Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications
Major: Journalism; Humanities minor
CIEE gave us two options, to either live with a host family in East Legon or to live on campus in the International Students Hostel (ISH). I chose to live in ISH which is basically set up like a normal college dorm. I had one roommate and each room had a balcony which was great place to do homework, read or just relax after class. In the hostel, I was introduced to many cultures. We had students who were from all around the world, including Norway, Germany and Nigeria. We were also surrounded by Ghanaian students. It helped me adjust to the culture immensely because I was in constant contact with Ghanaian students who were in my age group. It made relating and talking to locals much easier because we were all living together.
Since Medill doesn’t allow you to take any journalism courses outside of the school, I went to Ghana and took classes to fulfill distros such as English and Political Science.
The courses were all lecture based except for my English class which was discussion based. Classes only met once a week for two hours and much of the time in class was spent on lectures. The main goal of the class was more to memorize information for the test and the classes were more based on the professor’s notes not readings.
Since classes only met once a week I had a lot of free time. I used that time to travel and visited different places in Ghana. I also went into the capital, Accra, to go to the markets, enjoy the nightlife and to even eat out. I also used a lot of my free time to interact with other students in my dorm. Since the internet connection was slow, instead of wasting time online I could use my time to really connect with the students around me.
The best part of the program was that they placed us in the dorms. This allowed me to meet Ghanaians who were around my age. It was easy to relate to them and even went out to Accra and other places in Ghana with many of the students. Also Ghanaians are very friendly people. Whether you’re shopping in the market or trying to hail a taxi, people are always ready to talk. They love hearing stories and enjoy interacting with anyone. It’s easy to connect with anyone and that’s something I loved about being in Ghana.
I wish I had at least considered how challenging it would be to live in a country where things such as warm water and washing machines are a luxury. At Northwestern, we talk about the privilege of the West and how poor other countries are. However, I think it’s much different experiencing it. It was challenging for me to adjust to not having hot water and hand washing my clothes. However being there and experiencing that along with other cultural differences really helps open my eyes to another part of the world. It allows me to understand and see the world in a different way.
As an African American going to Ghana, I didn’t really experience any problems based on my ethnicity. It was just interesting to almost blend in as opposed to at home where my skin color automatically makes me different. However as a female I was treated differently. Women in Ghana are traditionally more reserved. For example, women usually wear long skirts and t-shirts. When I would walk out in my shorts or a tank top, people would stare more and at times I would get unwanted attention from men. It was annoying at times because Ghana can be extremely hot, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t always wear what I wanted. If I did, I had to deal with people staring or someone trying to hit on me.
CIEE gave us an orientation packet that talked about how women were treated and how Ghanaians view other facets of identity such as ethnicity and sexual orientation. Because of the orientation, I had an understanding of what to expect which was helpful.
Many people worry that going to a country such as Ghana can be dangerous because it is considered a third world country. However that is far from the case. First, before you leave you’re required to get many shots which help prevent many diseases. You are also required to take malaria pills which also help prevent the possibility of being sick. If you do get sick, the doctors there are all trained to treat any illness. Many of the students that did get sick during their time abroad felt better even after a few days with the right medical attention.
I think one of my biggest adjustments is getting used to the workload and busy schedule of Northwestern. In Ghana, I hardly had homework and because I wasn’t involved in too many extracurricular activities I had tons of free time. Also it was just a very relaxing environment. However here, with demanding classes, meetings and events it’s easy to become very overwhelmed. I just have to get used to busy Northwestern culture again.
The best advice that I would give is to be open to trying new things. The best way to get to know the locals and to really be immersed in the culture is to go do things that may be out of your comfort zone which includes trying new foods and going to new places. I went to a cultural performance on campus and they were asking for volunteers. They wanted the volunteers to participate in the dance and at first I was really nervous because I don’t dance, and I really didn’t want to dance in front of people I didn’t know. I ended up going up and it was so much fun! The dance was easy to learn, there wasn’t too much pressure and the atmosphere there was so energetic and vibrant. Basically the main objective was to have fun and I’m really glad that I went up there!
When people think of African countries, they see mud huts, hunger and hear about all the diseases that are rampant among the population. While this is true, it’s not the whole story. Ghana is filled with vibrant people, massive houses and a growing economy that shows signs all over the country. There’s construction everywhere, a modern day mall and all types of cars. It just shows that the preconceptions that we have aren’t always true. Instead it’s good to experience and see the country at a more personal level.
I was placed in an on-campus dorm that was about a 15-minute walk from UCL’s Main (Bloomsbury) campus. Though I was within a short distance, the walk included crossing several crowded streets which meant the walk to campus could be somewhat treacherous. That’s London, though. It’s a beautiful city, but as with any metropolitan accommodation, you have to deal with what you get.
My flatmates were four American study abroad students from my program. They were all nice people – two of them were also Northwestern students – which made for a comfortable living experience. Though we didn’t become very fast friends, the apartment-style living was acceptable. Between the five of us we shared two bathrooms, one with a shower. We each had a wash basin in our room for added convenience. Unfortunately, not being placed with British students while studying abroad made it difficult to meet people in the country, but it was a good experience nonetheless.
