This week in "Stories from Scotland Alumni" we are delighted to feature recent Marymount Manhattan College graduate (Congratulations from all at Arcadia Scotland!), Grace Wright-Pazdra who studied abroad at the University of St Andrews. Like many study abroad students, Grace's experience was their first time leaving the US. The thought of leaving behind your friends and family may be a barrier to your decision to study abroad but hopefully by reading Grace's story you will see how eye-opening and positive the experience can be.
We hope you enjoy Grace's story as much as we enjoyed having them in Scotland.
I’m glad Arcadia was there to check in on us with emails and phone calls and just being there 24/7 for whatever we needed.
Name: Grace Wright-Pazdra
Home School: Marymount Manhattan College
Semester Abroad: Fall 2019
Major: Political Science
Scottish University: University of St Andrews
Welcome Grace, thank you for taking part in our Alumni Blog Series; can you begin by telling us a little bit about your study abroad experience?
It was literally one of the best experiences of my whole life (Grace is rocking St Andrews University merch while being interviewed). I studied in their International Relations department; I loved the classes I took there. The courses I took in Scotland went straight into my degree, they weren’t electives which was excellent. I got an International perspective for a class I would have had to take in the US which was a very unique way to take the course.
Thanks Grace. Were there other factors for you choosing Scotland?
I chose Scotland primarily because I knew I wanted to be in the UK and it was somewhere safe where I’d always wanted to travel. This was the first time I’d ever left the US so it was a big deal and I didn’t want it to be too much of a culture shock. My partner also goes to the University of St Andrews full time so I wanted to visit her and it ended up working out perfectly.
What were your first impressions of the country and St Andrews?
Of the country; everyone was so friendly, that really surprised me. I thought I was going to be embarrassed to be American but everyone was so helpful. The food was really good; I still miss my favourite restaurants and even Tesco (a local supermarket). French fries here are not as good as chips in the UK. Of St Andrews, I love the town. It’s very small but it felt very self-contained; everybody knew everybody. You’d see your friends and classmates as you walk down the street and stop in the shops and talk to people.
How did you find the adjustment experience and fitting into the new culture?
I struggled at first as there were a lot of things I just wasn’t used to. The resources that Arcadia provided helped a lot and the orientation helped a lot to beat the culture shock. A lot of my friends I met through Arcadia felt the same way, it was great to have a baseline as we didn’t know what we were doing. The academic culture shock was based on writing. I’m used to writing in a very American way which is more succinct. In the UK they really want you to deep-dive into topics instead of just hitting highlights which I had to learn to do. St Andrews offered writing help and 1-on-1 meetings with your tutors which helped a lot and for me to understand what was expected of me. I had one professor who was fantastic and spent a lot of time with me during office hours showing me what was expected.
What was your student accommodation like?
I lived in Agnes Blackadder hall. It was on the far end of the town which was about a 10 minute walk to get from my dorm to the library which wasn’t far at all. I had a single room with my own en-suite bathroom which was very cosy and nice. It had a kitchen which I would cook in all the time so it felt like my own little apartment. I’m used to living in dorms so I blended in very fast, I really liked it.
You’ve already talked about this a little bit but what would you say were some of the main differences in Academics?
The grading system is completely different. You covered it in the Arcadia orientation which helped a lot but it was still very confusing. For study abroad students especially you have to be very open to asking questions and putting yourself out there. If I hadn’t gone and asked questions I would not have gotten the grades I did. And that was a big thing for me because I’d normally not do that, I don’t usually do office hours and I try to figure it out on my own. When I was in Scotland I jumped out of my comfort zone. I knew these were grades that were going to affect my degree back home so I have to take them seriously. I ended up being totally fine with it, I just had to put myself out there and ask all the questions.
Did you join any clubs or societies or how did you meet local people?
Yeah, I joined a couple. I joined the LGBT group that was at St Andrews and went to a couple of their socials which was really nice. I also joined a bird society! I’m an amateur bird watcher in the US and one of the first things I did when I got to Scotland was buy a wildlife guide. I was planning on going on hikes to see local wildlife anyway but when I found that St Andrews had a group specifically for that I joined. They would do bird walks and do coastal walks to identify birds. I met friends through that that I’m still close with. For the most part the closest relationships I had were with people from my Arcadia orientation group. We were very tight-knit and we would visit each other on weekends and explore each other’s cities and have sleep-overs. These are friends who are going to be lifelong friends.
