Before I left to study abroad in England, I heard a lot of this:
“You’re going to have such a great time in London!”
“I can’t wait to see all your posts from London!”
“London is incredible! You’re going to do so well there!”
And then, my response:
“Ah, thanks, but I’m actually going to Sheffield.”
A slight pause. A raised eyebrow. A confused look. They had no idea other cities even existed in Great Britain.
Sheffield, the Steel City; the third largest district in England, located in Yorkshire and bordered by Rotherham and the rolling green hills of the Peak District; home to Pulp, Def Leppard and the Arctic Monkeys; my home through June 2018. And despite the nerves I first faced when I arrived, I am so incredibly glad I ended up where I did.
When I was selecting a study abroad program in England, London was—as it is for many students—my first choice. Known for its cutting-edge fashion, iconic attractions and classic British charm, the country’s capital is predicted to receive over 40 million visitors in 2018, making it one of the largest tourism hubs in the world.
Although the original program I considered would have taken me to London, I would have studied on an American-staffed campus with other students from the U.S.—exactly what led me to seek alternatives. Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean only to study with other Americans seemed to miss the point of going abroad; I wanted an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone and immersed me in English culture as completely as possible.
And so away to the University of Sheffield I went to study journalism amongst 28,000 British students and very, very few others from my side of the pond.
When surprised locals ask me how I ended up in Yorkshire, I always answer first by telling them that the drinks were a lot cheaper here than anywhere down South. But all jokes aside, I came to Sheffield because I wanted to experience a version of England that wasn’t as easy to experience as a foreigner.
Unlike London or even nearby Manchester, Sheffield isn’t exactly a hub for tourism, meaning that it’s quite easy to feel out of place when your own hometown is over 4,000 miles away. There’s more culture shock involved in integrating into life here than there might be in a more metropolitan location. I’m only just beginning to understand the North versus South rivalry, common slang often leaves me completely lost, and Northern accents—God bless them—can be impossible for me to understand at times.
But because Sheffield isn’t an international city, I feel like I am experiencing something incredibly unique. The intimate, local feel of it all can be daunting at times, but there’s a very specific culture that exists here that makes you feel like you are getting a special view of life in England as opposed to the view you might be presented with in more tourist-friendly cities.
None of this is to say that one can’t have an incredible study abroad experience in London (or in any major city, for that matter). But when I recently met someone who could count all the Americans they’d ever met on one hand, I really did feel as if I’d made the right choice. Although trying to adjust in a place where not many others have to work to fit in is intimidating, it is a special opportunity for both you and the people who get to teach you how to do it. And even better, once you get the hang of things, you will feel like your experience of your host country is one completely unlike any other.
If you are thinking about studying abroad, your first thought will certainly be to study in a capital city. However, if you do have the opportunity, I would recommend considering a smaller locale. Although many students romanticize the glamour of big cities, I guarantee that somewhere slightly less tourist-friendly will capture your heart just as easily. And although you may have to put in a bit of extra work to assimilate, the individuality of your new home will stick with you for the rest of your life, and the day you finally begin to feel like a local will feel so well-earned.