I was able to fulfill some of a distribution requirement as well as some of my social science concentration and my WCAS elective concentration while abroad. I was told before I left that as long as I chose courses that were pretty definitively placed within the subjects I wanted them to count towards, I could receive credit through Medill.
English universities tend to operate on a very different system than the US. Because I was taking four courses in the humanities, I was required to do quite a few research papers. Classes only took place once a week for two hours – three of mine were two hour lectures and one was a two hour lecture and a two hour discussion. Most of my classes were small, so there was a lot of interaction between the professors and the students.
The lack of time in the classroom did not make for less work overall, though. We had quite a bit of reading per class, and despite not being graded on our participation, we were expected to be actively involved in classroom discussions.
I took on work experience a couple of days a week when I was in London. While toward the end of my stay there I had to stop going to my internship because I needed to focus on my studies instead, it was a great experience to get to work in the country.
My experience was especially valuable because it involved a personal pet project. I’ve loved the poet John Keats for years, so I made it a point to get a short-term internship at Keats House in Hampstead while I was in London. It’s great if you can balance your time between classwork, experiencing a new country and an internship, but in my opinion there should be no pressure to take one those lofty goals. It’s a good experience if you want it, though, as long as it doesn’t detract from schoolwork.
One of the major reasons I chose to study at University College London was the plethora of opportunities available to me nearby the campus. UCL is located in Bloomsbury, near Euston Station and Regent’s Park. It’s only about a 10-minute walk from Oxford Street and a 30-minute walk from Covent Garden. For the London-newbie, it’s a great place to get your bearings in the city because it is so centrally located. That being said, it does have its own campus. While there are buildings scattered throughout the area, many classes are held on or near the UCL quad, meaning unlike some other London universities, there is a sense of a UCL community, though it’s definitely more fragmented than Northwestern’s.
During my time in London, though I did spend quite a bit of time in the city, I took the opportunity of a light class schedule to travel around Europe. It’s easy to catch the train from London to Paris, especially considering St. Pancras Int’l train station is just a walk away from UCL’s campus. Trains to Edinburgh also depart from local stations (Euston or King’s Cross). London in general is also a great hub from which to depart to the rest of Europe.
But that doesn’t mean anyone should underestimate the value of the city itself. London has tons of free museums, shopping districts, street markets and fairs. The West End (theater district) is magnificent and literally all around the city. If you haven’t been before, just take the time to experience every part of London you can.
It can be difficult when placed with other American students in university housing to get to know people from the area. I took the opportunity to join some clubs early on, and had I stayed involved with them throughout I’m sure I’d have made some better friends through the process.
I would suggest also talking to people in classes and during orientation events. If you freeze up early on, you won’t get to know anyone, so be open from the get-go and you’ll probably find a group to stick with for the remainder of your experience abroad.
Some other ways I met locals was just by hanging out in parks or cafés by myself. While it’s not always great to be approached by random people, sometimes you will find that the people you interact with are very interesting.
I wish someone had given me more advice on how to meet people in the country. The thing about a lot of people who study abroad is that they get involved with activities with other American students. It starts to become an insular group of students who no longer take in the culture in their host country, but maintain their sense of one-ness with the United States. It’s great to be patriotic for your home country, but you’re there to experience new cultures. Embrace it! And try to branch out (more than I did), so you can make great friends in the country you’re staying in and potentially visit them on return trips.
My only insights into this issue – despite being of mixed race (half-white, half-Asian) and female – were when I would interact with locals and be asked whether I was Canadian or not. There isn’t exactly a problem between Americans and Englishmen, but I always sensed that there was a hesitance to immediately assume that anyone was American, as if perhaps it was an insult to be labeled as such.
During orientation, we were given some insight into differences between English and American culture. To be honest, while it was amusing, it did little to curb some of my greater concerns about living in the country. To really be immersed and feel accepted within a society, you have to find ways to get involved with it yourself.
Since I personally never felt hindered by my “identities,” I had no problem with interacting with Londoners. It is a metropolitan city with a variety of people living within its confines, so that could also contribute to the openness.
I had a few rough spells when I was in London, mostly regarding my health. I took the time to learn about the health services availability at UCL once I arrived at campus, then went in for a brief appointment with a doctor there. By brief, I mean truly brief. I ended up going into an office – which had no high paper-covered chair on which to sit like we’re used to here in the states – and being looked at for a few minutes then given preventative medication in case I contracted strep throat.
The healthcare system in England is efficient, and should you (god forbid) get sick while abroad, it will likely result in a fairly pleasant experience.
As for safety and discovery, I felt these two issues went hand in hand. If you’re in London, you have to learn to explore at night. It’s one of those beautiful cities that comes alive in the evenings, if only because it sparkles with fairy lights (at least during the winter months). You have to learn to explore at night and not fear the onset of darkness. Traveling in groups is preferable, but not essential. London is fairly safe, especially if you’re located where I was (near the UCL campus).
