From Virginia to Glasgow: my learning journey

Dr Lynn Shollen, Associate Professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University in the US, shares her experience of spending a semester in Glasgow.

Five months across the pond changes a person. I had conjured ideas of what the experience would be like, but as usual it’s not until one is in the moment that we can see the misguidance of our preconceived notions. Although I’m an adventurer at heart, now at mid-life I expected to struggle with an extended time away from the familiar, especially with loneliness, as I navigated life in a new place where I knew no one. My experience has been pleasantly surprising.

At Christopher Newport University (CNU), a small liberal arts institution in Virginia, I was afforded the privilege of leading a group of our undergraduate students to study abroad for a semester at the University of Glasgow (UofG). My group would be the first to return since the pandemic ensued in March 2020.

"For the first two weeks I fell into bed every evening exhausted from basic daily life, with my brain aching from continual puzzle-solving. And I absolutely loved it."

CNU has enjoyed an 8-year relationship with UofG, during which we have sent 15−20 students to study in various disciplines each semester. We also send a faculty member to teach one course for our students in affiliation with UofG, to plan and lead educational excursions within and outside of Glasgow, and to support the students academically and personally.

Given my area of expertise, I developed a course on leadership within Scottish national culture where we examine historical and contemporary leaders and leadership issues within the political, business, environmental, social justice, educational, arts, sciences, and sport sectors. We pay particular attention to the influence of cultural context on the leadership process, especially the sociopolitical nuances of the times. The course itself allowed me to provide students a deeper dive into Scottish culture through an academic lens and educational excursions alongside their own experiential learning.

Moving beyond tourist status

I’ve led three-week study abroad programs in Sweden, Iceland, and the UK where we live out of a bag in a dormitory or hotel and, although having a focused educational experience, remain brief visitors. Five months firmly located in Glasgow provides extended immersion in the local culture so we can move beyond tourist status, form a more intricate understanding of the people and the city and country’s history and present, and ourselves grow from the experience.

For me, it meant I had to allow myself to settle in and establish new life rhythms. I’ve lived in my home in Williamsburg, Virginia for 12 years. My daily routines are heavily ingrained, most operating without conscious thought. Then here I was with a bit of luggage and two feet on the ground in Glasgow, sorting how to make a flat my own, find proper groceries, utilize hardware stores that stock a bit of everything, work unfamiliar appliance mechanisms, navigate public transportation, calculate Celsius to Fahrenheit, learn to drive a manual car where everything is opposite, piece sections of the city together, establish a gym and workout regimen, make local and long distance phone calls, order and retrieve Amazon packages, and connect with my US people over a 5-hour time difference. Then there’s the whole fun challenge of learning the Scottish dialect! For the first two weeks I fell into bed every evening exhausted from basic daily life, with my brain aching from continual puzzle-solving. And I absolutely loved it.

"Our location in the city of Glasgow not only offers connection with diverse and quality people, but also a rich variety of opportunities for exploration and learning inside and outside of the city."

People make Glasgow

It wasn’t long before I realized there would be plenty of interaction and support for me and the students alongside all the challenges and opportunities. The city’s tagline ‘People Make Glasgow’ indeed holds true. This experience began with folks from UofG’s International Recruitment & Partnerships team. From the start, they were helpful, collaborative, and inclusive. I expected this from a professional standpoint, in terms of being connected with an academic department and provided with library access and classroom space, as well as receiving support when student issues arose. It was the social invitations and genuine desire to connect that were unexpected. I was invited out for tea, meals, drinks, and even as a guest to a special event in Edinburgh. These outings have fostered not only new professional relationships, but also some lasting friendships.

Beyond the University, I’ve found Glaswegians to be exceptionally friendly and helpful to acquaintances and strangers alike. On numerous occasions I’ve been drawn into chats to the point of feeling a sense of community. Some of the most memorable are the couple who pulled me in at a Celtic Connections concert to feel like I attended with them, Helena from the café near my flat who I now stop to chat with whenever I walk by, and two UofG academics who drew me into their pub quiz team when I had only stopped for a wee dram at the pub, Curler’s Rest, after class.

Even basic logistical phone calls provide a forum for connection in Glasgow. I enjoyed a 15-minute chat with the taxi scheduler when he heard which band I was going to see, and an hour-long chat (including virtual tea) with the BT technician while we were troubleshooting my services. Then there is Mary who engaged me at the gym and after ten minutes offered to take me on a drive out of the city for hillwalking since I don’t have a car. We have become real friends. She has introduced me to some of her friends to further build my community, and I’ll help her move house next week. To ease my heartache over leaving by sweet border collie back at home, I got involved in the Borrow My Doggy program here. Through that brilliant site I’ve made a few human and canine friends that I’ll keep in touch with beyond my time here. I certainly didn’t expect that I’d get to feeling like a local.

Scotland: inviting, beautiful, enlightening and fun

Our location in the city of Glasgow not only offers connection with diverse and quality people, but also a rich variety of opportunities for exploration and learning inside and outside of the city. CNU selected Glasgow for our study abroad location in part because it’s a manageable sized city that provides the benefits of a larger city, such as a vibrant cultural scene (eg music, arts, museums), an array of cuisines, and an abundance of parks. The public transportation system makes these adventures accessible whether it’s a few quick stops to a venue in the city center or a longer train ride to Inverness, which is something my students and I are not as used to where we are in the States. The multicultural nature of Glasgow is a draw as well. I’ve heard students remark about their conversations with Glaswegians and folks from across the globe; these conversations often take a direction that allows our students to gather and integrate different perspectives on topics we have discussed in class.

"I have an even stronger sense of being a global citizen and – to my surprise – have formed some roots here in Scotland." 

Scotland itself has proven inviting, beautiful, enlightening, and fun with its variety of cities, villages, mountains, islands, historical sites, and festivals to explore. The whisky and gin distilleries are an added bonus. The students and I have had family and friends visit from the States. I’ve been pleased to be able to offer accommodation and act as a personal guide for people who otherwise might not have the chance to visit Scotland, or at least not with someone who has a bit of insider knowledge and can actually drive on the opposite side of the road! I’ve witnessed the students feel empowered to host their families, take the lead on planning their visit, and share what they have learned. It was a big growth moment, because in some ways they weren’t the kid anymore.

A renewed sense of adventure

For me and the students, the value-added of studying abroad, especially with the University of Glasgow and in Scotland, has been significant academically, professionally, and personally. It’s inevitable that five months across the pond will change a person. Of course, for each of us the individual impact differs and some of the effects are yet to be understood.

At this point, my sense of adventure is renewed, and I’ve been reminded that I can still make big transitions at middle-age. I have realized how much I need social connection and a sense of community, and how much others – perhaps especially strangers – need it from me. I’ll be taking back with me the practice of pulling people in, even if I don’t yet know them. New friendships forged in Scotland with people I have come to genuinely care about will also travel with me wherever I go. And, although I’ve traveled extensively over the years, I have an even stronger sense of being a global citizen and – to my surprise – have formed some roots here in Scotland. Coming into this experience, I chose the mindset of actively seeking opportunities off the tourist track, being open to connecting with people in all roles and places, and saying “yes” to everything that comes my way. What a grand adventure.

Lang may yer lum reek!