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MIT Students in England Share Experiences Through Exchange Program

By Sonali Mukherjee

Many students who enter MIT tend to study exclusively at the Institute for the next four years. There are, however, many exceptions to this rule. One can take classes at Harvard through cross-registration, and many people attend other universities in the United States for a semester.

In the beginning of October, seven MIT students left for Cambridge, England as part of the pilot exchange program for the joint Cambridge/MIT Institute, or CMI. The main goal of CMI is to use the powers of education present in universities to further the economic status of the United Kingdom. Colleges are very important to the growth and development of business because they are the places at which research and learning occur.

A key part of CMI is the Undergraduate Student Education Program. Part of the program involves exchanging students from the different universities. Because the program is in its infant stages, a pilot program was enacted in which a small group of students from MIT were sent to the University of Cambridge for one semester.

The students attending the program are Linus J. Park ’02, Gina Kim ’02, Liam R. Bossi ’02, Jeremy Cheng ’01, Michelle D. Lefebvre ’01, Kevin R. Lang ’02, and Kristen L. Clements ’02. These students are very diverse, and their outlooks on life, whether it be in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Cambridge, England contribute much to the program, opening it for generations of students to attend in the future. The following are first person accounts sent by the students about their time in England so far. Cheng was unable to be reached for comment.

Kevin R. Lang ’02

Major: Mechanical Engineering

College: Corpus Christi

The college system here is completely different than U.S. universities -- you’re a student of the university, but a resident of a college which actually is quite independent of the university. (My college [Corpus Christi] was founded in 1352, so some of our rooms pre-date MIT by a good 500 years or so.).

There’s also a great deal of formality you just don’t get in the U.S. About once a week I go to “formal hall”, when they serve a five-course meal in our super-posh dining hall. You have to wear formal clothes and the college gown (picture a graduation gown). And pretty much every lawn in every courtyard is off limits unless you’re a fellow of the college.

The academic approach is very different here, with almost all emphasis placed on final exams, or “papers” as they’re called here. There is also a very strong emphasis on lab work for third year engineers, with one major and one minor lab associated with each class in addition to a major group project and two major independent projects at the end of the year.

Socially, Cambridge is completely different from MIT. My college has been great so far in terms of meeting new friends. I’m a “fresher” in many ways, but college life isn’t completely new to me so I’ve been getting on well with the second and third years. “Freshers Week” (their equivalent to Rush but without frats) was great.

The alcohol situation here couldn’t be more unlike MIT -- the drinking age is 18, so going out to the pub and having a pint is really no big deal. People just laugh when I tell them the great lengths people at MIT go to when it comes to alcohol.

I’m on a crusade to get everyone here to pronounce the word “tomato” correctly. They call pants trousers (pants are underwear), I’ve nearly been hit by more than a few cars driving on the wrong side of the road, “dodgy” means “sketchy,” there are about fifty different kinds of British accents, and steak and kidney pie tastes about as good as it sounds.

Liam Bossi ’02

Major: Chemical Engineering

College: King’s College

I think the most interesting social experiences that I have had stem from the fact that everyone drinks all the time here. Alcohol is viewed so differently here than at MIT, and the university clubs as well as the administrators and professors give out free drinks all during orientation. Crazy stuff, but it seems like no one is killing themselves here ... maybe MIT should take note.

Other than that, I have found it a little formal in some respects (can’t walk on the grass, people wearing gowns, etc.) and yet really informal in others ... a really interesting place!

I'm not really too sure about my classes yet, still settling in. But it is quite odd that we don’t have problem sets or tests or anything; they rely a lot more on the students’ individual desire to learn the material. So far a lot of stuff is review from courses I took last year, so it has been tough for me to judge the difficulty, although it is fast paced (we only have 8 week terms).

I think the best experiences that I have had so far are playing sports and getting to know the people here that have similar interests in that regard. I am playing on the varsity lacrosse team, which is interesting (people in England don’t know too much about lacrosse, so we’re pretty terrible even though we’re first string varsity!).

