Student Experience: Living in Britain in the Time of Brexit

In the fall of 2019, Gurjot Kang, a student from Pacific Lutheran University, studied abroad in London, England, at the GEO Centre. While participating in the Liberal Arts in London program, Ms. Kang took part in an internship and lived with a homestay family, and she was also a GEO Ambassador scholarship recipient.

All GEO students enroll in a course on British current issues and events called “Britain Today,” which is taught by Andrew Whitehead, a former correspondent and Editor for the BBC World News Service. The following essay reflects on her experiences in this class and with Brexit while living in Britain during the fall semester, and it was originally published in her campus’ newspaper on Dec. 5, 2019, in advance of the reelection and recent Brexit developments. Ms. Kang has given GEO permission to reprint it to share the value of her experiences abroad.

As my classmates and I stood in line with our “Britain Today” professor for a guided tour of Parliament, I couldn’t help but notice that most of Westminster Palace was invisible beneath giant towers of steel scaffolding.  The palace has been under plans for construction for several years due to its many battles with asbestos, unsafe electrical work, and the occasional fires.  In certain areas, this massive structure is quite literally falling apart—a giant metaphor for many British citizens about the current state of their union given the ongoing Brexit crisis.

Back in 2016, 51.9 percent of Brits (17.4 million) shocked the western world by voting for the UK to “leave” the European Union in a public referendum.  More than three years later, some Members of Parliament (MPs) are still singing “Never Gonna Give EU Up,” while others are struggling with how to successfully push forward a withdrawal agreement through both chambers, the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson famously said in September that he’d rather “be dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for another Brexit extension.  The government spent approximately £100 million on an advertising campaign to tell citizens to “Get Ready for Brexit” by the end of October.  Every time, such an advertisement would come on television, my homestay mom would often scoff, knowing well the UK government itself doesn’t even know when Brexit will actually happen.

Even the Finance Ministry planned to release millions of special 50 pence coins inscribed with the Brexit date of October 31st and the ironic statement “peace, prosperity, and friendship to all nations.

Since then, the EU has granted Parliament another Brexit extension (this time to January 31st, 2020), the ad campaign has stopped, and the coins are being recycled.  Not to mention, Johnson is now fighting for his political survival as the UK gears up for a general election on Dec. 12th.

This is the third election for Brits in the short time period since 2015—and the stakes are high!  If Johnson loses this election, he will go down in history as the shortest serving British Prime Minister.

Typically, general elections take place every five years (the next one was scheduled for 2022).  But as MPs continue to struggle with the issue of Brexit, voters will head to the polls once again this December, choosing the government they see best fit to serve the needs of the nation.

In fact, the main reason why my classmates and I were able to walk down Westminster Hall through the Members’ Corridor and Lobby and stand inside both chambers of Parliament in the first place is because all the MPs were missing in preparation for the next election.  While we all quietly stood next to the long green leather benches in the House of Commons, they were all out campaigning, attending press meetings—running to hold onto these very seats.

As I crossed the road later that afternoon and walked down Downing Street, past the gates of the Prime Minister’s residence, littered with tourists taking photos, I couldn’t help but reflect upon all the recent news and info I’ve gathered about Brexit in these past few months.

Whether it’s the lessons in my “Britain Today” class at the GEO Centre, the commuters reading The Evening Standard paper on the tube every evening, or the constant ads run by candidates from various parties, it’s hard to avoid the overwhelming impact Brexit will have on the future of the UK.  Even though at times, it’s clear some Londoners sure wish they could.

This next election is a way for MPs to turn the question of Brexit to the citizens once again.  And boy, does each party have very different takes on how to solve Brexit.  The Liberal Democrats want to “exit from Brexit” altogether by repealing Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; the Labour Party wants to call for a second referendum; and the Conservative Party wants a steady majority to pass Johnson’s withdrawal agreement through Parliament before the next deadline of January 31st.  The stakes for this election are high: the party that wins the majority of seats in Parliament decides which direction to lead the country, in the midst of the Brexit crisis.

Given the political uncertainty the UK is currently embroiled in, it’s more important now than ever for American students studying abroad to really take the time to understand the history and culture of the place they’re living in.

That’s why Andrew Whitehead, Professor at the GEO in London Centre and former BBC news journalist, believes it’s impossible to teach his “Britain Today” class without making sure his students fully understand how Brexit shapes the way “Britain sees its place in the world.”

“Brexit is the most important thing happening in British politics and public life, so if you ask what is happening in Britain Today, then the fierce debate about Britain’s departure from the European Union is the predominant aspect,” Whitehead said.  “It is in part an aspect of an isolationism which also, arguably, is evident in the US as well. You can’t really have classes about Britain Today without giving proper attention to Brexit.”

The significance of learning about Brexit from classes and public life in London doesn’t go over the heads of students participating in the GEO London program.  For Taylor Cole, sophomore Political Science major at the University of Portland, Oregon, her time in the program has been very insightful in widening her perspective on Brexit.

“Before the program I was kind of indifferent, but leaned towards opposing it because I see the world we live in as being a global place…Britain deciding to leave the EU felt like we were going back in time instead of marching forward,” said Cole.  “Now I think I recognize better why those who support leave do indeed support it.”

While Cole still sides with the views of “remainers,” her travels around the UK have opened her world up to a greater spectrum of opinions on Brexit.

And in this sense, I couldn’t agree more with Whitehead and Cole.  If my time studying away in London has taught me anything, it’s that London doesn’t represent the whole of the UK, and similar to back home, where local elections just wrapped up, political views and perspectives here vary heavily from one cultural region to another.  Whether it’s Brexit in the UK, or the public presidential impeachment hearings in D.C., there’s no better time than now for American students to learn, listen and pay attention to the current historic moments in politics taking place, often right in front of them.

So for those students… who are planning their study abroad trips in the coming months to London… or any other part of the world, I strongly advise taking the time to read up on the politics, culture and history of the place you plan on calling home for the next few months before boarding the plane.  As American students, it’s important for us to respect the political climates we’re entering and to continue educating ourselves during our travels.  It’s one thing to be a tourist in a city; it’s another to be a global student observing and learning from your surroundings.


The opinions in this essay belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions or statements of GEO or any of GEO’s staff or partners.