While I tried not to worry about making ends meet in the long run when it came to studying abroad (because I knew that looking at the increased cost would possibly deter me from going), in the short term I did consider how I’d properly ration out my money while there.
I only somewhat wisely converted a few hundred dollars into both GBP (pounds) and Euros (for traveling outside of the UK). I should have had more cash on hand, but for the extra expenses I used a Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card and a Bank of America debit card (due to the fewer surcharges on each of the cards). CapitalOne is another credit card that I was told has a good rate on foreign transactions. Keep in mind that if you need to apply for a credit card, you should do so early. I was not warned, so I failed to receive a CapitalOne card.
Most of my cash on hand was spent when credit or debit cards were not accepted. It’s a good idea to avoid using cash unless necessary. You never know when you’ll need it, so it’s best to covet it and use it sparingly.
I think the greatest problem I faced was returning to the cold temperatures and the smallness of it all. London was essentially my campus when I went to UCL. I was only limited by the distance the tube would take me. Being back at Northwestern is limiting because a big city (in this case Chicago), rather than being right outside my door, is a long public transportation ride away.
This is made me feel strongly about getting out and exploring my environs, though. Living in a city reminds you that just because you’re comfortable in a suburban setting doesn’t mean you should grow complacent in it. Explore your study abroad city. Explore Chicago too.
My study abroad experience was divided into two parts in two different locations: 9 weeks at a monastery in Bodh Gaya and 3 weeks living with a host family in Dharamsala. Both were very immersive in different ways. The life in the monastery caused me to learn a tremendous amount about contemporary Buddhism in an experiential manner, which enabled me to successfully engage with a practicing Buddhist family. Both were also very conducive to strong relationships. At the monastery, I lived side by side with 35 other American students and eight faculty members and became exceptionally close with all of them. At my host family, I was treated just like one of the children. My host parents taught me to cook and helped me practice my Tibetan language skills. In both locations, I was walking distance from the nearby towns but also able to wander into the more peaceful landscape of rural India or the Himalayas. And to get anywhere farther away, tuk tuks (motor rickshaws) are convenient and cheap.
I would say that the primary difference between my classes in India and at Northwestern is the close relationships I got to develop with my professors. Because we ate all of our meals and spent our free time together, they became good friends as well as teachers. That definitely influenced the dynamics of the classes. Otherwise, they didn’t seem to be overwhelmingly different. My anthropology class was very fieldwork-based, which made it a very natural fit for me as a journalism student. My Tibetan class was a pretty standard introductory language class. My third class at the monastery was Meditation Traditions, which needless to say was different from any class I have taken at Northwestern. It is the first class I have taken that is such a combination of experiential and academic. Part of the class was daily meditation and Dharma talks, but it also included readings and papers. I adored it.
The last month of a program was an Independent Study Project, during which we could go anywhere in India as long as we had at least one other travel buddy. We spent the entire program gradually planning it - choosing an advisor, designing a topic, finding a location, and looking into existing literature - so that we would be prepared when we arrived in our locations. The Independent Study was somewhat like a miniature Fulbright. I studied contemporary Tibetan writing in exile and its role in the political and cultural struggle. Initially I experienced some roadblocks in finding sources, but as I persevered, I got to speak to some of the most prominent figures in Tibetan literature and activism. Another challenge was writing the 20-30 page final paper, the longest I have ever written. But similarly, once I pushed through it, the paper turned out very well. This is research I hope to continue in a fellowship or graduate school after Northwestern.
A large part of the program was the prevalence of scheduling. Like the monastics we were learning about, we didn’t have a ton of free time. The time that we did have, I spent a good amount of it at the Mahabodhi Temple (the site where the Buddha achieved Enlightenment) or in phenomenal conversation with friends. We had the common objective of reflecting and learning and so we did a lot of that. We also did yoga twice a week. I also had a couple of friends who volunteered at a nearby school a couple of times per week. We had a couple of weekends to travel and on the weekends we didn’t, we would go on hikes or field trips to significant Buddhist sites nearby.
Because the program has been in existence for over 30 years, most of the locals knew we were coming before we arrived. People were extremely friendly in town, almost to a fault. Every time we would pass their shops, the tailor and the pharmacist would invite us in for chai (tea). It was very easy to cultivate relationships.
My experience with identity in India was a unique one. Not because of India’s culture per say, but more because of the way that Buddhism forces you to examine the concepts of yourself that you may be holding on to and how they differ from reality. I examined a lot of parts of myself that have existed latently for a long time. I called my perspective on the world into question, which I hadn’t really done beforehand.
I think my experience in India profoundly influenced my identity and perhaps my life in ways that will likely only reveal themselves gradually.
Be mindful of what is happening with your body. It is inevitable that you will get a little bit sick at some point in India, but if you keep clean, are cautious about what you eat and notice how you are feeling and act accordingly, you will be fine. Grapefruit seed extract is a wonderful thing. Take it at the first sign of stomach unease. These behaviors never got in the way of my exploration of India.
I came home with more money in my bank account than I had when I left. The program gave us stipends for food and travel and, because everything in India is so cheap, I had more leftover than I spent.