Thursday, March 31, 2011

Just found this tucked away in my email archive

This is a response to an email I received from a USC student who was interested in applying to study abroad at Kent in 2006. I just stumbled across it and figured I'd share. Enjoy.


Dear kristen,
I am an anthropology major here at USC. I am thinking about studying at the University of Kent for my study abroad. I found your name listed on the study abroad office’s virtual advising network. I was hoping to ask you some questions about your time in England.
Did you enjoy studying in Canterbury? What was the university like? Was it easy for you to find your way around campus? What were the classes like? Was it expensive to study at the University of Kent? Did you live in a dorm? How did you find the people there? Were they friendly? What did you like to do on and off campus? How was the weather in Canterbury? Would you ever like to go back there again one day?
I would really like to know what you thought about the University of Kent and England. It will help me to make up my mind. Thank you so much for your time.

show details 6/30/06

Hey A----,

You may want to take a deep breath and make a sandwich before you start reading--i tend to be a bit verbose in my praises of Kent. My year there was hands-down the best year of my life thus far, and I'd recommend it to anyone with enough guts to get on the plane. That said, i'm also aware that studying abroad is not for everyone, and some people have a seriously lousy, homesick, put-upon, offended time in the UK. It really depends on how you approach it.

Let me first cover my ass by stating clearly and directly that people are going to dislike you for being American. I've had many friends study abroad and come home screaming and yelling that they didn't make a single friend abroad because the moment they opened their mouth they alienated people with their accent. Nobody, in any country, likes Americans these days, so travel with that in mind. (Its not just the Bush administration's fault, though they've certainly helped. Americans have a penchant for being loud, bossy, impatient, rude, and ignorant in foreign countries, and if you pair that with our reputation for having money and power you'll breed a resentment streak a continent wide.) The easiest way to avoid the evil eye from your classmates is to say "i didn't vote for Bush." (even if you did--if you want to make any friends, do not associate yourself with the Republican party, support for the Iraqi war, or Christianity).

On with the answers to your questions:

I Loved Canterbury. The town is adorable--its an ancient walled, moated city with cobbled streets and more historic buildings than you can shake a stick at. Your Kent student ID card will get you into the cathedral for free at any time, and its always worth a wander. (Tourists have to pay anywhere from 8-13 pounds for admission and tours except during services) Its also crisscrossed with parks and paths that are so pretty you can't avoid picnicking in them. The town is always packed with tourists and shoppers, particularly around Christmas. C-town's proximity to Dover allows it to be a very inexpensive field trip destination for French and German school groups, so you'll do well to avoid large groups of children with giant backpacks. (There are hourly ferries from the Port of Dover to Calais, France, and foot passage costs 7 to 11 pounds. Always good for a booze cruise--beer and wine are much cheaper in France! And its only a 20-minute train ride there from central Canterbury.)

Canterbury has more bars and restaurants within its city limits than there are days in the year. Most of them are far out of the average uni student's budget, but there are a few that are worth your while. I recommend the Old Buttermarket (in the square across from the entrance to the cathedral) and the Cherry Tree (on a side road off the high street--its just a little ways down from Methven's bookstore on the right. the canterbury whole foods store is visible at the end.) Cherry tree has happy hour every day from 5-8--most pints are 2 quid! (best deal you'll find off campus.) It is also a haven for overpriced designer shops and boutiques (hence the Christmas shoppers) so if you want to shop, be sure to save up for a couple of years.

Erm...where was i. Canterbury's night life is so small its laughable. All bars close at 11pm, and the city's 4 private clubs stay open until 2am but have a cover. What most uni kids do is drink at the bars until closing, then stumble home and keep it going there until the neighbors call the police. So if you like the club scene you're going to be disappointed.

All university buildings are hideous at Kent. I think its actually a requirement written into the school's charter. The ugliest buildings by far are Eliot and Rutherford colleges (they're mirror images of each other), though Darwin runs a close second, and wins the "most contorted and difficult to navigate" award. The campus is layed out very simply and in a linear fashion, but the academic buildings resemble Escher drawings when it comes to getting around them. Eliot and Rutherford in particular are famous for having floors halfway between other floors, stairways that lead to nowhere, hallways interrupted by courtyards, and no semblance of a coherent room numbering system. The only times i've gone into Keynes college were to go to the bar on the main floor so i haven't really looked around the rest of it.

The university is by itself at the top of a big hill--it is a good mile's walk to town, so there's no non-university buildings around. The view from the library is stunning! The campus is very self-contained--you actually don't have to go to town ever if you don't want to (though where's the fun in that?). The school has 2 restaurants, 9 bars, a nightclub, 2 small grocery stores, a theater (for touring shows and movies), playing fields, and religious centers for students (the catholic student center has its own bar). Sports are not a big deal--most are just intramurals and never compete outside of town. The biggest student gatherings are at the Venue (the nightclub) on weekends and Pound-A-Pint night at Woody's bar in Parkwood.

