Semester Abroad Q&A with John Keblish, CAS ‘20

May 19, 2020
By Madison Jones, Penn Abroad Leader, SEAS ‘21

John Keblish spent a semester abroad in the United Kingdom at King’s College London. We sat down with him to learn more about his travels, and his experience playing lacrosse while abroad. 

What were you most nervous or excited about before leaving?
I think I was both excited and nervous for the exact same thing, which was going to school more or less by myself. I have my core group of friends from Greek life and academic life, but outside of that, I didn’t have any peers study with me at King’s College. So I kind of felt like I was by myself. It was also exciting to branch off and not be stranded within the Penn bubble while I was abroad. 

How were the classes there different from classes at Penn?
I’d say the two biggest differences were timing and homework. With regards to timing, most classes met once a week for two hours, whereas the typical Penn class is Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday, with recitations or labs. In terms of homework and projects, each history class I took had two essays, each worth 50% of our grade. So it's definitely focused a lot more on bigger projects, which I think is good and bad. It's good in that it gives you a lot of time to work on one thing, but bad in that you have fewer chances to make your grade what you want it to be. I also took a lot of seminar classes. Every single class I took at King's had at most 20 people, which is really nice to get to share your opinions and your thoughts on the specific readings. It was cool hearing different opinions from people from all over the world because King’s is a very international school, as is Penn, but I think King’s is just a little bit more.

Could you describe your experience playing lacrosse while abroad, and how that kept you involved with campus life?
Playing lacrosse just immediately negated that nervousness of not knowing anyone at the school, because I had a friend group of 20 girls and 20 guys across the men’s and women’s team, and we also combined for a mixed team which was so much fun. I really liked having a friend group of around 40 people, mostly from all over England. Because all study abroad students were living in the same halls in the dorm, that was nice to get us connected, but it didn’t help us connect with full-time King’s College students. But on the lacrosse team, I was one of three other study abroad kids on the team, so that was an easy way to get acclimated with the campus social life.

Do you have a favorite day of your abroad experience?
It's hard for one to stick out because there are a lot that were just really good. I’d say the moments when I was feeling most at peace and feeling most “British” was when I would go to the National Portrait Gallery, which is just north of Trafalgar Square, get a nice cup of tea and edit my essays that were coming up. I felt like that was the epitome of what it feels like studying in London. But if I had to choose one specific moment, it would probably be winning our first-ever varsity lacrosse game. The team had just gotten promoted to the highest league in London, and I helped contribute three goals and three assists to their first-ever Varsity One win for King's College history. It was a really cool experience. 

You traveled to 10 different cities, did you have any major travel mishaps?
I’m usually pretty good about planning, so I only had one major mishap, but it actually ended up being really good in the end. I took a morning flight - I want to say 4:30 in the morning, so I was extremely tired - and flew to Brussels, Belgium. And the thing you have to get is a Belgian waffle, that's a must. That and chocolate are the two things they are known for. But there's also this really cool structure called the Atomium, which is this huge metal atom from when Belgium hosted the World's Fair, but it's around three miles north of downtown Brussels. So I got off my flight and took a train downtown, and then had to start walking to the Atomium. I didn’t have Google Maps because I didn’t have any service while I was abroad, so I got lost and had to ask local people to help me get places. By the time I reach the Atomium, I was starving, but also was running around trying to find a public restroom. I finally find this restaurant that will let me use their restroom if I buy a coffee. As I leave, there's a little food cart almost like how we have Hemo’s on Penn's campus, but with Belgian waffles. I swear that was the best meal I've ever had abroad. It was delicious. So I guess it was a mishap that ended with a delicious meal.

What did you learn about yourself while studying abroad?
I learned that I like being independent, but I also need others around me. I think one thing most kids should realize before studying abroad is that you'll definitely be by yourself more than you ever have been at school. Whether you know it or not, you have a ton of friends at Penn. But when you go abroad, the entirety of Penn isn't there to help you. Even the friends I did have from the lacrosse team, I couldn’t see them every single day, so I had a lot of downtime to myself. I think studying abroad helps you learn how you can cope with just being by yourself and being content with who you are.

Were you homesick at all? And how did you deal with homesickness?
You definitely do kind of get these spurts of homesickness, but I think keeping your eye on the next exciting thing you're going to do definitely helps mitigate that. For me, I had a travel plan of every city I wanted to see while abroad, and I paid for most of my tickets pretty far in advance. So every week or every other weekend I had a place I was going to go see. So if I was, you know, upset on Monday that I couldn't see my dog, I knew that on Saturday I'm going to France, I really shouldn't be wallowing all too much.

Rapid-Fire Questions

What was the most touristy thing that you did? And was it worth it?
I had high tea one day in London, and that was so worth it. Expensive, definitely, but I loved it.

What new foods did you try? 
I tried a lot of new Indian foods, there’s this really good restaurant called Dishoom. 

Did you miss any food from home?
I missed the portion sizes. I like eating a lot, and everything in London is just very small. All over Europe, portions are small and expensive. 

What was your favorite place that you traveled to?
Probably Barcelona. I speak the tiniest bit of Spanish, but I only spoke Spanish when I was in Barcelona. I was there for Halloween, which was a lot of fun. And I love the food. 

And where are you going next?
I’m really into food, so hopefully somewhere in Southeast Asia.

John (bottom, third from left) with the lacrosse team at King's College London
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The Semester Abroad (SA) program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to study in a new global community through extended study for a semester or year. Penn Abroad partners with top institutions around the globe and collaborates with Penn’s undergraduate schools to offer programs for students across academic disciplines.