Author Archives: brooketaylor


Written May 22

My semester at St. Andrews is finally complete, and I do not know whether to be ecstatic or melancholy. I am ecstatic because finals are over, because I am done taking two classes I do not enjoy, because I am going home to friends and family I love, and because I can finally eat good fish again. But I am also melancholy because though the academic side of my semester abroad was rougher than I had hoped, everything else was wonderful. I made a new great friend, I traveled around a beautiful country full of kind and friendly people, I danced at two cèilidhs which make me beyond happy, and I loved my programming class. I have braved public transport, finnicky stovetops and showers, a sunrise ocean jump, and haggis. And I finally got used to having cars on the left side of the road, and now I have to go back!

Since this is my final blog, I want to answer two questions I feel anyone who reads this might want to know.

1) Why St. Andrews?

I picked St. Andrews because it was in an English-speaking country, and it offered the STEM classes I needed. The reasons you might pick here might be different. St. Andrews is a larger school to break away from the small-class feel, and also gives you more opportunities to find other classes to take or more clubs and activities to join. Yet it is full of international students—and plenty of Americans—so you don’t really feel like you’re in a foreign country a lot. The town itself is still pretty small, but if you golf you will always be occupied, and there are plenty of shops, cafés, and restaurants and pubs so you do not necessarily have to feel like there is nothing there. And regardless, it is right on a beautiful ocean. In my decision, I was torn between St. Andrews and Otago in New Zealand. What won me over was that St. Andrews still takes their academics pretty seriously, which Otago seemed to not; also, though at first I was sad because I thought Otago might have more beautiful places to explore, I have discovered that I should not have discounted Scotland’s beauty so much. Since it is a smaller country it is easier to travel around, and you do not need a car to do it, and there are so many beautiful places nearby; not to mention that it is right next to Europe and Scandinavia if you want to travel a little further. In the end, St. Andrews is not that much different than Whitman—just bigger, with a more lenient academic system, and in easy distance to plenty of other fantastic towns and hiking places.

2) Is it worth studying abroad?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Now of course studying abroad isn’t really for everyone, but to be honest, I do not think anyone who knows me would have thought it was for me, either. What I appreciated about St. Andrews was that it was a chance to stretch my limited sense of adventure without feeling like I was throwing myself into a fire pit, which I would have felt had I gone to a country with a very different culture and a completely different language. In St. Andrews the culture was not very different from home, and because it was an international school then there was very little language barrier either. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t anything to be learned. If you remember from my Series of Unfortunate Events blog, I learned a lot of things by going to a different country than if I had never gone. And I think most importantly, it helps give you a boost of confidence in yourself. I was the one that planned my trips around Scotland. I was the one that dealt with things when they went wrong. I was the one that had to make myself try new things because I did not have friends or family or faculty telling me to do so. And when you are the one completely in charge of decisions like that, and you succeed (or at least survive), there is a source of pride instilled in you for that. Even if the semester I had was rougher than I may have liked, I will always be proud of the fact that I went and tried and on the whole, succeeded.

Scotland, you have been wonderful. And I will miss you.

Cheers everyone,


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.