2012 Students with the Lord Mayor of the City of London

2012 Student Reports

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I can only begin this wrap-up of my time in London by extending my gratitude to the London Bridge Rotary Club.  The COL/LBREF scholarship provides an opportunity unlike any other: the chance to travel and explore a foreign culture without making the corresponding massive financial investment.  For financially-strained students navigating their formative undergraduate years, the benefits of such an opportunity are indescribable – particularly in London, a vibrant and multicultural city unlike any other.

                With that said, I’d love to use the majority of this report to pass on advice for the future generations of COL/LBREF scholarship students to maximize the quality of their time in London.  Drawing from my experiences, I’ve organized my ideas into three overarching tips, which may not be conventional but are, I think, the foundation to a life-changing experience in London.

 

Tip 1: Get it wrong. 

                When you travel, you are navigating an unfamiliar place.  You choose to remove yourself from the surroundings you understand in exchange for that which is unexpected, unsettling, unknown.  As a result, you will make mistakes – even in an English-speaking, somewhat culturally-familiar city like London.

Some mistakes will be small, like that awkward moment when you say dollars instead of pounds, or the first time you tell a waiter you don’t want chips and you are surprised to, in fact, receive chips on your plate, because what you really didn’t order was French Fries.  Some of them will be more significant.  On my sixth day in London, I lost my wallet on the bus.  I was on my way to meet a friend at Oxford and found myself stranded at Victoria Station without money, identification, or my bus pass.  The resulting adventure – including an emergency bus pass to the U.S. Embassy, filing a report at the police station, a missed flight to the Netherlands, and arranging money transfers from home through Western Union – was truly a more valuable learning experience than anything I could have anticipated or planned.  Some of my funniest and most meaningful stories from London derive from that frightening yet enormously educational mistake.

Don’t be afraid to get lost, to challenge yourself, to be adventurous.  Try the antelope burger at the Borough Marketplace.  Buy a ticket to a comedic play you’ve never heard of.  Walk into shops with interesting names.  Stop at the miscellaneous small churches and museums that are open to the public.  Knowing where you are is not about maps and directions; it is about what you see and hear and experience.  By the usual definition, I spent most of my time in London being “lost” – I can rarely point out on a map of London where I was in the city at any given point.  But I can easily describe to you the small sunny park where I tried ginger beer or the eclectic shops and beautiful brick buildings along the route of Bus 12.

One of my favorite London pastimes was to hop on an unfamiliar bus line just to see where it would take me.  On these days, I passed up the touristy sites for more off-the-beaten-track exploration.  I found residential areas, public schools, libraries, cheap little dress shops, handmade jewelry vendors, community building centers, 1-pound stores, local playgrounds.  I wanted to see more of the city than the expansive, tourist-catered view from the London Eye.  I wanted to delve in, explore, and understand London on a different level.  I wasn’t afraid to take the road less traveled, and I highly recommend that approach – by not concentrating all of my time at Piccadilly Circus and the British Museum, I gained a more comprehensive idea of what London has to offer.

 

Tip #2: Talk to strangers.

                It’s not what your mother told you to do, but I truly believe it’s the best way to learn in a new environment.  Meeting others is particularly valuable in London, which is such an international city.  Talk to the friendly British mom sitting next to you on the bus.  Chat up the school group of excitable French students on the London Eye.  Compare travel stories with the woman from Ireland and man from Afghanistan who are making your fish and chips.  Get to know the retired doctor sitting next to you at the theatre.  Learn about an unfamiliar part of the world from the Nigerian man who staffs the dormitory front desk.  Teach an elderly Malaysian couple who are here for the Olympic badminton events how to use the bus system.  Strangers are a wealth of knowledge, histories, cultures, and stories.  If you’re sitting silently on the bus ignoring the person next to you, you are missing an opportunity.

                Beyond meeting people, sometimes it can be critically important to trust people.  Losing my wallet required me to trust in strangers: the bus station employee who left his booth and walked with me under his umbrella to take me where I needed to go, the guards outside the U.S. Embassy who cheered me up by joking and drawing pictures on my map, the couple at the police station who gave me the money to take the subway back home.

