Tales from Abroad: England

I was first taken to a different country when I was two weeks old. In the years that followed, I called Naples, London, Los Angeles, and Seoul home, in addition to exploring over 30 countries. As a result, I grew up subject to the adjustments of many cultures and was a student of many schools and academic systems. It wasn’t until 2001 that my life of incessant displacement came to a comparative rest. However, after studying in one school district for over eight years, I felt nostalgic and wished to travel again.

In the summer of 2008, having few plans for time off after my sophomore year of high school, I looked into programs abroad and stumbled across the opportunity to study at Jesus College at the University of Cambridge. Given the abundance of course offerings and a setting in one of the most prestigious academic environments in the world, I submitted my essays and curriculum vitae without hesitation. Two months later I received a letter stating that I had been accepted to the 10-week program in both of my preferred major and minor courses — Architecture and Parliamentary Speech and Debate, respectively.

When I arrived, the magnificence of the grounds was immediately apparent despite the truly torrential rain. 15th-century medieval sacred architecture, which was imbued with a rich history of influential intellectual prosperity and of chronology, filled me with humility and deference; the very notion of standing where great men had once stood was both surreal and a tremendous honor. This sensation of awe and privilege dispelled my desire for a relaxing season. In fact, I felt a serious duty to challenge myself both intellectually and morally — for whatever strange and cosmic reason. Indeed, with significant exertion, the summer proved rewarding.

Each day, I spent time in a voluminous exhibition space, discussing aspects of the historic town’s architecture and specific construction elements for hours on end. Considering my major, much of my time was spent discussing conceptual readings in urban development such as Moore’s Utopia, or venturing out into Cambridge to sketch the local Cistercian architecture. The second half of the program was spent working late hours on completing floor plans, and later a scale model of my own ideal studio apartment.

Sleepless nights — similar to those had by architecture majors at Carnegie Mellon — were frequent. This made constructing on-the-fly rebuttals in Speech and Debate rather difficult. That this style of debate was altogether more exciting than the vapid sort common during secondary school, with written speeches and preemptive defenses, meant I was eager to jump onto the platform. At times when I felt incapable, however, my friends helped in their spare time. We struck up arguments during the night on our way to The Trailer of Life — the hamburger truck parked downtown — which had fantastic bacon cheeseburgers at 2 a.m.

Apart from coursework, the university held lectures by venerated figures, organized tours and expeditions to such storied places as Canterbury, and generally fostered a proactive attitude in its students. What really ensured the greatness of the experience, though, was being among people who were also forming new relationships, exploring the avenues of Cambridge, acclimating themselves to refreshing freedom and mobility, and looking to try things they hadn’t tried before.

In short, the program attracted go-getters, and the setting inspired them. Jesus College played host to 200 students; it was exploratory and innovative; we shared interests and melded our cultures and activities.

For me, the program came to a crest when I stood before my apartment model, presenting the inspiration for my design and drawing upon lessons learned of controlled breathing and metered speech as I presented to a panel of architects. I communicated the lessons I had learned not more than a day earlier in the trial room to an audience of more than 200, including my deans and colleagues. I felt accomplished and exhausted. Over two months had passed, and in the end, looking back, I had done everything I had hoped to and a great deal more.

It would be ridiculous to discount the opportunity of traveling and studying abroad; ridiculous to underestimate what there is to learn, to experience, to explore, and to appreciate.