What it’s like being a ‘Castle Kid’

My experience at the Bader International Study Centre

Katie looks back on her year at Herstmonceux Castle.
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Katie Bell

Back in 2018, I went out on a limb and accepted an offer to do my first year of undergrad at the Queen’s Bader International Study Centre (BISC), located in East Sussex, England, where students go to school at Herstmonceux Castle.

I took a plane to London in August, and that’s when it finally hit me: I was a 17-year-old about to live in a foreign country for a year without knowing anyone.

Looking back, it was the best experience of my life.

When I first arrived, I was in awe of the Castle. It was everything I’d imagined. It had a drawbridge, a moat, and the gardens were amazing. It felt like I was living in a fairy tale.

What shocked me the most was that the castle was so isolated; we were three hours away from London, and the closest town was about a 20-minute drive.

Mini-bus rides to nearby towns like Brighton—my favourite—and Eastbourne were available, but spots on the bus are limited. Because of this isolation, at times the Castle seemed lonely, making it feel like you’re even farther away from home—and it can put a strain on your mental health.

The BISC doesn’t have access to the same mental health resources on campus in Kingston. At the castle, the people who work in Student Services are not trained counsellors, so while they can listen and give you advice, they are not mental health professionals. Because of this inaccessibility, one or two of my peers left the Castle after the first semester.

Something else that came as a surprise about life at the Castle was the small number of students. My year was just over 100 people, a unique experience for my first year of university. You live and breathe the same people every day—if one person got sick, everyone got sick, and if you didn’t like someone, you were going to see them everywhere.

To me, my year at the BISC felt like another year of high school—only the work was harder. Because of the small student population, I got to know everyone, including my professors. There were various social nights where I could get dressed up and drink a glass of wine, and it was quite interesting to drink with my profs.

The great thing about having such a small number of peers is the class sizes were significantly smaller than first-year classes here at Queen’s. I think my largest class had 50 people in it. My professors got to know me by name, and it was very easy to get one-on-one help if you needed it—you just walked up to the top floor of the Castle, where their offices were located.

I’m in Con-Ed, and at the castle we did our practicum at both a high school and an elementary school, which is not an experience you get on main campus. I got to know a range of different teachers and learned about the differences in their curriculums compared to Ontario’s. England has a Grade 13, which was a bit strange because I was helping people the same age as me, but I’m glad I had the experience.

Additionally, every class has an Experiential Learning Opportunity (ELO)—a field trip, essentially, which spawns a project. I took an Art History course and completed a presentation on a painting within the Museé D’Orsay, and I had a short film I made in a group project presented at an international film festival in Hailsham.

A question I’m asked a lot is: how the food was at the castle? I can’t lie—some days were better than others.

For the most part, meals followed a traditional English diet. There were of a lot of stews, beans with breakfast, and they once served blood pudding, which I couldn’t muster the courage to try. If you didn’t like the food one night, however, you didn’t have many other options—there were only two restaurants that would deliver to the Castle: a Chinese restaurant and Domino’s Pizza. The Castle had a small café where you could buy a cup of tea, a scone with clotted cream, or a pastry. This café seemed to be a popular spot for the tourists who came to the castle. Yes, we had tourists on campus, and sometimes they’d even walk through our classrooms.

Of course, travel is one of the main appeals of the Castle, and the reason many people enroll there. Instead of a traditional reading week, we were able to travel with ease to another country. In first semester we went to Edinburgh, and second semester we went to Paris. I also travelled with the school to Belgium, Vimy Ridge, Bath, and London. After exams in my second semester, I travelled for a month and a half to various places throughout Europe, including Santorini, Madrid, Berlin, Prague, and Rome.

It might sound cheesy, but you come back to Canada a new person. Being alone for a year—most people only went home once during the winter break—I became more independent. I also learned to appreciate things in life I might have overlooked before, small things I took for granted before. I really missed my mom’s cooking.

The hardest part of my experience at the Castle was the transition back to main campus. My peers and I had never lived in residence nor had an O-Week like everyone else, so it was difficult to meet new people.

I had to try hard to break out of my shell and make friends in Kingston. It felt impossible at first because everyone seemed to have their own friend groups from first year. There’s this phenomenon called the ‘BISC bubble,’ where people from the Castle the previous year are in their own little bubble on main campus; no one knows where anything is, and everyone only hangs out with other people from the Castle.

I struggled to break out of the bubble, but I eventually managed to by my second semester of second year. I liked hanging out with my friends from Bader, but I also wanted to meet new people and experience life on main campus.

While I can’t deny that going to the Castle was expensive, for me, it was an experience well worth it. I travelled across Europe, made incredible friends, and created memories I’ll never forget.

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