Concerning housing...this is where it gets confusing. Kent offers two styles of housing: catered and self-catered. (i.e. we feed you or you feed you.) Catered housing is dorm-style in one of the four colleges, or self-contained school units. Darwin, Rutherford, Eliot, and Keynes colleges are massive, ugly buildings that contain classrooms, bedrooms, department offices, restaurants, ballrooms, bars, courtyards, theaters, lecture halls, lounges, shops, and game rooms. I've actually known students to not leave their college for weeks on end. Anyway, in these situations, you generally live on a hall in a small bedroom by yourself and share a potty and a shower with 5-6 other people. You have a sink in your bedroom. The residence hallways have doors at each end to block out some of the noise from the rest of the building--not that it matters 'cos they're party central 24/7. Residence in the colleges includes breakfast and lunch every day in the central ballroom, though breakfast is very early in the morning and the food is...urgh. can we say rubbery eggs?

The other housing option is self-catered, which is what I did. Self-catered accommodation is in a large community of townhouses about a half mile from the center of campus. (its a pleasant 10 minute walk down a very nice, well-lit path. the only time it sucks is when the paths get icy.) The area is called Parkwood, and the townhouses have 5 or 6 bedrooms and are arranged into courts of anywhere from 10 to 20 houses. Everyone gets their own bedroom (the idea of shared accommodation is rather foreign to the English) and the 5 bedroom houses have a full kitchen, powder room downstairs, and potty, shower, and sink upstairs. The six bedroom houses have a really big kitchen and dining room, potty and shower downstairs and up, and sinks in each bedroom. (I lived in a 5 br--it was a bit tight but nice.) the residents are responsible for keeping their bedrooms clean, though housekeeping comes through weekly to mop the common areas, clean toilets, and replace tp. The stoves are gas, which rocks, but the ovens are gas too, which sucks. just so you know.

There's a third option available now, which is a couple of big multi-storey buildings just on the edge of Parkwood which have suites, but i really don't know anything about them because they were being built while i was there. More info can be found at

Near the center of Parkwood is a complex which houses a grocery store, a laundromat, a housing desk (staffed with nice people who'll sell you laundry tokens when the dispenser breaks) and Woody's bar--the best (and cheapest) bar on campus.

Keep in mind that at Kent, as with most British schools, university accommodation is offered to freshers (first years) and erasmus students only. Second years and beyond live in houses all over town, though many are in a large community of townhouses about a mile off campus.

You are likely to find that all of your neighbors are really, really immature--even compared to American freshmen. There are reasons for this, most notably the fact that many Kent students have spent their entire youth education in same-sex schools. While this is not necessarily the case outside of the Southeast, be aware that Kent is a snotty rich kid uni and many of them went to very expensive grammar schools. Hence a lot of people will act like they've never seen someone of the opposite sex before and get really stupid. Disease transfer is rampant throughout the first semester. Be Careful.

Classes. Ah, class. The least significant part of my study abroad experience.

Each department behaves differently, and as I majored in theatre i doubt what I have to say will bear any relation to your experience. But across the board there are certain tendencies--a full courseload is 120 hours over three trimesters. Most classes will be worth either 15 or 30 hours, though i've heard that varies when you get into the sciences. The first two trimesters are spent in class, and the third is for exams. The theatre department did not offer any classes below 30 hours, so it meant that i had 2 classes (modules) each term. yeah. 2. But i had at least 4 class meetings (classes) a week as each module had both a lecture and a seminar. The seminars were the best part, hands-down, as you really get to discuss the course material with your teacher and a small group of classmates and debate or even bicker about how you feel about it. ALWAYS BE PREPARED FOR YOUR SEMINARS.

My grades in the lecture/seminar classes came from one or two short papers (2500 words), one dissertation (5,000 words), one presentation (at least half an hour including questions and discussion--you basically teach a class on your subject matter and lead the seminar), and participation/attendance. Note i did not include exams in that. The theatre department did not have exams. I actually had 6 entire weeks free to fiddle around and have a good time. This is, unfortunately, not the case for other departments.

My classes second semester were weirder--whereas first semester each lecture was one hour and each seminar two hours, second semester i had one class that met two hours on monday without the professor to prepare a performance and seminar for tuesday. The tuesday class was 5 hours long and included presentation, lecture, seminar, performance, discussion thereof, and often a film of the next week's play. (it was Modern European Theatre 2: Beyond Naturalism. DO NOT TAKE THIS COURSE.) The other class that term was a 4-hour acting class, but it was fun.

The classes have less, but harder work than American classes. you are on your own for a lot of it--not only acquiring texts from the library and reading them, but for finding research materials and preparing your presentations. Nothing is spoon-fed to you, and grading is tough. Moreover, every paper and exam is graded twice--both by your professor and an external grading board, which checks for plagiarism and cheating. Nobody earns a grade above an 80--they don't believe in perfection, or anything near it. But a 70 is an excellent grade.

