Thursday, 30 June 2016

Returning Home

          I had a 3:30 pm flight the next day, it was 9 pm and I was ready to leave. Don't get me wrong, going to London to study abroad was an amazing experience that I won't ever regret. I got the chance to see and experience different classes and teaching. I had the chance to travel to some amazing places both as a fan (of Harry Potter, of Shakespeare...etc) and see some world famous sights like the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye. I got the chance to be immersed in a culture that was different and similar to my own in so many ways, where its 'take-away' not 'to-go' and where it's common to go to the pub after class. I got to travel with friends and go to a karaoke bar. I got the chance to live and laugh. It was fun, but it also made me appreciate and realize so many things in my life. I had never realized how lucky I was to have a constant source of income throughout my college life. I never realized how lucky I was to have supermarkets that sold 50 different kinds of cereal, over the counter medication, toiletries and half-a-million other things or to live in an agricultural state. I couldn't even find a replacement for Midol! (Women know why that one hurts the most!) After 6 months of only seeing my friends and family on Skype, I missed hugging my sisters and watching TV episodes with my roommate. It almost felt like London was a dream and I was ready to get back to reality.
          My flight was scheduled to leave on Saturday, and I realized the dilemma I faced on Friday. I had two suitcases, but had three suitcases worth of stuff. I had to leave my kitchen stuff (which I was going to do anyway), my bedding, some of my clothing and even a lot of toiletries. Then, as I went to do one last load of laundry, I saw that the elevator was out of order! I was on the 4th floor, Daniel was on the 7th floor and Andrew was on the 6th floor! We also each had one very large and heavy suitcase. I'm had to get Andrew to help me bring my large suitcase down, because I couldn't carry it. Then we realized that the coach/bus we usually take straight from the university to the airport couldn't pick us up that day, so we had to take our luggage through the Tube...with all of its stairs. Luckily, we only had to change lines once and a passerby was nice enough to help me with my heavy suitcase when I had to go up stairs. It took us an hour and a half to get to the airport. Then I parted ways with the guys since they had a different flight than I did. I got through security and went over to my gate. I already had one cross-Atlantic flight under my belt, so I knew to bring minimal stuff in my carry-on and to make use of the many movies, games, and other amenities on the flight. As I was waiting at my gate, I was struck by the oddest annoyance, I couldn't find an outlet anywhere. Any airport in the US has a billion-and-a-half outlets everywhere, in the walls, the seats, even the columns sometimes. As I stood there, frustrated, with my computer dead, I thought to myself, I won't face this issue for a long time. I thought to myself, it's going to be a long time before I go to an airport that doesn't have a McDonalds or a Starbucks every five gates. I'm never going to be asked to pay for anything in pounds again and have to convert to US dollars first to keep track of how much I spent. I got on the plane and as I looked out the window, I felt like I was watching looking at a screen. I was so amped up to see my family and be home that I barely slept the entire flight, and I kept watching movies and then checking my clock to see how much time I still needed to waste.
          When I landed, I looked out the window and saw skyscrapers and lights instead of green land and grey skies. I passed through customs and retrieved my luggage and then I went outside to meet my family. Immediately I was hit by the small missile that was my youngest sister. My mom and dad hugged me, we got in the car and it felt like no time had passed. We went out to eat, and immediately I was shocked at how noisy everyone was. We sat down to eat, and I thought to myself, have prices gone down? Little things kept feeling weird, but I felt home. I was so glad to regale my family with stories of traveling, of mishaps and jokes but I was really just glad to be home. I was happy to be able to hug my sister, laugh with my dad without a computer screen between us and steal a french fry off my mom's plate. London was an amazing whirlwind of excitement and traveling and adventure, but sometimes...there's just no place like home.

