Honors international relations student Stephen Bentel spent the 2011-2012 year studying abroad as a Libby Finch scholar at the University College London, in London, England.
Early in the morning my train pulled away from Heathrow Airport and I saw the smoke rising from the chimneys in the cloudy morning sky of West London. The scene out my window spoke to me with a Dickensian dreariness that was somehow exciting. When my train arrived at Paddington station I waited for my taxi to take me to my new home, but not before my first true encounter with a unique aspect of British culture. Buzzing all around me were excited voices saying things like “Will you look at this cue?” “I’ve never seen one like it here!” “What an astounding cue!” It was at this point, surrounded by people excited to wait in line, that I realized I was in a different place, and I couldn’t have been more ready for my adventure to begin.
My year at University College London, a university known for its academics and not for its creative name, was so truly remarkable that it is difficult to even begin to describing. My first week was filled with orientation activities, some arranged by others and some that I arranged for myself. For the first of many times I pointed at an underground stop at random and decided that a trip there would help me understand London a little better. My first choice was Baker Street Station home of Sherlock Holmes. It was at this stop where I discovered that Londoners have a strong affinity for furniture as my friend and I lost count of the number of furniture shops we walked past in a thirty-minute stroll.
Over the following months the studying part of study abroad took up a fair amount of time. I was enrolled in courses on Balkan Nationalism, European Modernity, American Film History, London in the Georgian era and Czech Language. The majority of my time was spent learning Czech, a language that I knew I could never take at the University of Arkansas. Czech language introduced me to the Czech and Slovak restaurant/community center and also became quite handy during my spring break visit to Prague. The academic perspectives brought to the table in these classes were remarkable. I had instructors from five different countries and classmates from probably at least a dozen more.
A great deal of learning took place outside of the classroom too though. London is a city known for its world-class museums and cultural institutions. The great part about London’s museums is that nearly all of them are free. I spent hours upon hours in the British Museum, home to cultural artifacts from all over the planet from Greece (the Parthenon frieze) and Egypt (the Rosetta Stone) to Easter Island. A personal favorite museum of mine to spend time in was the Victoria and Albert Museum, or as I like to call it, England’s attic. This museum was just full of knickknacks and doodads from doorknobs to staircases from throughout English history, all well preserved for me to see.
On weekends I would occasionally venture outside of the Greater London area. In one day I visited the ancient mystery that is Stonehenge, the Salisbury Cathedral, home of the Magna Carta and the old Roman city of Bath. On another weekend I took a train up to Edinburgh and saw all the sites of the great Reformation era city. This included two nighttime tours of graveyards, one was a guided ghost tour and the other was a self led tour that ended with me finding somebody else in what I believed to be an empty crypt, one of the more terrifying moments of my trip.
I’m truly grateful to all of those who helped make trip a reality. To the Walton Family, the Finch Family, and my own family who made this trip financially possible I thank you. I also thank those at the Honors College, Study Abroad Office and all of the professors who wrote me letters and offered advice. This was a trip of a lifetime and my life is so much better off for taking it.