Interview: CAPA Study Abroad Alumna Crystal McLean

May 28, 2014 8:31:00 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

Crystal studied abroad in London during Spring semester 2014 where she participated in a service learning placement at Castlehaven Community Association, an experience that left a lasting impression. It also sent her home with some transferable skills and as a better communicator. Below, she talks in more detail about this placement, tells us about a walk led by a formerly homeless person that opened her eyes to the social issue of poverty in this global city and about a favorite MyEducation event to Greenwich.

CAPA WORLD: Tell us a bit about yourself.
CRYSTAL MCLEAN: I am a junior Family Social Science major from the University of Minnesota who spent this past spring studying abroad in London. When I wasn’t working at my service learning placement or studying this semester, I enjoyed exploring the local markets and sampling the delicious food. At home, I’m very much a social creature and I prefer to spend my time checking in with friends and family.

CW: Where was your service learning placement that you completed while studying abroad? Walk us through a typical day at your placement and tell us some of your duties there.
CM: My service learning placement was at Castlehaven Community Association in Camden Town. One unique thing about my placement was that I was able to work on more than one project during my brief time there. On Mondays and Wednesdays I worked with the “TimeBank,” and on Thursdays I worked with the Haven Youth Project.

The TimeBank is a program where members of the community can volunteer their time and skills (such as gardening or baking), and for every hour of time donated members receive one time credit. Time credits can later be turned in for entrance to fitness classes, special events, or can be used to purchase haircuts or even movie tickets. In short, the TimeBank offers physical rewards to those who volunteer.

Castlehaven’s TimeBank was created a few years ago, but by the time I arrived the program had started to fall apart. As a result, I was working with the group’s newest manager who was just starting to understand the project himself. In the beginning, we spent a lot of time discussing where previous incarnations of the TimeBank had failed and we developed ways to prevent history from repeating itself. I helped to create monthly newsletters to promote more frequent group communication. As time went on, I helped to record the interactions between members, plan TimeBank events, and I briefly took charge of the TimeBank.

The Haven Youth Project, on the other hand, was a lot less straightforward. For the most part, I let myself be extremely flexible on Thursdays and would do whatever was needed that day. I spent a lot of time creating promotional materials for the Youth Project and updating the youth section of Castlehaven’s website, but sometimes I got to do a little more than that. One day I supervised a paintball trip, and on another day I attended a marketing meeting at the company that manages Castlehaven’s advertisements. Of course the paintball trip was largely a reward for the young persons in the Youth Project, but I liked that it gave me a chance to get to know the kids I worked with. I also really enjoyed going to the media agency because it gave me greater insight into what I should consider when creating promotional materials.

CW: Give an example of a valuable contribution you made to your service learning site and how it made an impact.
CM: In April, the official supervisor of the TimeBank went on holiday and entrusted the management of the entire group to my fellow intern and me. It seemed a bit overwhelming at first, but after some encouragement from the TimeBank members I realized this was something I could handle. In just three months, I went from helping out in the background to being the main line of contact for local members! Although this position came with its own frustrations, it was a great self-esteem boost to know that I had reached a point where I could answer a question asked by a local without always having to find a coworker that knew more than me.

I was also able to make a large contribution to the Haven Youth Project before I left. This year my supervisor challenged my coworkers and I to create curriculum for a 6-week pre-apprenticeship pilot program. We were building this program from scratch, and had to figure out everything from how to recruit students to how to present the lessons we wanted to teach them. We had to consider the type of information that would be useful for young people to know when applying for apprenticeships, which gave me the chance to reflect on what had been most helpful for me when taking on this placement. Unfortunately the program began after I left the UK, but at least I know there will be an essence of my work hanging about the center for another few weeks.

CW: Tell us about your service learning interview and how you prepared. Do you have any advice for incoming students?
CM: I was actually so nervous that I started preparing before I even left the States! I remember that the service learning placement portion of my application invited me to be as specific as possible when describing the type of placement I was looking for, but I had never done an internship or service-learning before. Apart from knowing my major, I also had no post-graduation career aspirations that I could use as inspiration. Because I wanted this semester to be a meaningful addition to my major courses, I decided to learn more about what CAPA alumni had done in past semesters. As soon as I saw Castlehaven’s website, I immediately felt like this place would offer me a warm welcome and would leave me with valuable insight on working with the community.

Although I was tentatively placed at Castlehaven by CAPA, I spent a lot of time thinking about what could go wrong during the interview. To prepare myself, I printed off an extra copy of my resume and started memorizing a list of my strengths and weaknesses. We were strongly encouraged to call our placement sites to confirm our interviews, so I even researched the best time of day to make a confirmation call and what to say while doing so.

In retrospect, I was only needlessly working myself up by being so overly cautious. My interview felt more like a conversation between acquaintances than a make-or-break job search. We talked about my transition to London, and about my major and the classes I was taking abroad and those I had taken at my home institution. My supervisors seemed genuinely interested in learning about me and I never felt like I had to display only my best qualities to impress them.

