Orienting in London Without a Compass

About six months ago, I
completed my second college orientation at University College London, only slightly worse for wear. For college first-years, the orientation experience is a standard rite of passage, but the second round of introductions I experienced when studying abroad was an undeniably strange experience. 

Conversations still began with the standard, “Hi! What’s your name? Where are
you from? What are you studying? Where are you living?” but an awkward
silence followed after all these questions had been answered on both sides. 

It seems that the reality of uncomfortable orientations may be a given, even for university upperclassmen. 

But the main difference in my experiences was the increasingly international population at UCL, as opposed to the
primarily domestic student body at the Claremont Colleges. Because of this, the names, places, hometowns, and references that come up in introductions are much less recognizable, inducing a degree of separation with the hounds of foreign terms.

No one, except a few of students from U.S. schools, had heard of Pomona College, but I’m used to
that. I think I got asked primarily because they hoped that I was going to Harvard University,
or a staple American university that they’d heard of so that the lightbulbs of recognition could, perhaps, go off. 

So to anyone who wishes to relive the faraway, carefree days of orientation while abroad, a word of advice: No. No, you don’t. As a student who has now gone through the painful adjustment period twice, it’s just kind of weird to do it as a non-frosh. 

I never thought I’d
say this, but I really missed
Pomona’s orientation sessions—even with the ridiculously hard church pews in Bridges Hall of Music. 

The sheer lack of guidance I experienced when abroad was absurd. UCL’s “info sessions,” designed to teach you how the program works, were completely useless: I learned not a single useful thing. I missed my first
lecture because I didn’t even know I had one. It was that bad.

For once, I had an appreciation and even longing for the orientation experience I had here in Claremont. I missed having sponsors, resident advisers, administrators, and professors all telling me what to do. We
Pomona students (there were two others there with me) literally wandered
aimlessly for all of orientation. I’m used to doing things independently, but when
there are no guidelines or explicit expectations, doing things on one’s own is pretty difficult.

There’s also a weird sense of culture shock, living in London. It stems from the expectation that things will
be the same, and the later realization that, yes, things actually are pretty similar. 

And
then, just when you’re at ease, something random will jump out at you, and
you’ll be thrown off balance. I would be surprised if this occurred in any
other country in the same way. The similarities between large cities like New York City and London are pretty ubiquitous, but the ideologies behind them kept
surprising me.

This theme kind of played out for
what became the rest of my time there. Professors didn’t actually care if you
attended class, and there really weren’t midterms, so I was pretty much on my
own to learn the material in time for the final, a freedom that I was
unprepared for.

I also expected to meet more people in my classes, but the
dearth of students in them (due to the semi-unnecessary nature of attendance) made
that impractical.

What I missed most about Pomona
was the people. The professors who care about you, your well-being, and your
education. The faculty members who arrange things so that you can actually have the
education you want, who are willing to maybe bend a couple rules for you.

But
mostly I missed the students who care about each other and their education,
who are not content to just scrape by but actually imbue their work with their
passion for learning.

I missed the people who, even when they have a huge paper
or midterm due, will put it aside and sacrifice a couple hours of sleep if you
need to talk.

And I missed you, the student reading TSL
on the quad or in your room, in a study room or a dining hall. Or maybe who
just glanced at this article, went, “Who’s this weirdo?” and decided to read it.
You rock. Thanks for making the 5Cs a place I was excited to return to.

Alex Samuels PO ’15 is a linguistics major. He spent last semester in England at University College London. 

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