One of the first things I'll say to students when they arrive in Scotland is be prepared to be that person that when you go home says "Studying Abroad changed my life". I say this tongue-in-cheek but there is absolute truth in the phrase. Studying abroad is a life changing experience. You are often thrown out of your comfort zone, you leave your support networks, friends and families behind. You are an adult but maybe you've not quite understood what that truly means and for many students it's not until you've had the experience of studying abroad that your eyes are fully opened to the world.
For this week's "Stories from Scotland Alumni" we had the pleasure of sitting down with Villanova graduate, Riley Maloney. Riley has fully embraced the "Studying Abroad changed my life" tagline and in her blog she talks us through her experience of coming abroad not knowing anybody, the benefit of the Arcadia Orientation and meeting lasting friends there as well as finding a home in your new country and the transferable skills from studying abroad that you can take into your professional career once graduated.
Name: Riley Maloney
Home School: Villanova University
Semester Abroad: Fall 2018
Scottish University: University of Edinburgh
Thank you, Riley, for agreeing to talk to us about your time abroad; would you please give us a brief introduction?
So I’m Riley, I studied abroad when I was a Junior in Fall 2018 where I spent the semester at the University of Edinburgh. I’m from Connecticut but studied at Villanova University.
Fantastic! Why did you choose Scotland as your Study Abroad destination?
Picking a location was a really long process for me; I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go but I needed somewhere where I could fulfil a lot of credits at home so I needed classes in English. I really didn’t want to do any of the super popular places like London or Italy, somewhere that everyone goes and it’s just me and a load of other American students. I’d had a few Professors and Advisors at School recommend Scotland so I started looking into it. At first I was thinking St Andrews but then someone told me about Edinburgh and just looking into it, it was a city with a town feel and I liked that balance where it was obviously Europe but didn’t feel like America in another country; it definitely had that more authentic feel to it.
And what were your first impressions when you got here?
Oh goodness! I remember I got there at the same time as somebody else in the program and we took a cab together from the airport. I remember driving down Princes Street and turning into Old Town and the way it changed was so insane to me, we’d really arrived. Being in the Old Town, it felt so beautiful and like something out of Harry Potter; that’s really what it feels like! That first afternoon of walking around and being so confused by all the hills and alleys made it even more magical and like we were wandering through a storybook. I felt so safe and could go anywhere and everyone was so friendly. I definitely felt like I was in a new place but never in an overwhelming way and it felt very comfortable right away.
How did you find adjusting to a new culture and settling into your Student Accommodation?
I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never been to Europe before and didn’t know anybody else on the program so on the plane I had no idea what was going to happen when I got there. That first day or two I was like “I don’t know where anything is” and “What are the grocery stores here?” but then having the Arcadia Orientation was so helpful; it gave us a little pod of people to figure it all out with. It was definitely nerve-wracking but also exciting and it was one of the first times in my life I felt like an independent adult. I know when people talk about studying abroad they talk about the adjustment curve and I really expected that to hit me hard but I think coming home and adjusting was harder for me. Of course there were moments of home sickness but it really did feel comfortable so quickly and I think a lot of that was having the Arcadia Orientation and getting to meet people and making friends that made the process easier.
Fantastic! What were your classes like and how did they differ from Villanova?
I took 3 classes at Edinburgh which were all classes I needed for my Major. They were all very different from Villanova because the average class there is like 24 kids and then in Edinburgh the smallest class had about 90 kids! I’d never been in one of those big lecture style classes before so it was an interesting experience. We did have the smaller discussion based tutorial classes which I was more used to and I really loved my classes. I still think “Religion, Violence and Peace Building” was one of the best classes I took throughout my whole College education. Getting to talk about a lot of these things where they are happening rather than in the US was really interesting as well as the different perspectives. We have International students back home but it’s not a huge number but sitting in the class where you had students from the US and Scotland as well as Ireland, Italy and France gave me perspectives that I wouldn’t have gotten any other time in my life.
I found the classes to be very manageable; I never felt like I was overwhelmed but I very much felt like I was learning and I’ll still pull things from those classes now. It was a good balance of manageable but effective and educational.
Did you like the more independent style of learning versus the continuous assessment more common in the US?
That was definitely another big difference. Here we have to write a reflection piece every week and all these things that begin to feel like we’re just checking boxes. In Scotland, because we spent the full semester focussing on just one or two bigger assignments they felt more important and that I could put more time into each of them and really focus on something that I found interesting. A lot of them were “here are your 20 options for your paper, choose which one you like” so I was able to pick something and dive deeper into something that piqued my interest and allow me to focus solely on that.
Outside of classes, did you join any Clubs or Societies?
I don’t think so but I definitely remember going to the Activities Fair; you couldn’t move! We were doing so much and travelling at the weekends that we didn’t have that much time. The people I was closest with and who I was spending time with were people from the Arcadia program but it never felt like we were isolated from the local community because we spent so much time in the library or on campus and lived with Scottish people in our flats. We’d go to trivia nights at the pubs and do things that felt like we were integrated with the community without necessarily joining the official University societies.
Some students are very involved and some students find their own way, everyone’s experience is different which is what we’re trying to show with these blogs. Did you participate in any of the Arcadia organized events?
Yes! We went to the ceilidh around Thanksgiving which was the most fun ever and I also went on two of the weekend trips. I went on the Loch Ness and Highlands trip which was really cool. I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories but when I got there I definitely felt there could be a monster in Loch Ness! It was really cool to get to a bit of Scotland that would have been harder to do on our own.
