Christopher Wyche, a junior at East Central University, is studying British literature in Britain this semester -- an opportunity he never imagined before a new scholarship was established last June by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
He and six other students from Oklahoma's regional universities were named Brad Henry International Scholars by the regents and are participating in an international study and internship program during the spring semester at Swansea University in Swansea, Wales.
Christopher Wyche (center) is congratulated by Chancellor Glen D. Johnson (left) and Gov. Brad Henry after he was named a Brad Henry International Scholar from East Central University. Wyche, a native of Sulphur, was selected to participate in an international study and internship program this semester at Swansea University in Swansea, Wales.
Wyche, a 2000 graduate of Sulphur High School, is majoring in English at ECU and focusing on 19th century British literature.
"I was one of those guys that dropped out of college after a semester, came back for the random attempt, but didn't seriously come back to pursue my education until I was in my mid-twenties," he said.
In the years between, he worked at various jobs, but none he wanted as a career, he said. Now that he is "back on track," he's trying to get his grades and test scores high enough to get into a graduate program and has set his sights on becoming a professor.
"British literature, in particular, is something that I've really taken an interest in, especially the Romantic and Victorian eras, not only because there are some of the greatest writers/poets/artists ever in those roughly two centuries," he said, "but the historical context that becomes involved is equally as fascinating."
Wyche said a faculty member sent out an email about the international scholars program.
"The email said something to the effect of 'want to study in Wales?' and my ears immediately perked up, and I applied with no thought that I might ever get it. Imagine my surprise," he said. "The foremost reason (for applying), though, is obvious: I wanted to study British literature in Britain. Swansea, in fact, was home to prominent 20th century poet Dylan Thomas, and he's, literally, the town's favorite son. They've got monuments and museums in his honor everywhere.
"There are also so many historic spots in this area," Wyche said in an email interview. "The Tintern Abbey that inspired the William Wordsworth poem is about an hour from here."
And, having something such as a "Governor's International Scholar" on his transcript, he admitted, can help diminish his early collegiate experience and help him get his foot in the door of some very competitive graduate programs.
"And, of course, who doesn't want to immerse themselves in another culture for six months and pretend that they're someone else? It's a nice change of pace," he said.
The main thing he hoped to get out of the experience, aside from some in-depth classes, was a chance to see a bit more of the world and to get a feel for the European education system.
"Oddly enough, by this point," Wyche said, "class-wise, there isn't much of a difference from the American system."
The biggest difference is specialization, he said. By the age of 16, students in Wales can either end their education or choose a specialization that will make up the last two years of their secondary schooling.
"Then, once you hit university, you only have two areas to study (a major and minor, more or less) and you're not really allowed to step outside of whatever you've chosen. So the biggest thing is that Americans get a much broader education with our requirement of so many electives; but if you know what you want to do at 16, then the European system also has its perks."
Wyche first took a pre-session, two-week class required for American students, British Culture and Politics Since 1945. His other two classes are W.B. Yeats and Homer and Heroism in the Iliad.
"I've only got class Monday-Wednesday for an hour a day. You can basically have four- and five-day weekends every week for traveling. The downside is that there is typically more reading and studying involved than a lot of our classes. I know that I've already had to read a lot more for these two classes than I would back home."
In addition to classes, tutorials, or study sessions usually led by teaching assistants, are held periodically throughout the semester.
This semester started in January and will end in the middle of June. Swansea students have an Easter break that goes from mid-March to mid-April "which makes it ideal for an exchange student to go gallivanting across the continent with no worries about school for a month."
Wyche plans to fly to Athens, work his way through the islands and up through Italy to Rome, then travel through Switzerland and France on his way back to Wales. He also went to Amsterdam on a school-sponsored trip.
Wyche, the son of Jerry and Louise Wyche, had never been on an airplane before or traveled outside a 500-mile radius of his hometown of Sulphur until his early 20s.
"And as soon as I got off the plane in London, I got in a rental car and drove on the wrong side of the road for three hours. So it's safe to say that I dove into the deep end on my first trip outside of the states," he said. "I somehow managed to find my school without dying and only a few near-death experiences altogether, so I chalked that up as a win."
He said the biggest thing to get used to was taking a bus everywhere, and the biggest difference between the Swansea and ECU campuses is the presence of alcohol, which can be purchased on campus. He also has seen no religious groups represented on the campus.
Wyche lives in the university's student village, a collection of about 40 buildings that house eight to 12 people each.
Snow is very unusual there, he said, but it had just snowed about a week in the United Kingdom.
"Oklahomans, it seems, are cursed with extreme weather wherever we go," He joked.
"It gets pretty crazy here. It hadn't snowed here in so long that there was a giant, community-wide snowball fight until nearly dawn," he said. "And there are always people in the streets. If anyone is lucky enough to get the scholarship and wants to go to sleep at a decent hour, don't forget to tick the box that says, 'I prefer to live in a designated quiet area.'"
And the food is... different, he added.
Two foods that college students rely on, frozen food and ramen noodles, are "terrible," the ECU student said, and he hasn't been impressed by the much-lauded fish and chips. A variety of restaurants offer Asian, Italian and other foods, but most do not open until 5 p.m.
"It's a great experience to leave your comfort zone and realize that there is an entire world out there beyond our tiny corner of existence." Wyche commented. "Even in this age of communication, when it seems like we've got the world streamlined directly into our consciousness, unless you've got that empirical experience, having witnessed it with your own eyes, the wonders of the globe can seem more fairy tale than reality."
Other students chosen for the international study program are Lauren Bennett, Cameron University, Lawton; Bryan Bozell, Southwestern Oklahoma State University, Weatherford; Leethaniel Brumfield, Langston University, Langston; Nancy Pham, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond; Jack Test, Oklahoma Panhandle State University, Goodwell; and Keith Watkins, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Durant.
The State Regents provide a $10,000 stipend for students selected to participate in semester-long study or research programs affiliated with Swansea University. Academic credit will be awarded by Oklahoma regional universities.
"Academic talent, character and leadership are what makes these students stand out from others," said Chancellor Glen D. Johnson. "In today's workplace, graduates need to understand the importance of competing in a global economy, and this program will allow these students to experience it firsthand."
Wyche, Bennett, Bozell, Brumfield and Pham are participating in the study-abroad program at Swansea University. Test and Watkins are participating in the internship with the National Assembly for Wales.
# # #