a small city of 50,000 lying on a broad plain beside the North Sea,
about two hours north of London by train. Boston College--the other
Boston College--is a public institution serving about 1,500 full-time
students, ranging from teenagers completing their GCSE studies (approximately
equivalent to U.S. high school) to twenty-somethings working at
the university level. I first ran into it on the Internet, but last
November, on vacation in England, I decided to pay a real visit.
The train ride there took me through a perfect English landscape--sheep
in broad pastures, small stone churches, fields greening with winter
crops--making my arrival in Boston all the more jarring. Exiting
the station house, I found myself at the lonely end of an empty
cul-de-sac, staring at the blank rear wall of a dull brick warehouse.
Rain splattered off the tarmac; traffic whooshed in the distance.
I could smell a river, and something being fried, but there was
no sign of a campus anywhere.
Thankfully, the one other passenger who had disembarked was a Boston
College student. Carrie--overnight bag in one hand, cell phone in
the other--kindly introduced herself, and we agreed to split cab
fare to the campus. On the way I explained what I was up to; Carrie
had never heard of America's Boston College, and she contemplated
my chat about "cross-cultural encounters" quietly. I angled for
leads: Maybe there was a pub or rec center where students congregated?
No. Maybe a coffeeshop? No, again. A McDonald's, even? Carrie shot
me a sympathetic look, the sort reserved for the hopelessly lost.
"I'm sorry," she said, and laughed, "but there's absolutely nothing."
That's not quite fair. Boston, I found out, is really just an overgrown
English farm town, with a mix of medieval and more recent architecture
and a midsized seaport a short walk from the town center. Enough
people live there to support some light commerce: a florist, several
inns, a stationer, the requisite pubs. Produce and poultry are raised
in the outlying fields, and a few fishing boats still ply the local
waters. There's not nothing; there's just not much to interest the
average young adult.
Boston College itself consists of three small campuses a few blocks
apart, tucked into the seaward edge of town and separated from the
main road by an enormous public field. Academic departments are
housed in concrete buildings of 1960s vintage; there's a cluster
of low-slung dormitories and a small cafeteria done up in bright
yellow and orange.
Most students were in class when I arrived, so I wandered around
getting a feel for the place and wound up in the library. An administrator
there described the student body for me. Boston College, England,
she said, serves three types of student: local residents; commuters
from up to a hundred miles away; and foreign students, predominantly
Chinese. The English students are often the first in their families
to go on in school, and tend to come from small farm towns. The
Chinese students also tend to be the academic pioneers of their
families, but are for the most part urban: They grew up in Hong
Kong or Beijing.
When classes let out for lunch, I headed out to mix with the students.
I met Dan, Matt, and Chris, three undergrads from Boston proper,
under the eaves of the main building. They, too, had not heard about
the Boston College in Massachusetts--I had to show them my maroon-and-gold
sweatshirt to prove that I wasn't putting them on--but at age 19,
they had a good sense of why they were in school. Stay at home,
Dan said, and "you're either going to work on a farm, or you're
going to work at a packing factory." The others nodded; Matt took
a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. "And that's a no-good
choice," he said, and exhaled a cheerless blue cloud. More nodding.
Their fathers, it turned out, do exactly those sorts of jobs, and
don't want their sons to settle for the same thing. The guys had
gone to school not for a general education, but to learn a skilled
trade. Though Boston College, England, does offer courses in the
liberal arts, many students--by far the majority I spoke with--choose
to study a vocation: auto mechanics, electrical work, hotel management.
I asked Dan, Matt, and Chris what they did for entertainment in
Boston. "Well, there's a skate park," said Matt, after some thought,
"but it's got no lights at night, so you can't use it much." There's
also a swimming pool, universally scorned by the college students
because it has no diving board and is frequented by families with
young children. Any dance clubs? "They're rough at night," said
Chris. Dan seconded that view, and then urged me to watch a documentary
of the town put out by the BBC a few years ago. Apparently it's
mostly about street fights.
Boston, England, is not an easy place to love, but the students
I spoke to, for all their griping, seemed unwilling to give up on
it, or themselves. A young woman studying to be a beautician, after
bellyaching at length about the bores of country life, told me flat
out that she "wouldn't live in London for money." She hoped, in
fact, to stay in the area after getting her degree, and many of
her classmates will stick around as well.
I called for a taxi in the late afternoon, and when I slumped into
the seat, the cabbie asked me how my interviews had gone. He was
the same man, of course, who had given Carrie and me a lift that
morning. We got to talking about my experiences in England, and
then about his experiences in America--he'd gone to the University
of Delaware in the 1970s, and sorely missed "those enormous sandwiches"
he used to have for lunch. Hoagies, yes: After three days of starving
on Britain's ungenerous portions, I missed them, too. Boston College,
England, had not been what I expected, I told my driver--I'd been
ready for something like those classic British institutions, Cambridge
and Oxford. Too much Hollywood in my diet, I mused. My driver nodded
in agreement. "Now, you're from the Boston College over there, right?"
he asked. I affirmed; he knew something about us, then? "Well, no,"
he said. "I've only just heard of it. What's it like?"
The layout of Boston, England's, BC. They haven't heard of us, either.