, English, and European identities compare and differ to each other. I had the opportunity to better understand the current political issues and how British culture formed.
A unique component of the program that I was excited for is the internship. I hoped to be placed in the event planning field. Since CSB/SJU does not offer a program in hospitality management, I wanted to expose myself to the field and gain experience to get my foot in the door. The internship allowed me to network and learn about others’ journeys to event planning. I had the opportunity to increase my knowledge in the industry, work in a different culture, and build professional skills.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
I had the opportunity to experience a traditional afternoon tea at the Royal Garden Hotel. I savored cucumber sandwiches as I stirred sugar cubes in my chai tea. Next, came the three-tiered serving tray with scones, sweet breads, and delicate desserts. I felt immersed in the culture; I felt British having a “cuppa.” I knew the importance of tea in London before I even visited the city, but I only recently learned that afternoon tea is composed of tea from China and sugar from the Caribbean. Both did not arrive in Great Britain until the 15th century, and afternoon tea did not become a tradition until the 17th century. All the while, I thought the concept of tea originated in England and had been occurring since the start of time.
Afternoon tea can be considered multicultural because of its products from other areas of the world. The British obtained tea with the help of their colonies in India. China needed opium, so Great Britain took it from India and traded it for tea. From our tour of Notting Hill, I learned that they found sugar only after sailing to the Caribbean and colonizing those islands. I realized how afternoon tea is not solely a British experience. I also became aware why green tea is served at Chinese restaurants, something I was confused about growing up. Although the concept of afternoon tea with the sandwiches and sweets originated here, it is filled with a history of Great Britain oppressing their colonies for unique products and calling the cultures they combine their own.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
I am so glad I allowed myself to study abroad. Even though I assumed London to have a similar culture to America, I experienced culture shock and more frustrations than I thought. For example, I sat in the passenger seat with the driver to my right and watched him drive on the left side of the road with anxiousness. Crossing the street and learning the unspoken rules of public transportation proved to be surprisingly challenging, and I have a hard time understanding them with their accents. Spending four months in London and exploring the global city allowed me to grow and adjust to a new culture. There was always something new to do or somewhere new to visit to experience British culture.
My internship was everything I wished for and more! I got placed at a company that plans conferences and award ceremonies for groups of anywhere from 200 to 700 people. I gained hands-on experience by searching for venues, booking DJs, and contacting guests and judges. I had the opportunity to attend the events, too. I helped with set-up, guest registration, and handing out programs. I learned how to quickly solve unexpected issues, and I networked with CEOs. I had the chance to gain cross-cultural skills and learn ways to one day become a global leader in event planning.
Based on your experiences abroad, what are some of the benefits of spending a semester abroad? How has studying abroad contributed to your personal, academic, and professional development?
My semester abroad has transformed me to be proud of who I am. I learned more about my cultural assumptions and learned ways to gracefully navigate cultural differences. My personal connections and experiences in London taught me the importance of cultural awareness and ways to be inclusive. I also found my passion for food through one of my classes and how I would love to incorporate it into my future career.
I finally became aware that issues on immigration and racism were universal. I learned that I grew up struggling with post-colonial hybridity. I had difficulties embracing my Vietnamese culture while assimilating to the prominent Western culture. I became embarrassed of my Asian identity, but I realized that I am not the only one who had these difficulties. Families who moved to London from other parts of the world faced similar struggles. My time abroad allowed me to connect with other people of color through their personal stories.
I took a class on British food culture, and food has become an important part of my life because of how powerful it is. You can learn so much about people’s ancestral history and culture when you ask them to describe their typical dinner. It is amazing how willing they are to share the meals their parents would cook for them as they grew up. London’s culture continues to change from the diverse groups that start restaurants, food stands, and food trucks focused on their comfort foods. I found my passion in learning about different foods, a small aspect of culture, and would love to teach others.
I believe every student should study abroad whether it be for three weeks or a whole year. The adventure will allow you to become more aware of the world and make global connections. You will become more open-minded to new cultures and lifestyles. Studying abroad will most importantly give you the opportunity to grow and become more independent than you can imagine.
What advice can you offer for CSB/SJU students who are considering or planning to study abroad?
The most important advice I can give is to try new things. Step out of your comfort zone and apply for study abroad. If you doubt this is a possibility for you, ask for help and talk to students who have gone abroad. Once you are in your new city, try new foods and experiences, make new friends, and give everything a chance. Who knows, you might end up finding a passion you never knew about.