by Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter March 2002
I learned recently that my friend Shannon Leary of Foxboro would be going to college overseas – in England. I thought it might be interesting to talk to this local resident and have her relate some of her experiences as a new student in a foreign land.
Shannon and I first met four years ago at the Jaycees haunted house. At that time Shannon, all of 15, was performing in one of our scares, “The dorm room,” with a few other kids. In years after that, she took even more interest and a more active role in the haunted house, eventually being part of an award-winning guide team in 2000. Her enthusiasm was always contagious.
Shannon and I also get along because like me, she also has a very silly side. Whenever we met, we could be overheard having utterly irrelevant, silly, inane conversations about zebras and blue cars, technobable and spaceships – it’s a game we play and there’s one rule—whoever laughs first loses.
Shannon was often seen at her job at CVS here in Foxboro — always friendly, always smiling.
She left for London’s University of Westminster at the start of the school year, and returned home to Foxboro for Christmas vacation. It was at CVS over the break that I caught up with her, and we did an interview while she worked the store.
“So why London?” I asked, beginning my note taking.
Shannon smiled. “I saw a guy with a really cute accent and followed him there.”
I raised an eyebrow. “No, really.”
“Well, it sounded good, didn’t it? Really, I wanted an adventure, wanted to do something different, and when I visited London I could see myself living in the city.”
She’d been to London before, and had done all the tourist things. But what did her parents think? She is, after all, an only child. What did they think about her heading overseas for college?
According to Shannon, they were “ecstatic” with the choice. “My Mom said, “We never want to hold you back.”
So began her great adventure. She described the application process as the hardest thing she ever did. The four-page “UCAS” submission comes with a twenty-page instruction book! But she made it through, and was soon given offers to the six English schools she’d applied to.
She chose Westminster, and will never forget her arrival in London.
“My passport is stamped Heathrow, September 11,” she recalled, and my first reaction was to suddenly stop my scribbling and look up. It was afternoon in London. Here, it was 8:00am. She called her mother to say she’d arrived safely. The first plane hit the World Trade Center less than 30 minutes later.
“I didn’t even know about the attacks right away, until I called my friend Sheri a little later,” she said. That week, “A lot of people were coming up to me and saying, “I’m sorry for what happened to your country.”
“There was a great response over there…”
“Oh, yeah,” she agreed. “Tony Blair was on TV offering support, but there were rumors that England was gonna be [targeted] next.” She described that week as terrifying and uncertain, but recalled a gesture by the British that warmed her heart:
“A few days later I was walking near Buckingham Palace and there was a huge crowd. They were playing the US National Anthem and it gave me chills.”
The attacks affected Shannon in another way – the plan had been for her parents to join her in London five days after her arrival to bring over her clothes, pillowcases, sheets and other essentials for a year’s stay. Obviously, with all the flights in and out of America grounded, they had no way to get there, leaving the new student with just about the clothes on her back and a few necessities.
Fortunately, she stayed at a hostel and “did a lot of laundry,” and once flights resumed, her folks were able to bring her clothes.
After that auspicious start, she began her adventure. The school year commenced with “Fresher’s Week,” an orientation period for the international students. Shannon was assigned to her dorm, which over there is called the “hall of residence,” and she has her own room and bath. The kitchen is the common shared area.
“There’s no meal plans, so I do all my own cooking,” she explained. “You need to be very self sufficient. The kitchen is the social center,” she added.
It’s an all-freshman residence, by the second year she will be required to find her own place.
Sounds expensive, but she tells me that Westminster is surprisingly much more affordable than US schools. Westminster consists of three campuses, and Shannon lives on Harrow Campus. Unlike American colleges, English universities are a three-year program.
It’s a hard three years. While Shannon was impressed with the lecturers (who surprised her by being neither stuffy nor formal), she acknowledged that the work is very grueling and is the reason for the first year’s high drop out rate.
Her longest lecture runs six and a half hours on Wednesdays and features only two small breaks. “I didn’t expect to do so much writing. My courses are all writings. There are no tests.”
But she loves her major, which is an Honors BA degree in Media Studies. “Schools in England don’t make you take core classes,” such as philosophy or calculus, “…they assume you already have that. My three years will be all communications so it’s really cool.”
But it’s not all books and studies.
“Yes, I have friends,” she smiled. “My flat-mates—”
“Ah!” I interrupted. That’s what I was looking for. English slang! “Flat mates?” I tease. I wait for a “Jolly Good,” but one never comes, so I ask her if her accent singles her out.
“People look at you funny when you speak.” She explains that her friends like to hear her speak “American” and ask her to say words like “Bar,” and “park the car,” and try to imitate her. What British vernacular has she acquired? “Mostly English swear words,” she says with a smile. “They think of me as a tourist.”
But this “tourist” clearly loves England, although she confesses that it’s still strange to drive on the left side of the road.
She described the English people as “very nice,” but admitted she doesn’t have much contact with them, spending most of her time on campus with her friends. Her residence is a United Nations of sorts – her friends hail from Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Japan. Her favorite is Bjornar (the 6’4″Norweign with strawberry blonde hair) who she describes as her best friend.
She adds that the social scene is not what you might expect. In American schools, there is a party atmosphere associated with freshman year. But Shannon explains that it’s different over there; that drinking is not a big deal and most people drink much more responsibly than American students.
“The courses are all theory, and lectures are hardcore six hours. That’s why you go to the pub after class.” There’s even a nightclub on campus, but “people don’t drink stupidly.”
We make a joke about the drinking game “quarters,” and it dawns on me they don’t have quarters over there. How about money? Since England was not one of the countries that adopted the Euro, I asked Shannon how she managed with British currency conversions – can she convert pounds and pence?
“It’s generally easy,” she said. “I can compute it in my head. The hassle is that Coke and Pepsi don’t taste the same over there. The only thing that tastes the same is Doctor Pepper.” She adds that a six-pack of Doctor Pepper costs 2 pounds 75 pence. (I never did ask if that was a bargain or not).
Cola taste problems aside; she does enjoy clothes shopping in Camden on Portobello Road, where she can barter for good bargains.
What impressed me most talking to Shannon is how well she’s adjusted over there. For many people, leaving home to go to college is hard enough. Living in another country during that time presents its own myriad of challenges. She seems to have mastered both.
But once again Shannon impressed me with a maturity that belies her age. Sure, as she goes on about her new life, there is an undercurrent here – untold stories and good times, and parties and friends and life on her own. Clearly, London has been good to her.
But Shannon demonstrates that her first priority is the education. She doesn’t consider England a vacation or field trip. She works hard, studies, and for her initial semester, she made first honors.
Also, she just got a work placement with an international media company called MediaXchange, in which she gets to be a researcher/runner/phone person.
Her parents can be very proud of her. This “local girl” has done well for herself.
As the interview wraps up, Shannon said she was looking forward to the return to London, and hinted that she may not come home to Foxboro this summer. “I might take a summer job there – something to do with my major.”
She concludes, “This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. It’s given me a chance to look more at the world and meet people I would have never met.”
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Cheers, Shannon!