I also went on the activity weekend at Firbush where we stayed in a lodge and did kayaking and mountain biking which was such a cool experience. I’m not a huge outdoorsy person so to be at a Loch, close to a small town and to do all these different things was definitely one of my favourite weekends while abroad. It wasn’t a touristy weekend, it was just like living and being part of the community for a few days.
How was the hill-walk; did you get good weather?
It was very wet! I think I slid down the hill about 12 times. It was also super foggy that day but we ended up above the fog which was a cool experience
How do you feel Arcadia supported you through your Study Abroad experience?
Arcadia was super helpful. The whole process of getting there, I didn’t have a passport for starters, but the communication throughout the application process was so helpful which made it feel a lot more doable. The biggest thing for me that made the experience what it was, was the Arcadia Orientation at the start of the program. Just hearing about how you’re going to survive the program, this is what you need to know etc but also in terms of getting to know other people. I landed on a campus where I didn’t know anyone when I started University but I’d never been in a country where I didn’t know anyone. Feeling like I wasn’t alone in this experience was really helpful, especially right at the beginning, and having that free time to get lunch with each other and talk to each other was great. Still the friends I made from that orientation are some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Even throughout the rest of the time in Scotland there were so many little things where we were like “we don’t know how to do this” so just being able to go to the Arcadia office with our problems was an extra level of support. Things never felt overwhelming in Scotland, I always felt in control, but there were definitely times where we had no idea how things worked and nobody to ask except the Arcadia office so it was great to know there were people on campus who knew what they were doing and were looking out for us for anything, whether it was academic, social or logistical.
We are definitely missing helping students at the moment! What do you think was the hardest thing about studying abroad for you?
*Long Pause*.........Ok, 2 things. The thing at first which definitely lessened was FOMO; what’s going on with my friends back at Villanova and doing these things I would be doing if I was there and also my friends studying abroad in other places and doing cool things. There was this concern of not knowing anything yet, no trips planned and uncertainty about classes but at home things seemed so easy. Once I settled in, met people and started doing things it was fine. There is a sense of trying to cram a lifetime into 4 months and not saying no to anything. We’d take early flights and be so tired but force ourselves to do everything in the city. There was definitely an exhaustion point halfway through so there’s definitely a need to find that balance of being a “normal” College student in Edinburgh and getting that experience with also seeing and doing as much as possible in your short time. When I was originally looking at studying abroad I never thought I could do this for a year but then around November I was like I could do this for a year; I could stay forever! Finding that balance of wanting to relax but also wanting to do everything was a challenge.
Too much fun to be had! What do you think you learnt the most from your experience?
I’m definitely one of those people who says “Study Abroad changed my life” but I really genuinely believe that. The things I learnt the most were about myself and my own capabilities. I went to College 4 hours from home which felt like a big jump leaving High School; then I went abroad and I was like I could go anywhere and do anything and I would be ok and happy. Expanding my whole idea of thinking how big my world could be and wanting to be a part of this. I definitely gained a lot of confidence and independence and just this feeling that anything is possible and there’s no reason to limit myself. I learned about history and culture but that all taught me so much about myself.
How has Study Abroad helped your career, Academically or otherwise, since returning?
So right away after coming back it definitely informed a lot of the ways I thought about my classes. I took International Relations the semester after I got back and all of a sudden I was like yeah, I know how this Government works, I’ve been there! Having a more global perspective helped. I graduated in May and now I’m a Social Studies teacher so it’s informed my teaching even more than I expected in terms of being able to really explain things to kids and being able to tell them what it’s like to be there. So far I’ve been teaching the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I took a Middle Ages class while I was in Scotland so that’s what I’m pulling on but we did an activity about England, France and Spain and I’ve been to these places now and can say to them this is what it’s like there. Telling the kids I’ve been to see the Mona Lisa and her eyes do follow you around the room, just these little things as a teacher, trying to make it relevant to the kids and making it real for them. It’s definitely made me so much more excited about the things I’m teaching.
That’s so great, Riley; it’s great that you’re able to bring this global perspective to the classroom. Our final question is why would you recommend future Study Abroad students study in Scotland?
A million reasons! I think Scotland in general but specifically Edinburgh is the perfect study abroad destination. Every time we travelled we’d ask ourselves the question “would you prefer to study abroad here?” and almost universally the answer was no, not even close to Edinburgh. I think the thing about Edinburgh specifically is that it is a city, there’s so much to do and so many distinct areas with their own vibe but it was never overwhelming. I never felt like I couldn’t go out on my own at night or that it would take too long to get somewhere else in the city, it just was so homey. I very much felt a part of it and that I could walk anywhere, that I could do anything alone or with other people and I felt by the end that I really knew the place so I think that balance is really special. I can’t imagine flying across the ocean and arriving in a bigger city.
I always felt that with London and other places that I’ll probably get the chance to visit or go there again but I don’t think people see Scotland as a place to go. This is an experience where you’re going to be there for 4 months in a country you may never have gone otherwise. It just had everything and at the end of every trip I took it felt like I was coming home. It felt so safe and comfortable but so fun and so beautiful and so many things that I had no idea about before going; little traditions and pieces of culture. It was just the most perfect balance, I know I keep saying this, of this really lively city but also this quaint small town feel which made it feel like home in this continent that I very much was not at home in. That’s the biggest thing, that you have this place you're coming to that you’re going to learn and do so much but it’s going to feel like it’s yours while you’re there.