I am sitting atop a three-rung marble staircase, leaning against an intricately corrugated base that supports a formidable bronze statue. The sculpture depicts a man of importance: his attire is stately, his demeanor imperious. He gazes assuredly toward the Thames River, as if taking in a resplendent scene that only men of his position are privy to see. Frankly, I could not tell you who the statue represents—probably a renowned duke from Britain’s imperial heyday, or a distinguished legislator of the Victorian Era. Regardless, I cannot be bothered to walk ten feet and find out. After all, why should his identity concern me? Whatever his life might have been, the relation between him and me stands as firm and conspicuous as his statue does: here was a man of accomplishment; a man whose deeds were deemed worthy enough to validate a personal commemoration; a man whose aura will forever anchor the physical and mental landscapes of Stamford St. and Aldwich Way. This man runs in stark contrast to my identity of the deferential youngster; the untried student who sits underneath and looks upward at the towering bronze achiever; the American who is as much a stranger to London as he is a stranger to the prestige and prominence enjoyed by those with statues made in their name.
If I asked people to describe to me their conceptions of “the study abroad experience,” they would probably list a neat assortment of rudimentary concepts like adventure, excitement, and traveling, rather than the all-too-human emotions of confusion, self-doubt, and perceived inadequacy. And yet these sentiments easily bob to the surface in a place like London. I have admittedly experienced these feelings, and I have seen such feelings manifest in the eyes of my fellow expats. After all, this city brims with remnants of extraordinary historical figures: people who accomplished remarkable things in their lifetimes and who excelled in every kind of professional discipline. They earned the recognition of their contemporaries, and their posthumous reward is a place in the history books and a nook in mankind’s memory.
Predictably though, these humbling thoughts are equally inspired by London’s present as they are by its past. In this respect, the city’s old elite is hardly different in function from today’s elite—only their appearances and forms have changed. Dukes, duchesses and princes find their modern-day equivalents in the business executives, finance whiz-kids and hot-shot lawyers who run the city; the gold-studded horse-drawn carriages of bygone eras have become Bentleys and Maseratis; the exaltation of the clergy had been transmuted into the exaltation of movie stars, television pundits, and fashionistas, all of whom can be regularly seen strolling through London’s streets, leaving ripples of awed deference in their wake. In truth, I was expecting such conditions when I came here: London is, and has been for some time, one of the globe’s outstanding cities. As such, it has naturally grown into a mecca for the wealthy, brilliant, and ambitious. Above all, the ambitious, for it is locations like London that lure the most dogged willpowers of our world.
Thus, if you study abroad in a city like London, you implicitly agree to bear firsthand witness to the realization of human potential, and then in turn to measure your own potential against this competition. Because everywhere you look the competition is in plain sight, whether they are hurriedly commuting to work, grabbing a quick lunch, or enjoying a cigarette break. These women and men belong to some of the world’s top firms and companies, and they are at the peak of their powers. Indeed, I should mention that part and parcel of London’s proclivity to humble is its capacity to inspire: bearing witness to this transnational mélange of well-dressed professionals is motivation in and of itself. We are off to a good start, fellow CMCers, but we must yet earn our place at the table of society’s distinguished. It is we who must learn the road they have so expertly navigated. It is we who seek to replicate them. My current university, King’s College London, is keen to remind students of its lofty expectations: each window panel of the school’s main administrative building is plastered with the headshot of a distinguished alumnus or alumna, accompanied by a paragraph that details his or her outstanding achievements.
Maybe the academic environment I mentioned sounds similar to that of Claremont, and in many respects this is true. Both schools instill in their students an ardent drive for success, whether it is through intense classroom debates, opportunities for meaningful on-campus employment, myriad networking possibilities, or institutional avenues for selective summer internships. However, the similarities end at the surface level. For in spite of the obvious parallels in how these two institutions operate, the international and urban setting of KCL fosters an entirely different learning experience than Claremont’s suburban campus. Above all, this disparity is felt in the confluence of classroom material with the communities and demographic realities in which the student lives.
For example, it is one thing to learn about global terror in an International Relations class; it is another thing when your own neighborhood is on lockdown, with choppers flying overhead and undercover agents ushering loitering students off the streets because of a potential ISIS presence. This is just a sliver of the terror and political instability faced by millions of civilians around the world, many of whom escaped to places like London in search for a better life. Unfortunately, they now find themselves languishing at the bottom of the city’s wage labor gamut, waiting tables and bagging groceries for people like me. Furthermore: it is one thing to cursorily address wealth inequality at the tail end of Econ 50; it is an entirely different matter when you begin to recognize the faces of the homeless people living around your apartment, many of whom are young adults, veterans and the elderly, and all of whom wear similar expressions of hopelessness and rejection.
My newfound engagement with both ends of the human spectrum has assuaged a particular frustration I felt in Claremont; namely, the feeling of detachment from “the real world.” Some readers might be taken aback by this comment. And fair enough, because paradoxically, this encumbering feeling of mine stemmed from our school’s most attractive features: the gourmet dining options and weekly room cleaning service gave me the impression of a 5-star hotel; our relentless party scene, with its flippant themes and school-sponsored booze, felt like a protracted reverie in which every “night out” was an extension of the previous one; even our self-consciousness of being “the happiest school in America” (which, I might add, some of us wear on our chests in a rather affected manner) appeared to create a milieu that effectively normalizes a mood of unwavering contentedness. To me, it seemed that this unnatural collective temperament spills over into the tone of our general discourse, restricting its breadth and probably disrupting would-be trajectories of thought among pliable students, underclassmen in particular.
The bottom line is that Claremont does not come close to mirroring our world’s chaotic and unforgiving nature. This is even more so the case because of the near homogeneity of our student body’s socio-economic makeup. The majority of us come from comfortable, if not privileged, backgrounds. Our international students, lovely as they are, can hardly be labeled as diversifiers—virtually all of them attended westernized private schools before moving to California. Thus, for most of us, CMC’s environment is a continuation of the environment we have known our whole lives: quarantined from hardship, shielded from the world’s overarching problems, and imbibed off fanciful notions of inevitable happiness and success. Upon graduation, many of us will remain in this secluded social setting as we begin the long journey of ascending the career ladder.
And all of this is perfectly okay: as autonomous beings, we are essentially ‘allowed’ to do what we want. However, the blessing of autonomy comes with various moral imperatives, which one may or may not be inclined to reflect on. One of these imperatives is to embrace novel experiences and digest alternative viewpoints with an open mind. For all of CMC’s many virtues, its social and academic environment is not very conducive to ‘thinking outside the box’, as it were. Thus, if you take anything away from this article, let it be this: study abroad if you can! Go somewhere more unorthodox, more off the beaten path, and more spiritually invigorating than London. Dive headfirst into our crazy world, a world in which we haphazardly find ourselves, and learn through experience as much as you can. It is impossible to predict or qualify the manifold effects that studying abroad may have on you; this is its virtue though, because rest assured, you will not regret packing up your bags and venturing into the unknown.