Ophelia Ding

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the “study” part of studying abroad

Hands down the most difficult thing for me to get used to in London?

School. Seriously. 

Not the driving on the left, or the let’s-jaywalk-everywhere-cause-its-not-illegal mentality, or the English slang (like "I’m queueing up to top-up my oyster" aka I’m waiting in line to put money on my public transit card). Yes, school (or Uni as they say here). :)

I go to UCL (University College London) — London’s Global University situated in Bloomsbury (the heart of London!). The biggest difference between UCL and UCSD is that here, 100% of your grade is the final examination. No midterms. No homework. No participation or attendance. You must have 70% attendance and 70% of your problem sets submitted in order for you to even sit in the exam. Yeah... it’s a bit crazy! And very intimidating — I’m definitely not used to this structure and having everything ride on the one exam (my parents keep teasing me that this is how they grew up).

Here in the UK, your undergraduate degree only lasts for 3 years. However, upon applying for admission to Uni, you apply to a specific degree/major. Every degree/major track at UCL is quite specific and defined (which means that every class is a super specific deep dive into the material). First year level classes are not truly beginners’ classes — all students admitted into the major (in my case Economics) have taken A-levels (kind of like AP tests) in Economics. 

In regards to the modules (classes) themselves, each module only meets once a week for 2 hours. Everything is incredibly independent. You are expected to thoroughly study the lecture slides beforehand, required readings and academic papers on your own. It’s basically you learning all the material; the lecture is just a quick summary. They definitely don’t hold your hand through it BUT you have the most amazing resources at your disposal. 

Going to school at UCL has definitely made me a better student. The lecture environment is completely different — no one is on their phone, everyone is on time (very important that you’re on time), and questions for the lecturer are pretty rampant and occur throughout lecture. It’s a unique environment — I feel like I have to pay more attention (partly because everyone else around me is paying such. close. attention. to the lecture. I swear I’m probably the only person who checks social media in class... oops). Academics in the UK, especially at UCL, is no joke. Everyone is so on top of their game and so, so engaged with the topics.

The grading system here in the UK is drastically different — it's incredibly rare for any student to get above a 75/100 on anything (probably equivalent of getting a 99%). They also use a "Class" system, where instead of getting assigned letter grades, you're assigned to a class. An A equivalent is "First Class," followed by "Upper Second Class," "Lower Second Class," "Third Class," and so on.  First Class grades are 70+/100, Upper Second is the 60's while Lower Second is in the 50's. Confused yet? Yeah, me too! As an affiliate (exchange) student, our numerical grades from UCL convert back to US letter grades through our program. Using the UCEAP grading system, a 67% is considered an A and 60% an A-! So you can imagine us American students' shock upon receiving scores in the 60's on a problem set only to realize that it was not, in fact, a D! 

Two module highlights for me are Economics of Development and 19th and 20th Century Art in London.

I love, love, love Economics of Development. It is a second year module (which means the difficulty level is pretty up there), but its given me knowledge in incredibly important, relevant issues. The fundamental question in this course is why are some countries poor and some countries rich? The course goes into deep dives about various economic theories regarding the reason for poverty, foreign aid, papers on various philanthropic efforts, how we’re working towards UN Millennium Goals like primary education, microfinance, health care policy and more. All of the papers, studies and lectures are fascinating and relevant. Paired with my sprinkling in public policy earlier this year in DC and learning about the philanthropic efforts of LinkedIn (shoutout to LinkedIn For Good)— this course has been an amazing insight into the reasons behind poverty and strategies to help decrease the growing income discrepancy in the world. My professor’s specialty is in microfinance (aka small loans — like $20 — to ultimately help impoverished individuals get out of poverty by helping them build assets or finance income-producing actions). One of the most famous microfinance institutions is the Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank — founded by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Professor Yunus spoke at LinkedIn this summer (I have a selfie with him!). It’s so cool to learn about microfinance from a professor who’s studied it so immensely (we read a textbook she wrote on it in class), and integrate this substantive knowledge with the more emotional, inspirational talk that Professor Yunus gave at LinkedIn. 

I also adore 19th and 20th Century Art in London. In this module, we meet at a different museum in London each week — from the Courtauld to the Tate Britian, from the Camden Arts Centre to the National Gallery. As an art history minor, learning about a piece of artwork in front of that piece of artwork has just been phenomenal. Seeing works that I studied back in San Diego in person is just the. coolest. thing. Observing how the work has been displayed within the space of the gallery, actually seeing the thickness of the paint lacquered on, or what pieces its been displayed with are all things you don’t get from seeing the work on a PowerPoint slide. Our lecturer has also gotten us access to smaller, private galleries in London on days that they aren’t even open, and we’ve even received tours from gallery curators. This class has just been the most wonderful, creatively stimulating art history class I’ve ever taken. It also makes visiting all the galleries I wanted to visit in London much easier :)

The “study” part of my studying abroad experience has been fully immersive — studying alongside students who attend UCL has been a huge learning experience in itself, and for that I am forever grateful!

Now, back to mad crazy cram-studying for finals. Wish me luck (I'll definitely need it)!!

PS. Photo above is actually from Lello Bookstore in Porto, Portugal. I ain't taking photos of the UCL Library when I'm studying!! ;)