I am also playing Ultimate Frisbee for the Cambridge team with Linus, and we just got back from a tournament in London this weekend, which was absolutely great. I played two days of Frisbee, went to a great club in London called “Home,” and met some fantastic people from all over the world. That’s probably been the best time I have had yet (although turning 21 last Tuesday was pretty close).

Kristen L. Clements ’02

Major: Mechanical Engineering

College: Queens’ College

The best part about being here at Cambridge for me is just being here in Cambridge. I am really enjoying learning about the way that the English do things and say things. I love the accents. I am also learning about the many different names that they call things. Many of the dinners that I go to, I learn another name for some vegetables. They tend to use the French names. And I like the pretty old buildings. Our version of what is old is like brand new to them. And it is amazing to see stone steps that have been around so long that they are all worn down and smooth in the middle.

One obvious custom here is tea. Anytime you go to visit anyone here, they are bound to offer you some tea. I find that in Boston you are more likely offered soda or juice, or nothing at all. I find the English to be very, very friendly and very helpful.

Classes are not too bad. We are about at the same level as the third year engineering students here. There is one class where we have already learned some of the material, but then there is also one class where they have already had some material that we haven’t. One thing that I really like about the lectures here is that they hand out a packet of notes for each class. You still have to go to lecture to fill in some of the blanks, but most of the information is already written down for you. This makes it easier for me to listen to the lecture, as I don’t have to concentrate on writing down the correct equations.

Basically I like the differences between Cambridge and MIT because it keeps life from always being the same and getting boring.

Michelle D. Lefebvre ’01

Major: Materials Sciences and Engineering

College: Selwyn College

Things are great over here in Cambridge. There have been a few things to get used to, but for the most part I’ve adjusted well. I really like my college, Selwyn. It’s known around town for being “the friendly college,” and it has definitely lived up to its reputation. I’ve made friends with the others living on my corridor, even though I’m in the freshers dorm and everyone is a first or second year (I’m the oldest one there!). We go out to formal hall, local pubs, or the college bar pretty often, and I have lunch and dinner in hall every night with my friends. I haven’t done too much class work yet, but I’m sure that will start kicking in soon.

I think the hardest thing to adjust to has been remembering to ride my bike on the left side of the road. I bought a used bike (it’s 17 years old!) and I ride it around everywhere because Selwyn is just a little outside the city. In the mornings at 9 a.m., when everyone is on their way to lectures, the streets are absolutely crazy. There are more bikes than cars and the traffic is terrible. I still find myself waiting to make left turns every once in a while, but thankfully I’ve remembered to wait for the right turns every time!

I do miss Boston, and I miss it even more every time I meet someone who’s been, and they tell me how much they loved it, too. I’ve been keeping in touch with my friends over e-mail, though, so that makes it easier. I’m really having a wonderful time. It’s a shame I’m only staying for a term, I would have loved to be here for the whole year. I might have to come back and visit for May Week.

Gina Kim ’02

Major: Mechanical Engineering

College: Jesus College

Cambridge is old, and steeped in tradition. The best example I’ve experienced so far would probably be the Matriculation Dinner, an event which welcomes all newcomers to the University and our respective colleges. All members of the colleges have to wear a black gown over their formal clothes (it looks something like a graduation gown).

Dinner started with the ringing of a bell. Everybody stood, and a prayer was said in Latin. Then the food was served, five courses, on Jesus College china. This included three wines. The main course was Roast Duck with Cherries. About halfway through the meal, the Vice-Master stood up and officially welcomed us to the College, telling us we were members for life.

