It’s quite surprising to find a foreign exchange student studying American history and politics, but that’s exactly what Connor McElwaine is doing. A native of Glasgow, Scotland, McElwaine is spending the entire year at SUNY New Paltz to further fuel his passion.
Although considered a first-year at New Paltz, McElwaine would be in his second-year at Dundee University, which he attends back home. McElwaine said students in Scotland start high school around ages 12 to 13 and can leave after four to six years. He left high school after four, but because he didn’t turn 18 until this past July, he couldn’t legally drink in Scotland during his first year of college.
“Most people [at university] are 18 and above which makes it disappointing because so much of our university experience is drinking, and to be denied entry feels a bit left out,” said McElwaine. “[Graduating early was] not a bad move though. I couldn’t survive another year of high school.”
McElwaine had been interested in American politics since high school and knew he wanted to spend time in America learning about it. He said that America is always on the news, and there was always something that intrigued him.
“All of these developing countries all aspire to be America in particular, so I thought, why not go see what it’s all about,” said McElwaine. “I think America could be much better than what it is, like with Obama’s health care. We’ve got universal health care, you know, and it’s not a big thing. Every party and everybody believes that’s just the thing you do.”
After a six hour train ride from Scotland to London, a seven hour plane ride from London to JFK Aiport and an hour and a half bus ride from New York City to New Paltz, McElwaine finally arrived in America for the first time, a week before first-year students came this summer. He met other foreign exchange students, who he stuck with for the first few weeks of school and still sees. Since then, he has traveled with them to New York City.
“The people there are a lot different,” he said. “Scotland is still predominately white and they don’t have much of different cultures coming together. You get on a street in New York and you pass so many different people with so many different backgrounds. I really like it.”
McElwaine said he hopes to travel to other places in the country, like Philadelphia and Boston. On Halloween weekend, he plans on going to Washington, D.C. for Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and “March to Keep Fear Alive.”
His love for politics had him immediately applying to political internships around New Paltz. He received one through the Ulster County Democrats and started working mid-September. With the internship, McElwaine helps to get students involved and to vote in the upcoming election by going door-to-door and speaking to them on campus.
“At first I was thinking: is it maybe a wee bit patronizing, someone from a foreign country telling me I should vote? But when I went to speak to students they seemed more engaged because I had an accent,” he said.
Although McElwaine is not a citizen and cannot vote in the election, it doesn’t stop him from wanting to help out.
“I think more of the overall picture, rather than me voting,” he said. “I’m only one guy talking to students but whatever happens in America has an outcome effect in Europe.”
McElwaine wants to make sure students are aware of what’s going on in the election. He said he believes in Maurice Hinchey.
“Not enough people are realizing that the race is quite tight,” he said. “His policies seem pretty sound and the money for New Paltz seems to be doing all the right things for the area.”
The internship will end after the election and he hopes to find others when it is over.
Aside from the internship, McElwaine is also a part of Politics Club and wants to be involved in Amnesty International. He said he went to a Dumbledore’s Army meeting, the Harry Potter club on campus, but has not gone back since.
“It’s a really cool fan club but its surprising because JK Rowling’s from Edinburgh, Scotland and we don’t have anywhere near the intensity of the fan club such as that,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a Harry Potter fan club. I read the first two books and then skipped to the last.”
Along with the internship and clubs, McElwaine is attempting to fulfill his “stereotypical American things” quota that was inspired from movies like “American Pie.”
“One of the things was the brown paper bags you get at the supermarkets,” he said. “I was in Stop & Shop last week and just when I was walking out I grabbed a bag and put it on my wall. We only have plastic bags [in Scotland] but they charge for [them]. Some shops always had it but now the majority is for environmental reasons.”
McElwaine also said the red Solo Cups, sororities and fraternities were very stereotypically American, and he’d only seen them in movies.
“It’s different because our drinking age is 18 and if you go to a good nightclub nobody goes as crazy, I don’t think, because you’re 18 and it’s not seen as a big thing, really. Not as intense as house parties here,” he said.
After going to a pop-punk show in Poughkeepsie with some New Paltz friends, McElwaine laughed when his friend’s car pulled up.
“The car was a college-student car, totally wrecked and the ceiling was crumbling, windows didn’t work, doors didn’t open,” he said. “We were driving along the bridge across the Hudson and I just thought ‘This is so, so American.’”
McElwaine said he doesn’t necessarily like that kind of music, but he does enjoy bands like Snow Patrol, Coldplay and The Killers.
McElwaine, who currently lives in a suite in Dubois Hall, will be staying at New Paltz until the end of May. He will also be going home in December for winter break and then returning in January. However, he is currently thinking about extending his visa toward the summer in order to take on another internship somewhere.
“I think in a semester obviously you gain an overall picture of another culture but going for a semester is too short,” he said. “You just get used to it and then you get back home. A year gives me more time to hang out and travel.”
For now, McElwaine isn’t exactly sure where he wants to go with his studies. He plans just to continue going from internship to internship to see what he likes.
“Law doesn’t really interest me. The idea that you could know somebody’s guilty but you have to defend them, I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I have political aims but I don’t have a specific job aim.”
After he graduates from Dundee, McElwaine may move to London to get his masters.
“My mom always said voice an opinion on issues,” he said.
And that’s exactly what he is doing.