Finals & Exam Week

          Exams usually give everyone a bit of anxiety. They are a test of memorization, skill, and often reflect a large portion of our grade. However, the UK school system takes this to a whole new level. While Harvey Mudd usually relies on a midterm, a final and homework assignments or papers, Queen Mary classes relied solely on exams, papers and labs. One of my tech classes had a final that counted for 70% of my overall grade, which I personally don't agree with. I don't see how one exam can reflect your learning and understanding to any significant level, especially if it relies heavily on memorization. Google is such a widely used resource that large levels of memorization aren't useful anymore, rather understanding concepts and ideas is better. Also, in general exams that reflect a large portion of our grade tend to make us all very nervous and we end up being more likely to forget something.
          That being said, Harvey Mudd does a great job of using the Honor Code to allow us to have take-home exams so that we can be in the comfort of our own room or open-book exams for classes where it's either impossible or just unrealistic to memorize the information for the class. I was entirely used to this kind of environment, so I was completely unprepared for exams at Queen Mary. 
          Both of my exams were to take place in a large exam room (obviously at different times) where multiple different exams were being administered. I was given the date of my exam in April and was assigned a seat number. The class websites made practice exams available and I spent several days studying with my fellow HMC students and other study abroad students. I arrived to the exam room and was immediately struck by all the posters that stated that if any academic material was found in the building with my name on it, I would face serious consequences regarding my exam. I was astounded, what if I was reviewing before the exam and recycled the sheet when I entered the building? It seemed very severe, but I thought that maybe they were being serious because there were so many more students than Harvey Mudd and there was no Honor Code. However, when we entered the exam room, we entered a whole other kind of environment. We were instructed to leave our bags and jackets at the front of the class and there was a moderator at the front of the room (that comfortably sat over 300 spaced chairs and desks) who was instructing via a microphone that we were now under official exam conditions and that we were not allowed to speak. At one point, the moderator spotted some people talking and started yelling, even though they had just entered the room and hadn't heard his instructions. When we were seated, we were asked to rip any labels off of our water bottles and throw them away then place the water bottle under our desk. At this point, I was starting to wonder how severe these exam conditions were going to get...Then we were asked to take everything out of our pockets and place them in the plastic baggie on our desk, seal it, and place it under our chair. We were also told to take off the cover to our calculators and place them in the baggie as well. There were also projections of clocks everywhere to add to our already high anxiety. During all this, the moderator had an attitude I can only describe as aggressive, he acted as if we had already all been caught cheating and had two strikes against us. It made for a very nerve-wracking experience that left me feeling as if I would get kicked out for leaving tissues on the desk. Assistants even walked around during the exams and checked the back of our calculators! I had never felt so mistrusted. 
          In the end, while I felt that I had done well on my exams, I can't wait to go back to the Mudd environment. The College gives us such trust and respect that I now appreciate so much more knowing the rarity of it. Though my experience most likely doesn't characterize all exam conditions abroad in the UK or even London, I hope that it does at least show the amount of freedom HMC gives us during exams. 

Monday, 30 May 2016

Traveling in Europe and with Family/Friends

 If you are studying abroad in another country, it’s always a great opportunity to have family or friends come visit and either travel with them through the country or through several countries. I’m not sure about non-British schools, but the ones in the U.K. end classes in March and start finals in May. This usually leaves either a couple of weeks in April or even more to travel without worrying about classes. For example, my mom came to visit me for two weeks in April, and it was a lot of fun. However, as a student, if was really useful for her to experience living in London and even seeing my dorm. For those who have studied in London, they know that it actually is very expensive to live in London and travel and be a tourist. My mom got a firsthand look at the cost of everything in London and the sheer amount of walking needed! Funny enough, she hated going on the Tube, especially when there were stairs, and there were a lot of stairs! But really, traveling with my mom was great, especially because she actually had the money to stay in some decent hotels instead of hostels!! (I have a horrible spring mattress in my dorm room, and I was over the moon when I stayed in a hotel!) We traveled to Edinburgh, and one of the things we found was that the travel company EasyJet was great for student traveling, but they charged for anything other than a carry-on… so they weren’t so great for actual working adults! Also, apparently, when flying throughout Europe, you are given the usual ziplock bag for liquids, but you can only have ONE ziplock bag of liquids, no more. I learned this the hard way and had to throw away my shampoo and body wash.
Mom and I at Oxford
Me inside Stonehenge
One of the best things I can recommend if you are going to look around the U.K. or even Paris, France is to take a tour. I found a pretty good tour site, Premium Tours that allowed my mom and I to visit Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon (the birthplace of Shakespeare), and even Stonehenge. By the way, those of you that really want a super cool and unique experience, you can do either a sunset or sunrise tour and actually step into Stonehenge and touch the rocks!!! I took the sunset tour and had so much fun, I took some amazing pictures! We even went on a day tour of Paris and traveled there by the Eurostar (the train that goes between London and France), and we got to eat on the river Seine, see the Eiffel Tower, and even get a guided tour of the Louvre! I got to see the Mona Lisa, which was actually a lot smaller than I expected. Also, for those who are a huge disney fan, you can take the Eurostar straight from St. Pancras Station in London right to the gates of Disneyland Paris! Its definitely a scaled-down version of Disneyland in L.A. but it's a lot of fun to see it and go on some great rides.
Raining in Paris
The Mona Lisa!
London has four airports; Heathrow, Luton, Stansted, and Gatwick. My mom flew into the country through London Heathrow, which was great because it is the only airport that has a Tube station, so I just jumped on the Tube near my school and went all the way to the train station. However, we soon found out that it was a bit awkward traveling in the Tube with luggage. Fortunately, we used a coach service called National Express that would pick you up from a variety of different locations and take you to the airport for only about nine dollars a person. Depending on the coach, you sometimes even got charging capabilities and wifi!! Given that it was usually a one-to-two hour trip to the airport, I was definitely thankful for the coach. Also, for the hotels, when needed, we always tried to pick ones that were near a Tube station, so even if we weren’t staying in the heart of London, we could get there fairly quickly. Even though I usually only saw my family during Spring Break, it was great to see my mom in person, sometimes Skype just isn’t enough. Traveling with my friends was fun, but I felt so happy to share my trip and experience with my mom!

