Releasing Control While Studying Abroad in London
This time last year I was listening to the terrifying stories of other faculty and staff members about the perils of taking students abroad. Anything could go amiss: broken bones, lost students, and many other scenarios that were making it difficult to breathe. I had been selected to co-lead and co-teach a course that would take up to 26 first-year and transfer college students abroad. For many it was their first international experience; for one student it was their first ever flight. Our destination was London, which suited me well as I’d lived there for over a year.
Torn between excitement and anxiety, I struggled to prepare for the experience and treat the students as capable, problem-solving adults. Ultimately, my concerns were unfounded, and I was reminded of the innocence of discovering what foreign travel was about. However, it took me until mid-trip to come to this realization.
In preparation for departure, I acquired an emergency kit. It had everything from Band-Aids to pens to outlet converters. I had purchased a 100-pack of pens in fear that my students would panic if they didn’t have one to fill out their border control forms. (What actually happened was that they asked their neighbors to borrow theirs!)
Many Americans don’t always see 18-year-olds as adults, but they can rationally handle the ‘problem’ of not having a pen, or translating from American to British English.
I had prepared myself to work with children, not adults. Many Americans don’t always see 18-year-olds as adults, but they can rationally handle the ‘problem’ of not having a pen, or translating from American to British English. Additionally, in London, anything we could’ve needed was only a short walk or bus ride away: Band-Aids, antacids, whatever. I had over-thought every issue that could arise. I really should have taken the light packing route and left that emergency kit at home!
There were plenty of proud moments on the trip: watching my timid students transform into subway-savvy, curious travelers is what stands out the most. Towards the end of the trip, as they pulled each other onto an elevator while screaming “We can fit one more!” I couldn’t help but think of five days earlier when they had struggled to cram everyone in. They had learned to work together and navigate a new city, and without the help that I was over-eager to provide. I struggled to not immediately Google bus routes or give step-by-step directions. When they asked for help I was there to assist, but I had to let them solve their own issues and learn from their own mistakes, just as I had as a first-time traveler. This was the right choice, as they found their way around the city and gained independence doing so.
As much as my co-leader and I planned, things didn’t always go our way, and on reflection that’s OK. We got on the wrong subway. One student had mild food poisoning. There was a disagreement in the hotel lobby. We rolled with the problems, and they weren’t defining moments of the experience. Accepting what you cannot change (and making appropriate adjustments) is just a part of travel. If my students began to understand this, then the anxiety was all worth it.