About a year ago, I was preparing to leave the country to start my study-abroad term at the University of Edinburgh. Since my first-year was virtual, this meant that I ended up spending one less term at Caltech. But my term abroad was definitely my best and favorite term thus far. Despite the culture shock of being in another country, I fell in love with Edinburgh and Scotland. I was essentially going to school in a castle, was able to travel more weekends in some regard, and became a lot more independent than if I were just at Caltech. They say immersion is the best way to get familiar with a culture, and that could not be more true. It was an adjustment, but eventually I got used to hearing various British accents, the different slang (ie. flat vs apartment), and also living with 12 people (separate rooms but shared kitchen). Fun fact, the queen had died right before I arrived in Edinburgh, and so on my second day there, we saw her procession go up the Royal Mile to St. Giles Cathedral. It was quite chaotic.
One of the biggest adjustments was the academics. Classes in the UK are a lot more focused on independent learning. There were no weekly problem sets (fortunately), but the grading was harsher (unfortunately). Professors would tend to start from 0 and give points rather than start from 100 and take away points. That being said, I was on pass-fail and just had to provide coursework and teacher evaluations to get Caltech course credit (which was not difficult at all). Three of my courses were in Mechanical Engineering, the closest equivalent to Materials Science at UoE, but I was also able to take a course in English Literature to fulfill my English option requirements. The MechE classes were focused on industrial applications and industrial research, rather than the more theoretical and academic research foci of my Caltech materials science courses. The English course felt like a proper English course, with lecturers, weekly discussions, and reading a text a week. Not to mention, the buildings on the campus seemed like a castle. The gothic architecture was beautiful, and I enjoyed going to most, if not all, of my courses. I had to take a bus to the Engineering campus, but our accommodation was right in downtown Edinburgh with groceries, study spots, and bus stops nearby.
Arguably, the biggest appeal for study abroad was the chance to travel. I had never been to Europe, and travelling within Europe is a lot cheaper than if I were going from the US and back. I was able to explore Scotland and other countries on my weekends, travelling to London, Prague and the Scottish Highlands to name a few places. I became well acquainted with Ryanair and the different train systems. The UK runs on the National Rail, so the train strikes occurring at the time kind of put a wrench in everyone’s plans, but it goes to show the power of public action for such a crucial industry.
Edinburgh has very reliable public transit! My least favorite thing about LA and Pasadena is that the public transit is not very accessible or extensive. The opposite could not be truer for Edinburgh and honestly most of Europe in general. I would take the bus to class or whereever else I was exploring. With my Edinburgh Public Library card, I had a tendency to try and find new libraries to work in just to explore the city a bit more. It would also beat trying to find a desk at the main library, where the anxiety of the students could be felt the moment you stepped through the doors.
A lot of my best times at Caltech were while I was studying abroad. I was able to get a more applied focus in courses and be more independent. My main qualm would probably be that the selection of universities available is quite limited, but I had an absolutely wonderful time in Edinburgh and would recommend it to anyone.