by Charlie Pritchard
Final Report from my Year Abroad
Condensing my experience of America into one article, on the face of it, appeared rather straightforward, though it proved to be more complex a task than I first imagined. The heterogeneous sensations and personalities I have encountered only opened other passages for investigation which time prevented me from exploring.
The academic rigours of Middlebury, while at times overwhelming, nurtured a more focused work ethic, and the courses I have studied granted me invaluable skills of critical analysis in relation to contemporary politics within America and beyond. Alongside the literature of slavery and the fiction of the American South, I was able to study a diverse range of interests, from the mechanics of authoritarian regimes to the developments in post-revolutionary art in the Soviet Union, all of which tested my ability to evaluate ideological perspectives across the political spectrum.
It takes a strong tolerance of sociality to adapt to the enclosed environment of the campus. At Middlebury, it often felt as though academic life was my life. The communal existence in the dining halls (and in my case, my dormitory, which was shared) while nurturing the social bonds between students can leave a yearning for privacy. It is only when I look back that I accept that the work achieved at Middlebury would not have been possible under a less restrained environment. With limited transport to the bright lights of Burlington, at times I was left itching for escape (there are only four buses every day that leave from Middlebury, two in the morning which leave at 6 and 7am, and two in the evening at 3 and 4pm). I certainly got the best out of Middlebury through integrating. The temptation to remain within the group with which I arrived was powerful, but it would have denied me the fascination of meeting others who can make the experience of the college worthwhile. I mostly mixed with American and other international students. By far the friendliest students on campus were those from the South (surprisingly, there was a considerable population of Alabamans) who would actively try and start conversation with me. Sometimes the conversations would run for over an hour when we all had work to be doing!
There are charms of Middlebury that I no doubt miss: the carillon playing in the chapel every Sunday, the low-key comedy improv shows, the once-in-a-blue-moon gigs in discreet corners of the campus. But the professors are what I will cherish most in hindsight. They exuded an enthusiasm for debate that I have never known during my first two years at UEA – they have furrowed the paths of new academic horizons which I hope will broaden when I return for my final year.
If there were any hints of a silver lining amongst progressive movements on college campuses, then the Divestment movement on Middlebury, which finally won a popular vote by 80% divestment reveals how quickly it is materialising in Europe and across the pond. While it still awaits approval form the Board of Trustees, it represents a decisive victory for rapid reversal of the fossil fuel consensus within academia.
Yet my time in West Virginia provided a much needed shift from the isolated prosperity of the Middlebury community in exposing me to another face of America plagued by misunderstanding from conservatives and liberals alike. The temperament of people from the South reminds me uncannily of people from the North of England: unpretentious, warm but with feisty determination. I often wondered how the trip would be received from other West Virginians, but their good nature is something to be reckoned with.
My final week in Chicago offered evidence that cultural exploration can be just as exhausting as studying. By the time I left the U.S. I felt drained mostly from looking at paintings and browsing bookshops more than anything else (even before my gruelling Chicago-L.A.-Seattle-Manchester connections). However, the things I remember most from the places I have travelled are not merely moments of aesthetic appreciation or intellectual enlightenment, but the people, since undiscovered places mean undiscovered identities. There are so many kind, fascinating and complex people to whom Trump does no justice as a representative. While it may be a while until another opportunity to discover the continent returns, I certainly wouldn’t rule out another visit.