Even though I did go a bit overboard in preparing for my interview, the most valuable thing I did was research my placement site beforehand. I cannot recommend this enough to future students. Never, ever walk into an interview without at least knowing the purpose or mission of the organization you are interviewing with. Near the end of my interview I was asked if I knew of any projects or programs at Castlehaven that I would like to get involved with. I had only just glanced at the Association’s program page the night before, but I was still able to make a strong, positive impression because I had an idea of where I wanted to help out.

CW: What transferable skills did you take away from your service learning experience and how will they help you in your future career?
CM: My major emphasizes the necessity of good communication, but I would argue now that I didn't even know what “good communication” meant until this semester. Of course I know how to talk to people, write reports, and give presentations, but none of that means anything when you’re reaching out to a large group of people who have no reason to care about your academic background. Near the end of my placement, I found that a few members of the TimeBank expected me to fix a few miscommunications because I was the acting manager of the group. It was a little tough to have to switch between letters, emails and phone calls to reach out to members, but it made me aware of my own lacking communication skills. Another thought I had while dealing with that situation was the way I frame messages differently when speaking through various mediums.

CW: There is a class that goes along with the service learning placement. What are some of the topics that were discussed in the classroom and activities and assignments that you found valuable?
CM: The service learning class is unique in that my classmates and I were able to use our placements as a way to learn about social issues in London. I didn’t really know anything about the gross income disparities that are found within the city until we discussed the matter in class, but after we first learned about it I began to notice when my site supervisors would talk about the issue.

My favorite class activity was a walking tour of Camden that was led by a man who was formerly homeless. This field study taught me more about the area that my internship served, and it gave me a chance to see a side of London I otherwise never would have. Our guide showed us the places he used to wander when he lived on the streets, and as we stepped down side streets and back alleys, I saw how easy it would have been for me to ignore London’s poverty if I had never gone on that particular tour.

CW: Which MyEducation event was most memorable for you and why? How did your participation in this event change your understanding of the city?
CM: The riverboat tour of the Thames and subsequent tour of Greenwich stick out in my mind as far as MyEducation events go. After spending so much time traveling beneath the city, it was refreshing to travel right through it on the river. London began on the waterfront and it seems only fair to see it from the same perspective as the Romans once did. Our destination, Greenwich, was incredibly beautiful, and although it may be a little silly, I like that I can say I've stood in two different hemispheres at once.

Although it wasn't a MyEducation event, I decided to make a point to travel to Stratford to see the Olympic Park after hearing about the impact of the 2012 Olympics on the city. I went the week after I had a lecture about the poor condition Stratford had been in before construction on the park began, but when I saw the place for myself I couldn't believe that it had once been littered with industrial waste. The Olympic Park feels very clean and welcoming, and I could sense that London was still proud of the legacy that has been created in the wake of the Olympics.

CW: Give a few examples of ways in which you were able to tie the knowledge you've gained in any of your CAPA classes into the way you understand your host city.
CM: One of my favorite assignments involved giving a presentation about a particular area of London. I was able to work with a group to present on Camden Town, which was also where my service learning placement was located. As a result of that project, I learned a lot about how Camden Town came to be the place it is today. It also gave me a greater understanding of what was hiding beyond the path I took to and from my internship every day.

I was fortunate enough as well to have classes that incorporated field studies as a way to teach us about the city. My favorite field study was a walking tour of Kensington Gardens that used a map from a Peter Pan book as a guide, although I could easily pick any single field trip and call it “the best!”

Quite a few of my classes also referenced current events to exemplify lessons, which I liked because it gave me more context about the stories I had seen in the Metro and Evening Standard.

CW: What was your favorite London discovery?
CM: Putting milk in tea. I had no idea that such a thing was possible, but I have since been converted. English breakfast tea with milk and sugar is the greatest.

A little more serious answer would be that I am fascinated by the Tube. I accidentally stumbled upon an article that taught me “150 fascinating facts about the Tube” during my first week in London and since then I haven’t been able to resist learning about the quirks of the Underground. I’m sure my flatmates were tired of hearing me ramble on about the station with the longest escalator (Angel), or the reason for the bend in the tracks between South Kensington and Knightsbridge (dead bodies), but I’m continually mesmerized by all these quirky facts.

CW: What changes have you seen in yourself since you began your study abroad program? What has your experience taught you about yourself and the world around you?
CM: One thing I’ve learned about people during my time here is that the desire to learn about a foreign place is extremely common. Just as I’ve been eager to learn about the UK, so have the locals been eager to learn about the US. It’s a weird sort of bond that I’ve enjoyed exploring.

As far as what I’ve learned about myself, I think I’d say that I’m a lot more receptive to living in the moment as a result of my time here. I wouldn’t say I was very shy around new experiences before coming to London, but this semester feels a bit like a mile marker or a gateway. Now I can look back at these past three months and say: I did this. I left my home, friends, and everything familiar behind and made myself comfortable in a whole new world. If I can do this, what’s stopping me from doing anything else?

Thanks Crystal!

Topics: London, England, CAPA Alumni, Service Learning