JDP Update, Part III: Visiting St Andrews

As I hinted at in my last JDP update, part of my assistantship includes visiting the campus at St Andrews. From April 23-29, that tentative visit became a reality as I spent three full days in St Andrews, as well as time in Edinburgh. Now that I’ve returned from that trip, I’ll tell you about my Scottish adventure.

Traveling to Scotland is actually an established part of the JDP assistantship, with the trip historically taking place in February or early March. Due to the pandemic, that trip hasn’t happened for the past two years, but after ongoing consultation with W&M and St Andrews staff we decided to reinstate it this year. Because we were all unsure how the Omicron variant would affect travel, plans for the trip didn’t begin materializing until late February and early March. As such, the trip happened much later than usual, with the result being that students were already in the midst of finals by the time I visited. Yet we still agreed it would be worthwhile because it would reinstate the trip for future fellows. Plus I was getting to visit to Scotland out of it so I wasn’t complaining.

The West Gate at South Street, St Andrews

This was my first trip out of the country in over a decade. Between 2007 and 2010, I was fortunate enough to travel outside the country three times. In 2007, I spent a semester abroad in London and Florence as an undergraduate. In 2009, I spent three weeks in Finland and Russia thanks to the first-year study trip that all students enrolled in the graduate art history program at Williams take together. And in 2010, I traveled to Bonn for a week to visit a friend who was studying at the university there. Once I started working full-time though, it became more difficult to travel out of the country because I had less vacation time and tended to use it for family visits. Before I knew it, more than ten years had gone by since my last overseas excursion, so I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had through William & Mary. Given the ongoing pandemic, a lot has changed since the last time I traveled internationally, and I won’t pretend that it wasn’t stressful, but I’m glad I did it.

One of the many quaint, cozy flats in and around St Andrews

My trip had three main objectives. First, I wanted to experience the campus and see how it was different from William & Mary, both in terms of its architecture and its administration. Second, I wanted to meet with the Careers Centre staff to learn more about their roles, share the work I had been doing, and discuss ways to better integrate the two campuses of the Joint Degree Programme with respect to career counseling. Finally, I wanted to make myself available to students on the St Andrews campus, who normally don’t get to me with me in person.

Regarding the first objective, I definitely got to see the campus and have a much better sense of its layout now. Compared to William & Mary, St Andrews is much more decentralized, with academic buildings scattered throughout the town rather than clustered on a distinct campus. The history department is located next to shops and restaurants, for instance, while the film studies building is located one street over in an old house. Student housing is also scattered all over town. While some students, particularly Americans, do live in dormitory-style structures, the majority rent rooms or apartments, often located on the floors above shops or classrooms. In short, town life and campus life are pretty well integrated, and I can absolutely see why students would love studying here. It’s beautiful, walkable, and full of restaurants and things to do.

The Careers Centre at St Andrews

The Careers Centre building itself is also an interesting place to visit. Unlike the Office of Career Development and Professional Engagement at William & Mary, which was designed as a career counseling building, the Careers Centre building predates its current function, and has served a lot of different roles over the years. As such, its spaces have been retrofitted to serve career counseling purposes, and is continuing to undergo change in light of the pandemic and the development of hybridized spaces. Yet despite being an older building that’s obviously served different functions, it has its own advantageous features, most notably a spacious garden for outdoor events.

I also got to spend time talking with the Careers Centre staff. Some of these conversations focused on learning more about different people’s jobs, such as event planning or working with Asian or North American employers to advertise international opportunities to students. We also talked about ways to better integrate the two campuses into the JDP experience in terms of career counseling. Sometimes this was as simple as remembering to forward upcoming events to the JDP Fellow so they can share them with students. Other conversations entailed thinking of ways to include the Fellow in more regular staff meetings so that they can share their projects more frequently and ask for help on certain questions or advising appointments. Given that many JDP students are interested in international opportunities and have questions about work visas and immigration, I’ve been especially keen on getting more involved with the St Andrews side of the Programme, since that campus has a large international student population. I also shared the different projects I’ve been working on, from the workshops I put together, to the alumni pool I’ve created on LinkedIn, so that the Careers Centre staff is more familiar with the JDP resources available on the William & Mary side of career counseling.

Flats like these are adorable, but their rent is often steep

Talking with Career Centre staff was also an opportunity to share my observations about the program’s challenges or difficulties. Learning about the high cost of living in St Andrews, for instance, made me reflect on the cost-prohibitiveness of the Programme itself, with high tuitions and the expenses associated with traveling and living in two different places making the degree untenable for many students. There’s also a severe housing shortage in St Andrews, which makes the logistical challenges of the program even more urgent. I already had a lot of respect for JDP students, but knowing how hard it is to find housing, coupled with the high cost of living, only increased my admiration for them. Living and studying in St Andrews is a wonderful experience if you can afford it, but that “if” is a big one.

The garden behind the Careers Centre

My final objective, meeting with students who normally wouldn’t be able to see me in person because they’re not currently at the William & Mary campus, happened on Wednesday. Since classes were finished and students were in finals mode, we kept it informal, holding the event outside in the garden behind the Careers Centre. Students could come and go as they pleased, partaking in the tea and cookies made available. I wasn’t sure if any students would show up, but we did end up having a few stop by, and those who did stop in remained for a long time, talking about their majors and interests. For European students, we also answered questions about what to expect with living in the United States, as well as offered suggestions for things to do in and around Williamsburg. I also reminded all the students to stop by the Career Center once they settled in, and to make an appointment to meet with the JDP Fellow.

Lest you think all I did was spent my time in meetings though, I actually had plenty of time to explore the city and its surrounding environs. I usually had a couple of hours in between meetings and other appointments, leaving plenty of time for long walks in the city or along the beach. During my time there, I visited the ruins of St Andrews Castle and the cathedral, as well as the Wardlaw Museum and the St Andrews Museum. I spent one morning walking along the beach, and meandered down many an alleyway or corridor. I made a point of trying out iconic food and drink such as Irn-Bru and haggis, or visiting famous St Andrews institutions such as Janetta’s gelateria. And while I personally don’t care about golf, I made a point of looking at the old course.

What probably struck me the most about St Andrews was its familiarity. Despite being a new city to me, it reminded me of a lot of other places, including Canterbury, Stratford-upon-Avon, and other small cities I visited while studying abroad in London as an undergraduate. Yet even more uncanny was the geography itself, as the coastal setting is remarkably similar to the beaches in New England. Sure, there were subtle differences in the types of animal species or the color of the sand, but the overall landscape, with its salty air, rocky coast, and cool weather, was remarkably familiar.

Overall, it was a great trip and I’m really glad I went. St Andrews is a beautiful place, and I loved being in an area where I could walk everywhere or travel to neighboring towns without a car. The time of year was also lovely, as I experienced the early spring flowering all over again. I gained a much better understanding of how the JDP Fellow fits into both campuses, and will do my best to pass on that information to the next fellow. And I enjoyed getting to see and explore a new place.

But I wasn’t the only one to have a Scottish experience. Brandon also came along with me, and he had his own adventures while I was in meetings and work-related events. Next week, we’ll take a look at his side of the trip, and the things he experienced during our time at St Andrews.

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