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Over there
Photo of the British Boston College
A visit to the other BC

Boston is 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?"

Tim Heffernan

Photo: The layout of Boston, England's, BC. They haven't heard of us, either.
Tim Heffernan.

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