London, England: Summer 2015
Neuroscience Research at The University of East London
Around Christmas in 2014, I applied to the GSTEM program through Spelman College. This program allows for students in the STEM fields (that includes biology, math, chemistry, physics, environmental science, biochemistry, computer science, and engineering majors. Sorry psychology majors, GSTEM can't cover you guys) to study abroad during the summer months. Unfortunately, science majors can get sidelined when it comes time to study abroad because we have a very specific course sequence that sometimes won't allow us to take a whole semester to engage in classrooms overseas. The GSTEM program not only provides funding (yes, a full scholarship and stipend), but it hooks students up with a research mentor at Spelman as well as a mentor in-country. I found that this sort of double-mentorship was really awesome because my research project was largely independent (and pretty hard to organize). My research mentor at the University of East London, Dr. Mary-Jane Spiller, was absolutely amazing and guided me through the basics of cognitive neuropsychology research, while Dr. Rosalind Gregory-Bass, my academic (and life) mentor at Spelman, was in constant contact with me and always available to address questions or concerns that might have been tough for me to think through on my own.
The thing is, the GSTEM program is absolutely fabulous, but it's a whole lot of work to apply and to keep the scholarship while actually studying abroad! Basically, in order to apply for the GSTEM scholarship, there are a series of about 5 sessions that you have to attend during the year (most of them take place during finals and other high-stress periods during the semester). Also it is required that GSTEM applicants apply for an actual study abroad program. Because GSTEM is a scholarship and mentorship program, they won't do the work for you to get into a study abroad program- they'll just pay for it. That's two separate applications, and they're both pretty demanding. Now, to keep the scholarship, there are two-page mini essays due every single week. (Every. Single. Week.) And that's while trying to juggle the classes that you're engaged in through the study abroad program (I took medical sociology and another course entitled Work in Thought and Action) as well as keeping up with your research project. GSTEM also requires a formal research paper on your project and results. Mine is 21 pages. Ah, I forgot to mention that before leaving the United States, there is a series of study abroad classes that Spelman students who are studying abroad must attend, and remember I said that all of this is happening around finals week, before the end of the semester. Assignments for that study abroad class include four required blog posts, a journal including reflections throughout your trip, and a 12 page essay on your entire cultural experience.
Yeah. There's a lot to manage. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
I wouldn't trade the study abroad experience for anything. I had an incredible time, learned a lot, struggled a lot, and began to build an international network. For the first week or so, it felt like a vacation. I ate out almost every day, did a whole bunch of site seeing, spent money on unnecessary souvenirs, went to shows, went shopping, the whole nine. And then life hit me in the face- I was living on my own, and I had work to do, just on a different continent. I had to refocus quickly, and juggling everything didn't get any easier, but finding my own pace in a new society was a lot of fun. In order to make my work a bit more enjoyable, I made a hobby out of finding new coffeeshops around the city. London has millions and millions of them, and they're all pretty fantastic. I also loved to go for runs around the city, hitting some of the parks in the neighborhoods around my flat. There were some beautiful hidden green areas and gardens that were perfect for a good run with beautiful views. Lots of runners hit these parks, too, so I felt a bit less like the odd American out.
Other than that, life and work went on as usual. I did my best to stay in touch with loved ones at home (thank God for FaceTime) and tried to stay busy so I wouldn't be completely taken over by homesickness. There's something about being an entire ocean away from home that can feel awfully lonely. So instead of sitting up in the flat feeling sorry for myself, during the evening I scouted out different dance classes and found some pretty amazing studios. I took modern, ballet, pointe, jazz, and several other awesome contemporary classes. I had a blast, and felt myself getting stronger as the summer went on. That was really, really important because as soon as I landed back in New York, I had the national Black and Gold pageant to prepare for. I still want to pass out thinking about how nervous I was for it!
As time went on, and my return back to the States got closer, I began to really travel around Europe like a crazy woman. By the end of the trip, I hit many sites in London, got over to France and Spain, explored Morocco, and had an awesome time with my Spelman sister in Italy. My first destination and the city that taught me how to be independent internationally, London, will always and forever have a special place in my heart. Sounds corny, but its true, that city is something wonderful. I have a feeling I'll return sooner than later. Time will tell.