Monday, 28 March 2016

Getting Lost and Alone & History Classes

I grew up relatively independent for people my age. I was the oldest of three siblings, with a five and seven year age gap. Not surprisingly, I didn’t hang out with my sisters or their friends; when I was in high school, both were in elementary and middle school. I took the bus during high school and was comfortable traveling alone or doing tasks by myself. So it wasn’t a big surprise that I was somewhat at ease with traveling quite far to go on tours in England. The Tube quickly became familiar and I grew used to traveling around. However, just because I was comfortable doesn’t mean it was safe.
Last week I traveled to the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour (I already mentioned that I am a huge Harry Potter fan!), which took two separate Tube rides and a long bus ride for a total of two and a half hours of transit. When I got off the Tube to go to the bus stop, I was in a hurry and worried that I would miss my tour time so I thanked God when I saw the bus still at the stop and hopped on and settled in for a long ride. However, luck was not in my favor. I had taken to using my UK phone to keep track of where I was in case I got of track or lost. I quickly realized that in my hurry, I had gotten on the wrong bus and had to figure out how to find my way. After getting off at the next stop, I used my phone to figure out where the proper bus would stop at and high-tailed it. As soon as I got on the bus, I watched my navigation app like it was my life, making sure that I knew when I had reached the stop. At this point, I was actually about half an hour late and I kept crossing my fingers that they would let me on another tour. Luckily, they did and I had an amazing time! I got to walk in the Great Hall, and see some amazing set pieces, from the animatronics to costumes and creatures used in the movies. I had a blast and went crazy at the gift shop, then cried a bit at the amount of cash I gave the cashier in exchange for some pretty awesome souvenirs ( I had promised Hu that I would get her chocolate from everywhere I go as souvenirs). However, my high quickly wore down when I got outside and realized that I had to walk all the way back to the bus stop, which was a good half mile away, in the dark. There was an official bus that left from the studio lot, but I didn’t know about it beforehand and apparently you needed to buy tickets in advance. So, with caution, I set off to the bus stop. The first thing I did was make sure that none of my souvenirs were very visible and that the gift shop bag with the studio logo was hidden. This might all seem paranoid, but I was by myself at night in a foreign country, better safe than sorry. Finally, I got on the bus and got home. But I tried to plan most of my trips to end before dark afterwards.
Most recently, I went to the House of Parliament both as a tourist and for an assignment for my architecture class. The Study Abroad Office at Harvey Mudd recommends that students take at least one course that has to do with the history or culture of the country you’re visiting, so I chose to take a class about the architecture of London. It was a really amazing class, and we traveled every other week to visit sites that speak to the different architectural styles. Our first essay was to write about on the buildings from a given list and what their main significance was. I chose the House of Parliament and booked a tour to get an in-depth look. I was pleasantly surprised to hear familiar names and architectural words on the tour and had a lovely time.  
I have had an amazing time in London so far, but I didn’t forget my friends and family back home. I Skype with my room-mate often (Hi Hu! *waves*) and I try to Skype with my relatives, especially my parents and siblings at least once a week. They are coming out to visit me for a week and I have to say that sharing experiences abroad with friends and family only adds to the amazing adventures. 

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Firsts-Dorm, Classes, and Traveling Alone

Platform 9 3/4
Sometimes I wonder if I am spoiled at Harvey Mudd, then I remember how much I pay in tuition compared to how much tuition is at Queen Mary and I realize that I definitely earned all the luxury at Mudd. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel very isolated in my new dorm. Harvey Mudd is an environment where you are always surrounded by people, with roommates or suite-mates or dorm-mates. But here, there are only flats, where only the kitchen is shared and everyone has a single room with an attached bathroom. Don’t get me wrong, it’s glorious having my own private bathroom, and the kitchen shared by eight people with a dorm attendant to clean it isn’t bad either. But, I find myself missing my roommate (Hu, you rock! I owe you chocolate!) and the comforting sights of people in East lounge. Apparently people here make friends with their flatmates, not the people in their classes, and I definitely see it happening. There is not as much of a collaborative environment here, which is something that I love.
A Dalek at the Doctor Who Experience
As an American student, I have noticed that no one here really likes raising their hand in class, and I end up feeling a mixture of pride and embarrassment when I raise my hand and answer the question correctly. I have also noticed that the technical classes here are nowhere near the difficulty of Mudd (thank god, I don’t think I could survive that.). For the first time, I find myself bored in school. Don’t get me wrong, the classes are interesting, but I finish the work and find I have too much time on my hands, which is where traveling and exploring comes in!!
So far, I have had the amazing experience of doing a boat ride on the River Thames (it was an orientation event, and I highly recommend going to those, since they are usually pretty awesome!). I am a huge Harry Potter and Doctor Who fan, so I recently went to Platform 9 ¾ and saw the Alan Rickman Memorial. I actually just got back from the Doctor Who experience in Cardiff (almost eight hours of travel round trip), and I had a blast! I just want to say, for anyone who is thinking of traveling during their stay abroad (this
should be everyone), plan out your trip ahead, it saves time and money. I allowed for extra travel time when I bought my tickets and I’m glad I did, since today there was work both on the underground train and above ground train stations that resulted in delays and cancellations that would have killed me if I didn’t plan ahead. As it was, I barely made it to Cardiff in time for the tour.

