Meet Sonia Gorenstein, an English major studying at King's College London!

Student Spotlight: Sonia Gorenstein, ‘18

US university: Williams College

Major: English

Study abroad program: King’s College London, London, 2016/17 academic year

Why did you choose this program?

As a student of literature with my heart set on London, studying abroad at King’s was too obvious to be called a choice. KCL’s outstanding reputation in my field is simply inarguable, and I am happy to have found my own experience in accord with this worldwide consensus.

KCL masterfully accomplishes a difficult feat: organizing a formidable research university in such a way that undergraduate students are sufficiently valued members of the institution. It would be rather absurd of me, I thought, to expect KCL to give me the kind of personal attention I receive at my small, rural liberal arts college. Yet I was pleasantly surprised by the helpfulness of my professors and the significant presence of seminar-based learning. I imagined that the scholar responsible for the latest Oxford introduction to A Room of One’s Own would be relatively uninterested in my own thoughts on the text, and I was wrong: her excitement was evident.

So I was led to a rather curious observation. KCL at once attracts the most accomplished scholars in the world, and demands from them an exceptional standard of teaching. From what I have gleaned of large universities at home and abroad, this state of affairs is hardly a given. The respect accorded to students alongside the emphasis given to pioneering research is a combination with an unforeseen consequence: the treatment of every student as a potential contributor to serious academic scholarship.

What was your favourite class?

The modules I laid out for myself this semester were almost humorously well-matched, comprising a curriculum more unified than I imagined possible in my undergraduate career. My carefully crafted semester plunged me into a dialogue of English letters spanning centuries, with an emphasis on the early modern period and single, monumental figures of English literature: Shakespeare, the Elizabethans, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. I chose my modules not by caprice but rather thoughtful consideration of what studying literature in England could ideally be. While I had studied and loved English literature in America, the moment for delving deeply into the topic needed to be seized—and it was this one. I wanted to study English literature exclusively and to, as far as possible, incorporate London into the curriculum.

This semester at KCL gave me my only chance to study English literature in such unusual depth. When I return next year to complete my literature degree, I will meet the English works on my syllabi with a far greater background knowledge: my reading will be rich with associations and connections. Few things could be more useful to a student of literature written in English than a semester or two in the country out of which so many of its greatest works were born. 

Describe your housing situation.

Walking out of my residence and out onto the streets of Southwark is even now not without its excitement. Something arrested me about the area the first time I drove through it. Old red-brick buildings and narrow streets converse with the metallic dynamism of contemporary urban structures and forms. Colorful print-design shops in miniature border tall, sleek galleries with arched glass walls that corner up with the decaying façades of Victorian pubs. I myself don’t know how this collage expresses, not the discord of two pieces of music played simultaneously, but a difficult symphony all the more satisfying for its layered complexity.

Now that the game has been opened, there are four moves that I typically make: walking to and along the Waterloo Bridge to class, or the Blackfriars Bridge, walking to Borough Station to take a train to the London Buddhist Centre, or to Southwark Station to visit almost anywhere else. From there come any number of combinations—turns, stops, and transfers—that can comprise a London day.

Rather than enthrall you with extraordinary possibilities—for there are many in London—I will recount to you an aspect of my weekly routine remarkable for being ordinary. Let’s make that third move, walking down Great Suffolk Street, turning left, taking a Northern train to Bank, transferring, and hopping onto a Central train bound for Bethnal Green, in East London.

I stroll to the neighborhood vegetarian café and order myself a flat white: a kind of robust Australian cousin to the cappuccino. I settle in, content to know that all proceeds go to charity and that London gives me the option to consume ethically.

Then I read—plays, novels, poems. The café is flooded with natural light and colored by Tibetan prayer flags. Here, nobody rushes, and there aren’t any skyscrapers looming out the window. It is indeed a marvel that within thirty minutes of leaving the sophisticated modernity of central London, I find myself, almost inexplicably, in such humble surroundings. It is into this changed atmosphere that I exit the café and take myself to the London Buddhist Centre, where I am greeted by a kind assurance that tonight’s class is by donation. I practice an hour of restorative yoga, and an hour of meditation, drink some peppermint tea, and relax into a talk on human flourishing. The night folds over me as I take the train home.

I have never had such access to a place comparable to the Centre, which is so uniquely helpful to my attempts to establish the life best-suited to me. Yet my point is not that this is such a place for anyone else. Somewhere in this vast metropolis could be found exactly those places and experiences conducive to any given person’s happiness. There are so many things that this strange word—“London”—can be to anyone at any moment. Such possibility is also a challenge to meet the potential of a greater autonomy to construct one’s own experience.

What advice would you give to other students who are thinking about studying abroad in the UK?

The truth, as you may have guessed, is that to leave one’s old home, with its old country, its old systems, its old conventions, and to emerge in one’s new home with these old frameworks, is necessarily to unsettle one’s life, which one must resettle into a new context. Any attempt to expedite this process is foolish. Adjusting to London is, firstly, a large task.

What do you think you gained from studying abroad?

I’ve never felt quite as I do at King’s. That feeling has something to do with Shakespeare, with the colossal Maughan Library, with the suited lawyers still shuffling down Chancery Lane: in short, with the gravity of it all. That sense of being part of something noble and significant is what the very air is made of. At King’s, one is trusted to make a contribution. One is free to, within one’s chosen topics, study to the depth and direction of one’s interest. One is free to, within reason, personalize one’s own reading list. From this freedom emerges one weighty implication: education becomes less of an offering, and more of a process unique to the individual, the end of which is, ideally, unreachable. At King’s, an A is a 70. To receive an 80, a 90, or a 100, one must produce work of exceptional scholarly value. This standard of excellence is an invitation for any student to consider, not only what one has already learned and said, but also what one could someday—perhaps even today—be capable of. King’s challenges the student to match the caliber of the institution itself, and I will not easily forget that kind of treatment, even long after I’ve returned to America.

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Nick Wood

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