A professor can make or break a class--i had two excellent professors, one sucky professor, and one bitch who artificially lowered my grade because she didn't like Americans. There's no excusing that. The sucky professor knew his stuff but he wasn't nice and tore everyone apart for their commentary, even when the student was right. Oh well. I learned a lot, i did a lot of research and a Whole lotta writing, but i didn't really care about the classroom. I made b's (known in the UK as a 2.1 or a 2.2--might i suggest you google the UK grading system? its a nightmare.) but they transferred back to USC as "pass" and did not affect my gpa.

The easiest and best way to meet people is to go to the campus bars. England is a drinking culture, so if you don't drink for whatever reason, people are going to think you're weird. They drink, but second years and up drink responsibly--it looks bad to get plastered too. Alcohol is not put on a pedestal in the UK--its consumption is permitted and encouraged among college students--so people are less inclined to abuse it the way we do here. My favorite drink at Woodys was the Snakebite--it is half cheap lager, half cheap cider, with a shot of blackcurrant syrup thrown in. Very pink, but yummy (though a lot of people hate it. just try it once!)
Without alcohol, most people are not particularly willing to talk to strangers. It is up to you to strike up the conversation, though once you do, chances are they'll be more than ready to talk to you for days. I made a lot of friends just by being genial and southern--it surprised a lot of my friends to see the number of folks who would wave and say hi to me every time i walked to class. Don't act like you're afraid of the locals--they can smell fear. Just be chill--don't apologise for being American, but don't gloat about it either. The last thing anyone wants to hear is "well its better in 'Merica 'cos..." If they see that you're willing to accept their culture for what it is, they'll be more likely to accept you.

Native Kentish folk tend to be more friendly and open than Londoners, who are trained from early childhood to expect anyone who strikes up a conversation with them to be a mugger or sex offender. Bar talk again is easiest.

I actually saved money when i went to Kent--the housing is cheaper! USC has an arrangement with UKC in which you pay tuition to USC (if you're in-state it means you can keep your life scholarship) and housing to Kent, and their exchangers do the same. When i was there the pound was worth $1.93- 2.00, so the cost of living was massive, but i budgeted carefully and came back broke, but not in debt. (I earned about $6,000 the summer before so i had that, LIFE, and my stafford loan to support me.) A few tips for not going broke:

don't buy textbooks if possible--check them out of the library
don't take the bus into town--its a very nice walk
shop at Tesco instead of Marks and Spencer (groceries)
pick a day or two for drinking each week
take out cash once a week and try not to use your debit
if you shop for clothes or other stuff, shop outside of Canterbury.
buy electronics in america!

Oh, random side note--there is a path that leads from Parkwood all the way to Whitstable (six miles--whitstable is on the water) its a BEAUTIFUL walk and was one of my favorite things to do on slow days with friends.
Canterbury is a 1-hour train ride from London (2 hour by coach (bus) but half the price). I dated a guy who's family lived in London, and got to spend three weeks with them over spring break (christmas and spring breaks are both a month). It really is a cool city to visit, though not really a great place to live. too crowded for my tastes.

Weather. umm. If you get seasonal depression, might i suggest the south of France? England is routinely gray. You get the odd pretty day in spring and summer, but don't expect anything besides gray, dismal, rainy weather. On the plus side, though, it doesn't get insanely hot or cold, and we got a foot of snow three times, to everyone's enjoyment!

Would i go back? I've been trying to get back there for a year now, but scheduling and finances are rather prohibitive. I dream of Canterbury still--i didn't want to come home. I still don't want to be home. One year there and i'm trying to become a citizen. The biggest draw is the people--they're typically very liberal, very chill, and very secular. I like that in a culture, though USC students have gone over there and wanted nothing more to come home for those exact three reasons. They have no patience for prejudice against anybody (in response to American congressional debate over homosexual marriage, Ireland went and formally legalized it) and they can respect diversity among people and cultures without cramming it down your throat, and their government is forced by the people to use funding responsibly and reasonably.

I helped a girl get over to Kent for this past semester--she hated everything about it. She didn't make any friends because she refused to go to bars, studied too much, and convinced herself it was her calling in life to witness the Bible to the crazy heathens of the UK. Most people rejected her solidly, and told her why. After three months of this policy her dad finally told her to loosen up and try doing as the romans do. Not only did she start to have fun, but people started to want to be around her. By the time it was time to come home, she didn't want to either.

Okay, sorry, i know this is long. take it in stages. There's a lot of worthwhile information cloaked in opinion--i can't write any other way.

Hope this has been useful! Let me know if/when you have any other questions or would like to see photographs. I have about 1,000 of canterbury, my social life, london, Paris, Barcelona, and campus.


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