                Getting it wrong and trusting in a stranger actually lead to my most meaningful experience while in London.  The day after I lost my wallet, I was on a train to the airport with a limited cash supply, heading towards a pre-booked flight that I already knew I was going to miss.  Two adorable British grandmothers adopted me on the train and one offered to take me to her home in Wickford so that I could use her phone to contact my bank and arrange for a temporary debit card.  I found myself in Jill Illingworth’s beautiful little home in the southern English countryside, drinking Earl Grey with lemon as I spoke to my bank and emergency Visa services for two hours.  At Jill’s house, I found an unexpected safe haven to calm down from the chaos and stress of my lost wallet.  She showed me limitless kindness and hospitality, and one of the first things I did when I got back to Arizona was send her flowers.  We have since been e-mailing to keep in touch, and I now know I have a friend and a home should I ever return to the countryside of England.

 

Tip #3: Find what the city means to you.

I met a myriad of students studying abroad through the University of Westminster, and I realized that each of us had come to this city for a different reason and experienced it a different way.  For many students, London is a historical epicenter, a maze of museums and monuments.  For others, London is a global fashion hub, or a renowned theater district, or a photographer’s dream.  And this particular summer, for many students, the upcoming Olympics were the forefront of the London experience.

But for me, as a creative writer and avid reader, London is a literary beacon.  It is the dynamic backdrop of so many influential literary works, and the home of countless brilliant authors of fiction and poetry.  I didn’t pay to tour St. Paul’s Cathedral, but I did go to the pub where Charles Dickens worked on A Tale of Two Cities.  I didn’t go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I did visit William Blake’s grave.  I spent about twenty minutes in the National Gallery, but I spent hours in the British Library, where I was able to see literary treasurers such as the handwritten manuscript of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  In a city as multifaceted as London, you absolutely cannot experience everything in three weeks, but I think it is critical to identify the experiences that are going to mean the most to you and craft a journey that resonates with you individually.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you “have to” go to this or that exhibit or monument in order to truly experience London.  I spent hours of my time in the city in local secondhand bookstores or wandering through shopping districts and small marketplaces when I could have been in museums or cathedrals, but those are the experiences I loved most.

 

                As part of this report, I have been asked to make recommendations to the Lake Havasu Rotary Club that could improve this summer program, but I honestly struggle to do so.  This program is extremely open-ended and unstructured, which I believe is absolutely ideal.  Many of the students on other programs had mandatory weekly events.  Additionally, most students were enrolled in the University of Westminster social program, which included multiple pre-planned visits to attractions and weekends booked with organized trips.  It seemed to me that many of the students were not especially enthusiastic about these arranged experiences, nor did they gain much from being shuttled around to tourist-focused destinations.

The only structured experience provided by the Rotary Club, in addition to coursework, was an introduction to the Lord Mayor of London and the chance to witness a meeting of the Common Council, which is a truly worthwhile, engaging, and absolutely unique opportunity.  Beyond that, however, we were virtually given free reign.  I was able to craft my own adventure, from dazzling shows at the West End to dancing at nightclubs to daytime picnics at Hyde Park.  On the second weekend, I met up with a friend from ASU currently living in Buckingham and we took an impromptu ferry to Ireland, resulting in an unexpected two days in the incredible city of Dublin.  My classes were Monday through Thursday, 10 am to 1 pm, which gave me so much valuable time and freedom in the city.  My only recommendation to the Rotary Club is to maintain minimal structure, to refrain from funding the University of Westminster social program, and to emphasize to the students that this experience can be anything and everything they want it to be.

I’d like to conclude my report with a final thank you to the Rotary Club, for giving me the funds and opportunity to create my own unique, life-changing London experience.  Additionally, if you are a student considering this application process, do not hesitate to apply.  I cannot recommend this scholarship program enough, and I am so grateful to the London Bridge Rotary Club for providing this experience for myself and other Arizona undergraduate students.

Lastly, if anyone would like to read more about my time in London or see some photographs from the trip, I kept a blog throughout the three weeks: http://lifelondonthismomentinjuly.tumblr.com/.

Lauren Zack August 13, 2012