Study Abroad Connections in Unexpected Places

By: 
Olivia White
Class of: 
2017

During my tour of campus, on a dreary March day approximately four years ago, my tour guide brought me to the International Programs office and elaborated on the various study abroad programs offered through St. Lawrence. I told her that, as a prospective English and government double major, I was interested in studying in London, and she mentioned the strong theater component, the benefits of living in a homestay, and the month long work-study at the end of the program.

I distinctly remember her saying, “We’ve even had students intern in Parliament in the past.” My mother and I looked at each other, equally impressed, in a knowing "Wouldn't that be something!" kind of way. But I had trekked to Canton and St. Lawrence through every weather condition from a comparably small town in Western Massachusetts – the prospect of interning in Parliament sounded great, but not likely.

I was wrong in the best possible way, a realization that struck me during the morning of my first commute when, about three years later, I began a monthlong work study for Jeremy Corbyn MP (Member of Parliament) and Leader of the Labour Party. I spent April of my junior year in the leadership offices of Portcullis House, which is a newer building that perches above Westminster Tube Station on the Parliamentary Estate in Westminster, London. Its elder neighbor is the the elegantly gothic Palace of Westminster, a stately architectural London icon that contains the two houses of parliament comprising the United Kingdom’s central government. They straddle Westminster Bridge and are accessible to one another via an underground passage. I spent my final month in London keeping pace (with occasional breaks for lunch and tea) among the constant flow of MP's, staffers, policy advisors, and press members that channel between the two buildings.

On a daily basis, I huddled into a crowded train, silently bemoaned the general stuffiness like British social custom dictates, and commuted from my homestay in North London to Westminster. I nodded to Big Ben before ducking in Portcullis house, going through Security, and meeting with my supervisor to climb the stairs past portraits of former Prime Ministers and political leaders to the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, which overlooks the Thames and meets the gaze of the London Eye.

Most mornings, I’d sort mail, draft responses to email campaigns from constituents, stuff lots of official post, and field phone calls from citizens across the UK. I was introduced to the tireless team members that keep Jeremy’s leadership office functioning, from his social media managers to his speechwriters and policy advisors. Every Wednesday, the office buzzed in preparation for Prime Minister’s Question Time, several of which I rushed through the underground tunnel and into the House of Commons to witness. I listened and watched as Jeremy prepared to deliver statements to his party or the nation on topics ranging from Brexit to the National Health Service, and volunteered on the successful campaign for Sadiq Kahn, the first Muslim Mayor of London, by knocking on doors and calling registered Labour voters in the days leading up to the election.

Though I was initially a little star struck to be privy to the inner workings of a major political office, I was welcomed into the office and encouraged to ask questions and engage in discussion about politics and global policy implications with colleagues during lunch or over drinks after work. They were especially patient with me when I attempted and failed, several times, to make a satisfactory pot of tea for the office.

Formally, the monthlong work-study component of the London Program places students in a quasi-internship within their fields of interest somewhere in the eclectic metropolis. These experiences are made possible by the program’s carefully maintained connections to offices and firms throughout the city. The work-study allows students to get to get to know real Londoners and practice cross-cultural communication skills in a professional setting. I am most grateful for the greater connection to and familiarity with London that it fostered. It placed my textbook perceptions of British politics and demographics in reality and allowed an immersion I'm not sure I would have had outside of the program.

This was certainly an extraordinary experience, but it is not necessarily exceptional. It is a testament to the global connections and relationship St. Lawrence University works to establish in order to provide growth and networking opportunities for its students.

Either by fate or sheer will, my rainy campus tour in March nearly predicted my study abroad destiny (which is a melodramatic way of saying my tour guide was good at her job and made a great pitch for opportunities at SLU). My mother and I mused, “What if?” but four years later, I am planning to return to London for the summer to intern at the US Embassy in the Foreign Affairs Office. I am confident in the overseas connections I’ve made, thrilled to put my professional skills to use, and grateful to St. Lawrence for helping me explore the what if that has fostered a deep connection to a city I hope to call a second home.