Author Archives: brooketaylor

Study? Travel? Both!

I am less than a week away from completing my semester here at St. Andrews. And wow, the past few weeks have been crazy! From April 22 to May 7, students have been busy studying for all their exams in the two weeks from May 8 to May 19. Myself? I have been studying for only about half that time.

Call me a bad student, though I prefer to think of it as a good study-abroad student. I also know myself well enough to know that there is no way on earth that I could spend two weeks straight studying for 3 exams, one of which I was barely concerned about at all, especially when I am used to having 2 days to study for 4-5 exams at Whitman. And as much as I believe in being a good academic student, I also went abroad for the purpose of exploring myself and the country I am in, not dedicating 100% of my time to academics the way I do at home.

So for the first four days of Revision Week(s), I and a friend went up to the Orkney Islands, the second most northern set of islands of Scotland. Orkney’s Scapa Flow, a body of water surrounded by the islands, played a key role in the world wars, as it turns out, as a base for the British Naval Fleet and a block against German U-boats from the North Sea. What I find more fascinating, however, is the Neolithic history of the islands. Part of Orkney is filled with Neolithic sites: villages, circles of stones, and a burial ground. My friend and I visited these on one of our days there, and I found it incredible, mainly because so little is known about the civilization—it’s all guesswork. Based on the size of the beds, they can guess how they slept; based on how the doorframe was so low, they can guess they either protected against invaders or against the fearsome weather; based on their tools, they could guess how they passed their time; based on the size of their gravesite, they can guess they simply tossed in the bones rather than fully burying their dead. But their general culture? Their hierarchy? Their sleep patterns? What the circle of stones were used for? No one knows! And that’s crazy.

After Orkney, for the next week I spent all of my days studying for my maths exam. In between studying, I dealt with a cold that was circulating my hall, and also participated in the May Dip. Apparently May Day (May 1st) is a big holiday in the U.K., and the tradition at St. Andrews to celebrate is to run into the North Sea at sunrise. Supposedly, naked, but fortunately, few actually heed to this part of the tradition. Supposedly the dip purifies the students of academic sins they have committed over the year. Well, rhinovirus and all, I got up at 4:35 in the morning to be at the beach at 5:00 and plunge into the sea with a few friends. After dunking myself to my neck—no saltwater in my hair, thank you—I ran back, toweled off, layered up, and quickly walked back for a warm shower and then another hour of sleep. The answer is yes, it was freezing.

Exhausted from five straight days of a miserable cold and a whole lot of maths, my friend and I departed the country—the first time, for me!—to Norway for a few days. This time we met a friend of my friend who she knows from school back home, and the three of us spent four days touring Oslo, Stavanger, and Bergen. The biggest adventure of the trip was the sunrise hike to Pulpit Rock in Stavanger, which meant getting up before midnight so we could be picked up by our guide at 1:00am so we could begin our hike at 3:00am to be at the top for sunrise at 5:30am. We got extremely lucky with the weather, as it was foggy at the base of the mountain, but at the top of the mountain we were greeted with clear skies and a sea of fog below us covering the fjord to make the sunrise even more spectacular.

We arrived back in St. Andrews very late on Monday, and my first exam was on Wednesday. For the next few days I studied, took a test (CS), studied, took another test (maths), and then took an afternoon off before studying for my final test (E&M). On Tuesday at 4:00 I will officially be done.

If you want to know if I regret taking so much time off when I should have been studying, my answer is absolutely not. Had I had four classes, perhaps I would have taken one vacation instead of two, but in the end—especially since my exams were neatly spread out—I have not felt like I had too little time to study. And I would recommend traveling in that time to almost anyone: not only is it a good break so you can be more focused when you do come back, but I also believe it would be such a shame to come to a country as beautiful as Scotland and not take every advantage to travel it. Traveling by yourself or with a friend, I have found, is a great way to claim independence, to build confidence in yourself, to have fun, and to make incredible stories. It can be as much or as little work as you want—though with public transport there is always stress involved—but every time I come back from traveling, I am filled with happiness that nothing else in my time abroad can compete with, except maybe dancing at a cèilidh. It is a wonderful feeling.



Managing Free Time

Revision Week? What is that?

