Works and Days

Reflections on a year abroad in London

I’ve dreamed about living abroad since I was 12 years old. After seeing pictures of my family and their trips, the feeling of talking to my Swedish grandmother, and hearing so many good things about the social democracies of the Scandinavian countries, I needed to travel and see it for myself. Not only has Reed opened doors for me in education and connection, it also allowed me to pursue my long held dream of living and studying abroad. Now I have lived in London for almost 9 months, attending the London School of Economics (LSE) and enjoying the fruits of my labors. But let’s back up a little bit. How did I get here?

I’m a non-trad Reedie. Reedies are anything but traditional, but most are between 18-22 years old. I turn thirty this month. I left high school at 16 after a rough stint and worked in construction for eight years. Did a couple years at Portland Community College, met some really fantastic Reed alumni who piqued my interest in the school. I applied twice and got in on my second round. The more I researched Reed, the more I knew I wanted to be a Reedie, so it drove me to fight for it. My first year was at once one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and it’s opened more doors for me than I thought possible. One of those doors was the opportunity to make use of my scholarship to send me abroad. So I knew I wanted to do this, but how to make the best use of it?

The question then became, where to go? Not having particularly strong language skills, many of the programs in Spain and Germany wouldn’t work. I didn’t find anything that really struck my fancy and kept me on the long-term trajectory of being able to finish school on time and with the academic rigor that would keep my senior year strong. So after speaking to my advisor, Kim Clausing, and doing some independent research, I realized that the London School of Economics might be an ideal place for me. However, Reed didn’t have a program with the LSE, and without a formal program, I wouldn’t have access to institutional funds to attend.

This is an important lesson for anyone. If you put out the effort, people show up for you, and Kim Clausing showed up for me in a big way. After talking with her about my intentions and interest, she put her mind to opening the path for my attendance. I took care of the application, and she took care the bureaucracy at Reed. Within three months Kim had gone through all the steps and opened the door for my attendance, and shortly after I received my letter of acceptance.

After completing a year at Reed, I headed to New York for a summer internship with an advertising agency co-founded by a Reed alumnus, then endured some passport shenanigans, and finally, I was off to Europe. Shortly before my departure I reached out to some of my friends on Facebook about potential alternatives to living in a shared room with someone I had never met. A Reed alumnus connected me with a group of people who had a summer sub-let. The space was a warehouse in the North West of London, full of a really lovely group of people. After a brief stop in Gothenburg to spend some time with my grandmother and some relatives, I flew into Heathrow. I arrived on the doorstep of my new home with my bags with relatively little complication, and got settled in.

The first two weeks were fairly relaxed. I went to lectures, attended social functions, met with my advisor and spent a bit of time interacting with my fellow students. I tried to get involved in campus. Lack of affluence doesn’t seem to be a problem at Reed—as Reed makes an effort to balance the playing field as much as possible. At LSE, things are not the same. Everything here is expensive. There were a few free social events, but clubs and everything else are quite pricey. Social spaces don’t seem to foster a sense of community, rather separation and interaction between limited social groups.

Out of all the elements of culture shock, the first thing on my mind wasn’t they differences in pattern of education. However, LSE has been the most challenging. The educational system operates in contradiction to almost everything I learned about what it means to learn at Reed. Lectures take place twice a week. For the major courses everything is recorded, so attendance is not mandatory. Class work takes place once a week after two weeks of lecture. The intention is to review the quizzes or classwork that you performed after listening to the lectures. However, very few students actually perform the classwork or interact and speak up in class. Although I am not the smartest person in my classes, I am certainly the most vocal.

In the end, little of my time here has been spent at LSE or interacting with LSE faculty, staff or students. Students are primarily here to seek out work and internship opportunities with major firms. I spoke with a number of students who attended every third class so as not to be reprimanded, and only watched all of the lectures at the end of the year to review before test time. As I have little interest in working for these firms, this casts me as a bit of an outsider. I envisioned sitting and discussing the material, as is the norm at Reed. At LSE, however, interested parties are few and far between. I’ve made up for the lack somewhat by spending time with the anthropologists on campus (as anthropologists always love a good discussion). Still, my experience at LSE has been largely academically isolating. The lack of a support culture here makes me realize again and more vividly how much I value the education and approach to it at the little college in Portland, Oregon.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that there are a lot of vastly different systems of education in the world, and for me that which exists at Reed feels like home. I will always value my experience at LSE and likely in ways that I don’t realize now. And, I will most definitely appreciate my senior year at Reed all the more for this experience.


Tags: non-trad, LCE, london school of economics