I think the hardest part so far for me has been the isolation. Even with my fellow study abroad and Harvey Mudd classmates here, I still feel alone at times. I’m so used to always being surrounded by people that it hits me hard sometimes. But a great way to get out of that is just to go and explore, even looking for a new place to get dinner can lift your spirits and make you excited.

Sunday, 7 February 2016


I suppose I should start by introducing myself and this blog. My name is Jessica de la Fuente. I am an Engineering major studying abroad in the Spring semester of my Junior year. I am a huge Harry Potter fan, I love chocolate, and I wear glasses.

I have been dreaming of going abroad since I started at Harvey Mudd; eating croissants while looking at the Eiffel Tower, riding a boat on the River Thames, wandering the halls of Parliament. Coming abroad this semester remains my best decision, to see more of the world and get a chance to take amazing classes that I can’t take at Mudd. Going abroad is a dream come true, but so far that’s all that it has been, a dream. Now that I’m actually facing it, I am scared beyond belief, terrified. I’ve never traveled as far as Europe, add in being alone and I’m facing the unknown.
I woke up the day of my 14-hour plane ride and thought to myself, can’t I take anything else with me? Can’t I take that pillow that I’ve had since I was five? What about the stockings still hung by our Christmas tree that have my family’s names on it? I felt like I was leaving so much behind, and then I got on the plane and realized, sheesh, I have too much stuff! I took a plane to LAX, where I would go straight to London Heathrow Airport, and I was indifferent. I’ve traveled this route by plane often enough to get back and from school that I was lulled into a sense of calmness. Meanwhile, my family waved goodbye after my mom hugged me tight and my sisters made me promise to buy them tons of souvenirs.
On the hour-long layover in LAX I called my best friend and said my last goodbyes, which were in a way, worse than my goodbyes with my family. Then, I said goodbye to my awesome roommate Hu, and we promised to watch many movies together via Skype and I told her that I would mail her chocolate by the box-full (Now, I may need to retract that statement, because international shipping is expensive!). Finally, I sat down and waited. I charged my devices like crazy, took advantage of the last wifi I would get for nine long hours and basically did everything but think about the trip ahead. I watched as the plane took off, as I left U.S. soil for six months and my chest tightened, but I felt exhilarated. I was so wired the entire flight that I barely slept, and it was cramped! My legs kept falling asleep.
When we started flying over Britain, the first thing I noticed was all the green. There was so much green. Then, as we pulled into the airport, I looked for familiar buildings and architecture, and to my surprise, I didn’t see a lot. There were no glossy skyscrapers or fancy department stores. There were no strip malls or billboard ads everywhere. Instead, there was brown and green, old colonial houses that were connected and took up every block. Restaurants and shops occupied the bottom floor of these houses, but the rest of the buildings were occupied by tenants! I was overwhelmed beyond belief and tired.
Customs scared me half to death, I kept having that irrational fear, where some mess-up would get me rejected from customs and I would have to leave the country. I had all my papers ready, and as expected, they waved me through to get my luggage. After, I had to hail a taxi, and jeez (Word of advice, DO NOT TAKE TAXIS if you don’t need to. They are extremely expensive because they can charge either by time or by distance, whichever they pick, usually the more expensive one). I spent the entire ride looking out the window as I headed to the hotel for my IFSA-Butler orientation. While I was heading into Central London, again I was hit with culture shock. There were only a few tall buildings above three stories and there were no flashing lights, no neon signs. However, right before we got off the highway, I saw an ad for the new Iphone 6, so I knew some things were universal.
At the hotel, I had to make a judgement call. Wifi was not free, but I had no working service there, I missed my family, and had no one to contact until the start of orientation the next day. I made my choice, coughed up money for wifi for the rest of my stay and proceeded to call my mom and sigh in relief. I made it. One day down, 166 days to go.