One of the most foreign concepts I am experiencing here at St. Andrews is this idea of a revision period. At Whitman we get exactly two days of revision to study for finals, and then boom! into the fiery pit of finals we plunge. Here at St. Andrews? We get a full two weeks.

I am both for and against this approach. On the one hand, finals here count for usually 60-100% of your grade, and typically on the higher end. In my case, both E&M’s and CompSci’s final count for 60%, and math’s is 90%. My friend has her math final as 100% of her grade. It’s crazy! Thus getting a full two weeks to prepare for the 3-4 finals you have probably seems reasonable. On the other hand, if you are like me at all, I find it next to impossible to study that hard on so few subjects for that many days in a row. In fact even if I maintain great productivity every day, the problem is my brain gets so full I actually become more confused and worried that I would have been had I only studied for a little bit the few days before.

So what do you do?

I can only speak from the point of view of other study-abroad students, unfortunately, but even then the verdict varies. A surprising number of them are staying here to study for the full two weeks for their exams, and started studying the day after classes ended. A few are taking only one trip for a couple days in the middle. Me and my friend are taking two trips that will result in only having one of the two weeks to study. I am sincerely hoping I do not regret this decision once the test days arrive, but I think it should be plenty.

The abundance of time that St. Andrews gives their students to study for finals is another testament to how different the school system is here. To succeed here, you either have to be a tremendously good test-taker, or you have to be a very efficient time-manager. But managing time here is not the same as managing time at Whitman. Instead of an abundance of homework assignments and a good number of midterms, we get a couple problems that may or may not be graded, and one final exam—though maybe one extra midterm if you’re lucky. And the abundance of free time you are given because of this can be much more of a trap than a blessing. I consider myself a very good time manager, as that is the only way I have done well at Whitman these last three years, two semesters of which I have taken five full academic classes. But that made little difference to my success here.

What do I mean? I mean there is a difference between managing your busy time and managing your free time.

Learning how to manage free time is a skill I never thought existed or would even be necessary, but it has been one of the biggest challenges of my time abroad. Perhaps if I had taken a fourth class, or if one of my classes had been a lab—always requires a huge bulk of time every week—then this may not have been a problem. As it is, I have learned that it is easy to postpone a task knowing you still have plenty of other hours in the week to get it done; or to try an ungraded homework assignment and when you’re stuck, simply wait for the solution set to come out and then work backwards; or to do only the turn-in problems on an assignment when you become busy with some other subject. All of these are very tempting traps, and it requires a lot of focus and effort to not fall in to them, especially when you feel so busy with all the other things that come with studying abroad: finding new friends, adjusting to the culture, taking advantage of being able to travel to beautiful places easily, going to a host of random social events you suddenly have time for. But even if by the end of the semester I do not think I have quite gotten the hang of it, it is something I will be able to say I have tried and more or less succeeded at.

I think the important thing to remember is that there are many different sets of skills that lead the way to success, and no matter where you go or how much experience you have, there is always a different technique you will need to get where you need to go. It takes practice, time, and perseverance, but it is a wonderful feeling to know you learned how to thrive in a new challenging environment.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

There are only two weeks left of classes, and I am starting to look back on my time and determine what was different about coming here instead of remaining at Whitman. There is always the obvious—a different country, different school, different class content, different friends. But what made my time here was different than simply going to a new school back in the states? The truth is there are many adventures I had only by going to a different country.

The first adventure occurred the very first day I got here, when I opened my bedding back and realized we have a different definition of “bedding.” Instead of a comforter I received a duvet; instead of an electric blanket I received a small heating pad that went under my sheets and would put a big lump where the cord was right underneath my shoulder in order for the plug to reach the socket.

Another is food. One night we were told we were going to have pancakes for dinner, which should have been the best—but the pancakes were flatter than crepes, and served only with honey. I thought there was nothing delightful in this. And though I have never had it myself, the bacon here I have been told is “not bacon,” meaning it is “not American bacon,” saddening many American students.

