“Cork.” “Norwich.” “Manchester.” “Glasgow.” “Sheffield.” These are not the normal responses you expect to hear from young Americans when asked “Where are you from?” Unless it’s London Weekend! This March, we welcomed over 30 Illini (that’s students of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the uninitiated) to the UK’s capital city for 3 days of fun and culture. The students are able to take advantage of as much or as little of the activities as they wish, with everything from travel to hotels covered for them. Besides the obvious benefit of seeing London and getting to experience a different part of the UK than their host university’s town, the most important aspect of the weekend is encouraging Illini spread out across England, Scotland, and the Republic of Ireland to get to know each other, and have ready-made contacts when they travel around the British Isles. Activities are arranged to offer both fun (the wonderfully silly West End musical Rock of Ages) to delving deeper into London’s history and culture (questions on the Scavenger Hunt include “What does the Cockney phrase ‘bees and honey’ mean?” and “Name two famous literary minds who lived in Bloomsbury”), plus lots of opportunity for bonding over delicious meals. I think Emily and I enjoy the meals and entertainment as much as the students! The students get to know each other by staying in dorm-style hotel rooms, taking a private guided coach tour of London, visiting the Tower of London and enjoying a comedy night. Watching students who didn’t know each other in Illinois become friendly in London, having come from the various corners of the British Isles, is a wonderful sight.
Illinois’ British Exchange Program is quite different to most of the “island” programmes I work with day-to-day in London, in that students are directly enrolled into British (or Irish!) universities, meaning they are living and learning with British and other international students. This programme is a spectacular opportunity to become more familiar with British culture and become closely acquainted with cities that London-based students may not know about, much less plan to visit. At our Saturday night pre-comedy pub dinner, I sat across from a student from Glasgow. I told her I was making my first visit to that city this summer and asked what I should see. She excitedly started listing museums and music venues, telling me that even in a whole semester, she knows she won’t be able to get to everything there is to see in Glasgow! This student’s perspective is making me rethink all of those trips I took to Edinburgh, missing Glasgow.
Both “island” and direct enrolment study abroad programmes have their merits. In our island programmes, such as Binghamton, Bucknell, and Dominican, the students become extremely familiar with London and the many cultural opportunities within the capital, taking courses and living exclusively within their home campus group. Illinois’ BEP programme, however, sees students directly integrated into British and Irish residence halls and lectures. This approach may appeal to the more independent students, who are comfortable away from the safety net of home familiarities, like fellow Illini.
Regardless of where in the British Isles they are spending a semester, I am happy to be part of the London Weekend to see Illini getting to know each other! Do you find students thrive best in an island or direct enrolment programme?