LONDON-A pair of St. Lawrence University juniors with local ties are getting a firsthand look at British culture.
Brooke Hartson of Keene Valley (Keene) and Chauntel Gillilland of Willsboro (Westport) are both attending a semester abroad in England as part of the St. Lawrence University International Study Program for the spring 2011 semester.
Gillilland, a government major, said that she had been looking forward to this semester since her first on campus.
"St. Lawrence really encourages all of its students to study abroad," Gillilland said. "I always knew I wanted to study overseas, and St. Lawrence's variety of programs was one of the reasons I decided to go there. I was planning on going abroad since freshman year."
"By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to study abroad," Hartson, a psychology major, said. "I became really interested in English history, especially the Renaissance era and set my mind on studying in England. When I was looking at colleges I looked for ones with study abroad programs in England. In short, I came to St. Lawrence knowing I wanted to study abroad."
Hartson added that her high school experience also played a roll in wanting to study in another country.
"I think one of the biggest influences for me on this decision was the exchange program my high school, Keene Central, has," she said. "Every year for one day we have several of the local exchange students come to Keene and talk to the elementary classes. At the end of the day, there would be an assembly and each student would make a presentation about their country to the school. I really enjoyed learning about different places all over the world and I knew I wanted to go see some of these places and experience new cultures."
Gillilland said that the chance to study in England has helped with her major.
"I'm a government major, and SLU's London program is perfect for that field of study," Gillilland said. "Not only is it a capital city and the center of the UK government, it is also the origin of the parliamentary system and provided inspiration for the US federal system. The UK government is also very transparent, so you really get to see the system in action.
"I've already been to Parliament for debates, the Royal Courts of Justice for the 7/7 bombing inquest, and City Hall for Mayor's question time," she continued. "They have a very different political consciousness - it really adds to my perspective on American government structures, from local to national."
Hartson said that she has been able to concentrate on classes dealing with her minor, which is in performance and communication arts.
"London has a strong theater course," Hartson said. "This course is different than any other theater course I've taken at St. Lawrence because I am able to see at least one play a week. It's really amazing to see professional productions on a weekly basis. I love this course because it's given me a chance to see and discuss plays I would not have gotten the chance to see at St. Lawrence."
Hartson said that one of the challenges of studying abroad was to learn about new culture as well as life in a much, much bigger town.
"I think the two biggest surprises I have encountered so far during my study abroad experience have been the differences between U.S. culture and British culture and my ability to adjust to city life," she said. "Before coming to London, I was na ve to the many differences in culture. I thought that living here would be very similar to living in the U.S., and I was very wrong. I was probably most surprised by the littlest things, like not being able to find items in the grocery store. The tiniest things were the biggest shock, it sounds strange, but silly things like not being able to find the right shampoo were troubling."
Hartson added she was worried about learning how to get around in a big city.
"I caught on really quickly," she said. "It took maybe two days tops to figure out the 'tube system' and the buses. I now feel very confident exploring London on my own, it's so nice to get around easily and not worry. I really surprised myself when I got assimilated to city living so quickly."
Gillilland said that she wants to make sure that she is a strong example of Americans while in England.
"It's scary, sometimes," Gillilland said about interacting with others. "There's this huge fear of stepping on toes. But the British are universally courteous, and they can be pretty interested in your perspective on things as an American. We're studying here, but I've learned the most from living here as a foreigner. I've never had to think about what it means to 'be American,' but over here that's your strongest single identifier. You have to consciously decide whether you're going to reinforce the stereotype or break away from it."
Both Gillilland and Hartson said that this has been their first real chance to experience a culture other than their own.
"I've been to Mexico and few times, and my parents dragged me off to China when I was very small," Gillilland said about her previous trips abroad.
"Besides my senior class trip to Mexico, I haven't done any international travel before," Hartson said. "In fact, I have never traveled without family members before so this was a my first big trip and I had to do it without them, it was very unnerving."
Both students added that they have been changed due to their current semester in Europe.
"I feel like I've opened my eyes for the first time," Gillilland said. "I have learned more in this semester than ever before in high school or college, about academic subjects and about myself."
"The only way I can describe this experience is life changing," Hartson said. "I can't even begin to describe how much I've learned here, about the world around me and perhaps more importantly about myself. I know I will always look back and cherish my timer in London."
St. Lawrence operates programs of study in Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Chili, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, Spain, Thailand, and Trinidad/Tobago.
See the full list of questions and answers from Chauntel Gillilland and Brooke Hartson at www.denpubs.com