There was also the White Tea Incident. My all-time favorite tea is a mixture of white and green tea, and when I noticed the hot-beverage machine included white tea, I thought I would give it a shot. As I pressed the button for white tea, a mixture of hot water and some milky liquid poured into my mug. It looked exactly like watery milk, and tasted just as bad. My friend, before seeing my mug, poured herself a mug as well in the other machine, but unfortunately some leftover hot chocolate from the last user poured into her mug as well—and this tasted even worse than mine.

Another issue here is the laundry machines, the dryers in particular. You have to pay for laundry here, and the machines run on their own time based on the color and type of clothes you throw in. While this is fine for washers, it is a big problem for dryers because my heavy dark winter clothes do not dry in one load—but I am hardly going to pay another £1.50 for a second round. This means that every 2-3 weeks I have half of my laundry hanging from the doors of my closet and over the hot water pipes.

Though not particular to Scotland, the showers here have caused problems two different times. Once was on the very first night, when the hot water would not turn off. Since no one except the study-abroad students had arrived yet, I had to run down the hall in my towel to the nearest study-abroad student to ask if she could find someone to help. A man dressed in a sweater and jeans came back up and managed to turn off the water for me, but it was a rather embarrassing start to my semester. Then, a month later, the shower started being impossible to turn off again. I learned the trick was to have dry hands, and also an iron will, so for a week I was one of the few able to turn off the shower all the way after use. When the housekeepers (yes, we have housekeepers here) came by the next week to clean, our housekeeper could not turn the shower off. She knocked on my door to let me know not to worry about it and she would get someone, but after twenty minutes I still heard the shower running, so I went out and turned it off myself. When the housekeeper found this out she looked at me and said, “But even the Porter couldn’t turn it off!” So there you go, I, who never goes to the gym, am stronger than the Porter.

The kitchens are my biggest adventure. We are not served dinners on the weekends and have to fend for ourselves, but after a month of microwave dinners I gave in and bought a super cheap pot and pizza pan. My first weekend cooking pasta, I looked at the stovetop dials and realized the labeling had all but peeled away, so I had to play the guessing game at which one to turn on. It then took almost 45 minutes for my water to boil—I know a watched pot never boils, but it was not a large pot! For each subsequent pasta meal after that, it always took a very long time for the water to boil. One time I put a pizza in the oven, waited the 25 minutes, and took it out, only to discover it had not been cooked at all, only warmed. I ended up moving to a different oven other students had just used to ensure it was actually cooked, since no one else seemed to have as bad luck as me.

After about five meals gone impossibly slowly in this way, a friend saw me in the kitchen and when I complained that it always takes forever to boil water, he told me there are actually switches that turn on the entire stove-oven appliance. Once he turned it on for me, my water boiled in under five minutes. What I believe happened for all my past meals was the other appliance other students were using (there are two sets in each kitchen) got my stovetop hot enough so I did not think anything was wrong, but not hot enough to boil the water at a proper pace. Since then I have had no issues at all.

My last adventure was also in the kitchen, when I put a stick of butter in the microwave to soften it so I could make a turkey sandwich. At home I do this all the time, but here when I put the butter in for five seconds, two seconds in I heard a pop and opened the door to see my butter on fire. I frantically blew out the flame and waved my hands to disperse the smoke, and by pure luck no fire alarms went off. As it turns out, the butter I buy at home is in plastic wrap, whereas here butter most often comes in foil. Anyone smart knows that foil does not go in the microwave—there is in fact even a sign right next to the microwave saying not to do so—but it did not occur to me to think of it since I never had to do so at home.

What I mean to get across in all of these unfortunate events is that I may have never experienced them if I had not taken a chance and gone abroad. When I told people I was going to Scotland, a lot of responses involved how nice it would be that I am going to an English-speaking country, that it wouldn’t be that different. While it may be true that Scotland is a lot closer to the US than somewhere like India, they are wrong in thinking that everything will be the same. We have different definitions of words—pancakes, electric blanket, white tea. Electric sockets come with on-off switches. You have a separate drying room in dorms because the dryers are crummy. Buildings are old so it is a lot more likely that a shower handle will get stuck. Even simply because I had to buy a different brand of butter than usual, I learned about the dangers of foil in the microwave.

It is these small adventures, trying new things and learning their unexpected results, that can be the heart and soul of the stories we have to tell when we come back home.