Did you participate in any of the Arcadia events?
Gleefully - Yes! I loved the Arcadia events! For prospective students, one of my biggest pieces of advice is to absolutely take advantage of the events that Arcadia provides. For the amount of money you spend you get the best experience; everything is covered. I did the Firbush outdoor experience weekend which was my favourite trip. I got to spend time outdoors and do things I never thought I’d be able to do. I went windsurfing, I’m from Florida and have never done it before, of course the first time I’d do it would be in the middle of November in a loch in 40 degrees weather.
I also did the Northern Ireland regional trip (with the Arcadia England and Ireland Centers). I liked that we got a bit of freedom to explore Belfast on our own and see it from a tourist perspective as well as a historical point of view. It was cool to meet the students from the other Arcadia Centers and I’m still friends with people I met that weekend. The Giant’s Causeway was one of my favourite places I’ve ever been even though I was soaked; it’s always been on my bucket list and it was a really special day for me even if it was raining.
How did Arcadia support you through your Study Abroad experience?
You guys helped with everything. We all felt very comfortable asking questions and reaching out if we ever needed anything and you helped me communicate with St Andrews which is sometimes difficult. I got sick once and you helped me with the insurance and to get help with that and it was cleared up immediately. It was really helpful to have people who took the time to get to know us as students and spend time making sure we were all ok. It felt like we had a little family in Scotland when our families were so far away. I can imagine the experience could be very lonely if you didn’t have someone like Arcadia to support you. I’m glad Arcadia was there to check in on us with emails and phone calls and just being there 24/7 for whatever we needed.
What was the hardest thing about studying abroad?
On a practical level the time change was difficult. I was 5 hours ahead which was quite inconvenient to schedule time to talk with my family and I barely spoke to my friends on the West Coast who were 8 hours behind. Finances were difficult, in the US my dad could just Venmo me money really fast and it wasn’t that instantaneous in the UK. It took me a while to figure out the exchange rate even though it wasn’t massive it does add up quite quickly when using your credit card.
Did you stay locally rather than travelling abroad at the weekends?
I didn’t leave the UK during my time abroad. I went to London and the Lake District which was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been but other than that I spent a lot of time in Scotland. I went to Glasgow, spent a lot of time in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities in the world and did a lot of local stuff in St Andrews. I like the train system and it was so easy to get everywhere. I could have spent more time exploring the UK; I don’t regret not leaving at all.
What do you think you learnt the most from your experience?
Academically I learned a lot about writing and research and being able to write a very thorough paper which are skills that will definitely stick with me. Outside of academia I learnt a lot about my own confidence and being able to put myself out there and make friends.
How has Study Abroad helped your career, academic or otherwise?
It helped me with my thesis which I did in Scotland so it gave me great experience of writing like that (it worked out, I got an A). For my career, it’s on my resume and every time I do interviews people ask about it and I get to gush about my experience and how it’s made me a more confident and independent person. Since coming back I’m less cautious and afraid of trying new things. I don’t want to waste opportunities. Studying abroad has opened doors for me that I wasn’t expecting; I had never considered working abroad but now it’s on the top of my list and it’s not scary anymore!
Finally, why would you recommend future study abroad students study in Scotland through Arcadia?
I mean, if you study anywhere, study with Arcadia! I’m sure all the programmes are as complete as Scotland but because it was such a small office it felt very personalized and like a family which is a support system I wanted. Studying in Scotland was amazing; it’s a beautiful country, the people are so kind and the food is great! Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. It was a really great experience and there were so many things to do without leaving the country and there’s still things I want to do that I didn’t get the chance to do. It’s a unique place to study. You get to meet people and see things from a local point of view that I don’t think I would have got in a big city like London or Paris. Having the smaller experience made it feel very special; I couldn’t recommend it enough, it makes me so happy when I think of those memories.
Check out Hamish's interview with Grace here: