Isabel Lockhart Smith
Degree: American Literature with Creative Writing, 2008-2012
Year Abroad: Reed College (Portland, Oregon)
Current Occupation: Senior Catering Assistant (University of Sussex) / future English Masters student (University of Pennsylvania)
Career plans: Academia
I dithered for a long time about going to university. I was Christmas-temping at HMV – having left school with no immediate or long-term plans for the future – when I heard that a friend of a friend had just started a literature and creative writing course at UEA. With more research I discovered that the 4 year degree included a year abroad in America. Breaking months of indecision, I applied at once.
Further opportunity for dithering arose in my second year at UEA. When it came to choosing our preferred placements for the year abroad, I deliberately skirted around the option of Reed College until right at the last minute. I wanted to have fun in America, and Reed was notorious for hard work, nervous breakdowns and camping out in the library during Finals Week. Yet, shamefully competitive, I couldn’t resist the challenge.
Reed was certainly a change in gear, a kind of boot-camp for academia. During my time there, I taught myself to read and write at triple-speed, perfecting the art of the ‘all-nighter’ with the unhealthy realisation that I never felt happier than when handing in an essay, weak and smelly after twelve consecutive hours at a computer and two litres of Mountain Dew. The atmosphere at the college was infectious. Knowledge and mental acuity became the main criteria for social acceptance, and, with the US system of continuous assessment, every class became a test, a performance to the other students. The majority of people I met at Reed were intending to do a PhD, and everyone, without exception, was vehemently passionate about something – from Macedonian foreign policy to queering Henry James.
I did indeed camp out in the library during Finals Week, but, for the most part, my fears about not having fun in America were largely unfounded. Your grades on your year abroad don’t really matter (as long as you pass), so if you’re not having fun, you’re kind of missing the point. Despite its fearsome reputation, Reed more than provided extracurricular distractions for its students, most memorably ‘Renn Fayre’ – a three-day party of dancing, glitter and casual nudity to celebrate the Seniors handing in their theses. Off campus, I dedicated most of my free time to exploring the famous food cart culture in Portland, which was a great way to meet people outside Reed and learn about the city’s many different communities. We also made trips further afield, to the Oregon coast, Seattle and, in my last fortnight in America, to San Francisco and Yosemite.
Attending Reed College for a year had an irrevocable impact on the way in which I viewed my education. Previously, a degree had been a means to an end, a ticket required in order to graduate into the ‘real world’ and undertake ‘serious’ employment. But on returning to the UK in 2011, I found myself responding to the “what will you do when you graduate?” question with the, albeit hesitant, response: “maybe, maybe I’ll do a Masters, and then, perhaps, a PhD.” Having been inspired by an introduction to postcolonial theory at Reed, in my final year at UEA I became interested in Native American literature. A few weeks ago I found out that I had been accepted to study a Masters in English at the University of Pennsylvania, funded by a Thouron Award; I enjoyed my year abroad so much, I have fashioned myself a second. While at Pennsylvania, I want to learn as much as I can about colonialism and postcolonialism, with the intention of returning to Native studies for a PhD in the UK.
My year at Reed had an undeniable influence on my decision to take the academic route. The pace, the intensity and the sheer excitement of studying in another country is an experience that really alters your way of thinking. From falling into university almost on a whim, I am now reluctant to leave.