Being at Cambridge makes me feel that I am part of an unbroken line of scholars. It is hard to imagine getting used to passing through ancient archways to enter into the College, hearing the constant pealing of church bells, and punting along the river Cam. But it is all beginning to become familiar. I was practicing my violin in Jesus’ Chapel the other day, and it hit me that I was playing in a building that was constructed in 1022. You begin to take the surroundings for granted. I was expecting a kind of epiphany that I was here, in Cambridge, England, but really it is the little things that catch your attention. The way people pronounce France (“Frahnce”), the way the orange juice comes in two varieties (“with juicy bits” and “without juicy bits”), the way the first question I get after I go to a friend’s room is “Would you like a cup of tea?”

So far I have enjoyed my classes. Basically you have lectures in the department (in my case Engineering) and supervisions in your College. Supervisions are like recitations, but much more personal; usually the ratio is one to two or one to three.

We have one huge exam per class at the end of the Lent term, in May. So, lately I haven’t been feeling very pushed to study, and it is really hard for me to keep motivated unless I have a goal (i.e. finishing a problem set by Friday). But I’m trying to get into a regular schedule of studying. They do have something like problem sets here; they are called “examples papers.” They aren’t graded but you are supposed to go over them in your supervisions, so it is embarrassing if you don’t have them done. I hope that will be enough for me to keep from procrastinating.

Friday afternoon was absolutely gorgeous, and Linus, Kristen and I went punting. A punt is a long, flat-bottomed boat (think of an flat oversized canoe). One person propels it by pushing off the bottom of the river with a long stick, and everybody else sits on cushions and relaxes. Anyway, we got a punt from St. John’s (Linus’s college) and punted from John’s to Queen’s and back on the River Cam. There are many bridges over the river and the scenery is stunning; a lot of the older colleges have lawns that extend to the river, so you have a completely clear view of all their buildings. Also I should mention that Linus (a.k.a. “puntboy”) and Kristen (a.k.a. “puntmaster”) were particularly good at making us go straight. I, on the other hand, was very good at turning [the boat] involuntarily. Oh well.

Linus J. Park ’02

Major: Mechanical Engineering

College: St. John’s

Things here in England are pretty different from back home in Boston. I mean, you got your typical stuff -- money, lingo, transportation, to all the mundane stuff I wouldn’t even have thought about -- where to buy groceries, what times the stores close, why the only dishwashing brand is called Fairy. It’s been pretty easy to adjust to that kind of stuff, but a lot harder to adjust to being away from home. I really do miss Boston a lot.

I’m sincerely having fun too. The experiences here are definitely new and interesting. The whole attitude on drinking is completely different -- not only is the drinking age 18, but most of these guys have been drinking since they were really young. So it’s really typical to just go out and hang out at the bars or kick back with a few beers. It’s really a part of the culture as far as I can see, but then again it’s only been two weeks.

I’m also playing rugby here, and it’s a totally awesome sport. I picked it up this summer at MIT, but playing here has just been a lot of the fun, and the team is really amazing.

It’s absolutely beautiful here -- the architecture is old and gorgeous, and the grass is well kept. It feels like traveling back in time for a bit every time I walk through the gates to get into my college. As for classes, they are the same here as at MIT only we sit on benches instead of desks and have fewer lectures (only two per class per week).The funny thing is that I fall asleep through the same stuff as I do at MIT. But the professors here are good, and they do a good job of teaching. It’s going to be difficult though, because there are times when they refer to last year’s material, which we obviously haven’t covered. One weird thing, other then sitting in what feel like church pews, is that you’re not allowed to eat in lecture hall, and it appears that falling asleep is also bad etiquette, so we’ll see how that works out.

Other than that, it looks to be a fun term in the program itself; it came together at the beginning of this past summer. I mean, we didn’t find out we had been chosen till the end of the school year, and it wasn’t even confirmed that we were really going until about the middle of August. And even then, things such as credit transfers, living accommodations, college life, and all that stuff wasn’t really explained or taken care of until really late in the fall. It sounds last minute, and in a sense, it was, but it pulled together pretty nicely, and we all have great living accommodations here and classes have started up without a hitch. Whether we’re going to survive the classes here is another story.