I studied abroad in my second year of university at the University of Maryland, College Park (don’t worry, this was before Trump). It was a truly life changing experience which I would recommend to anyone if given the opportunity. I knew that I wanted to write a post about my time abroad and thought that doing a list of 15 would be more precise, rather than writing separate posts about each different experience I encountered… So whether you are thinking of going on an exchange, or just interested in American university life from a British perspective, this may be the article for you.
1) Sharing a room:
Something I had not done since the age of six and had me coming across issues I had never thought about such as what to do once you have come out of the shower but your roommate is in the room? Different bed times. Different morning lecture times. Cleaning. Studying times. Having private phone conversations. Having guys over… I thought sharing a room with one person was horrific, but apparently it is possible to get stuck with two or even three other people in a room. That being said, I was able to get a single room in my second semester which made me truly appreciate privacy, but having an ensuite is just a fantasy.
2) Greek life:
It is strange and a bit cultish. I still don’t get it tbh. They each have their own unique colours, steps, chants, secrets, and philanthropist aims. It is mainly a support system of brothers (fraternity) or sisters (sorority) which one remains in for life, pays fees to, and can go back to when in need of aid. However, I have heard many horrific stories about the enrollment process including beatings, starvation, being locked in a dark room or treated like a slave etc. Those trying to cross into greek life will usually be absent from campus for a semester as there is a lot of secrecy surrounding the whole process. The ‘crossing ceremony’ is a huge deal in American culture. People will bring gifts and balloons, and the person that is crossing will give a speech. Members in their 50s and 60s will still come along to watch new members crossing and join in with the chants at the end of the ceremony. But overall, I thought it was scary, and you will often see them walking around together in their matching jackets, or hear them chanting in the night around campus.
3) Diner food:
Cooking is not a common thing on an American campus. Usually, there will be a diner which one will go to for all meals using a points system. This was difficult for me to get used to at first as I missed being able to decide exactly what I wanted to eat and cook it in a way which was appeasing to me. However, you get used to the options which are available and begin to enjoy not having to do food shopping or plan meals, and having it ready whenever you are ready to eat.
4) The parties:
Twerking is not uncommon… at all. I won’t lie, I have never witnessed such proactive dancing before, and as a Jamaican from south London, that is saying something. The parties were a lot wilder than I had expected. At one fraternity party which I went to, I was approached by a guy which could have easily been 6’4 and he yelled “Girl give me that ass!” before trying to pick me up and bite my bum. That being said, the guys are very forward and open, which means that as a British female, I was hit on A LOT. I dodged through the crowd as fast as I could while he tried to run after me… Oh, and 21 is the actual law for drinking. They take that seriously but many people will either purchase a fake ID, or get a friend over 21 to buy alcohol for them.
5) School spirit:
Students (and residents in the area) love their university. Walking around campus you will see students in university themed socks, shorts, hats, bags, jumpers and hoodies, flip flops, scarves, gloves etc. They even sell university themed merchandise in local supermarkets.
The work is more about quantity rather than quality, therefore, one class in America may consist of weekly homework assignments equating to 30%, followed by a midterm of 20%, final exam of 25%, and two other assignments in the semester equating to 15% each. A class in Britain however will usually have one exam, 70%, and one essay, 30%. I feel as though the standard of work expected in the UK is higher, however, due to the work load in America, one ends up learning more over there.
7) Sports: Gods and Kings:
If you are involved with some kind of sports scholarship on campus then you are treated like royalty by the university. It is not unusual to see the faces of your classmates who also happen to be on basketball or football team on posters or even on TV. I have witnessed basketball players being driven from one class to another via a golf cart. I heard that some don’t pay tuition fees, in fact, the university pays them, but don’t take my word on that. But they do have priority to the best student accommodation, and the best meal plan, so it is best to make friends with them, especially at the end of the semester when you are rationing your meals due to a lack of meal points remaining in your account. Sports games are also huge events which have most of campus out, united in their cheers and boos, all to support their team. There are flags everywhere, faces painted, cheerleaders, a marching band and mascot, the whole shebang. The atmosphere in an American sports game is like none other.
8) The city that is campus:
Campus is like a little city, every department has its own building, and within it, its own library and state-of-the-art facilities. The students union in UMD contained several ballrooms, an office for each society, a lunch hall including McDonalds, taco bell, a salad bar etc, a ticket office, and numerous other rooms to be booked out and used. There were three gyms, two diners, a multitude of apple computers in each library and study space, and a free shuttle bus service (which is needed to get around campus) with wifi and its own app to find out when your bus is coming.
Flip flops, sports shorts, a backpack, and a t-shirt are items of an average day attire to be worn to a lecture. On nights out, you will rarely see a girl in a dress and heels. And make up is not a normality on a day-to-day. I was told on many occasions how well dressed or overdressed I was, so by my second semester I had exchanged my handbag for a back pack. Attire is more about comfort over there.
Before arriving in America, I genuinely believed racism was not a big issue anymore. When I first arrived at UMD and found out that they had their own ‘Black students union’ alongside their own building and other black societies, I was slightly horrified. I thought of it as self-segregating, like what was the need for a ‘black engineers’ society? But upon attending several NAACP, African society, Caribbean society, and east African society meetings and debates, I was exposed to frequent stories of racism which aren’t big enough to make international news, as well as understand the African American point of view, which was that many feel ‘cultureless’ within America. Therefore, having their own space and societies allows for unity, a sense of being, artistic and intellectual expression, and the chance to learn about their history, alongside the cultures of others within the black race (Africans and West Indians).
11) Student life:
Something is always happening, and it is usually free. The campus was vibrant and busy, and it was impossible to not be involved in at least one sport or society due to the frequency of events that were held. There were also big uni wide events such as homecoming, paint run, Maryland day, art attack…..
12) People back home:
As a general point about studying abroad, wherever you are, I would suggest a full year rather than a semester because it is hard to quickly get over the culture shock and home sickness. You will discover who your true friends are based on how often you both successfully arrange to facetime/skype. Also, long distance relationships can work if both sides are dedicated and flexible. It is difficult but amazing when you are reunited. That being said, think long and hard before you commit to long distance because your morals will be tested when your partner is asleep due to the time difference and you have a basketballer trying to take you out and saying your name in that American accent.
13) Extroverts everywhere:
We share the same language but Brits and Americans are extremely different. The British are way more reserved, courteous and introverted than the Americans who are more likely to say what is on their minds, act out in accordance to their emotions, and embarrass less easily.
14) Americans are not ignorant, they just don’t care about us as much as we care about them:
Yes, I had a few weird things said to me such as “I thought thanksgiving was a global holiday”, “There are black people in Britain?”, and “Is there a European language?” However, on the whole, Americans are not ignorant; in fact, I was able to have more in-depth conversations with students in America about world issues than that of in the UK. Maybe it is a result of the education system being broader due to the major/minor system, and being allowed to take classes outside of your degree. However, in general they just don’t care about the UK as much as we care about them. We hear way more about them in the media than they have ever heard about us. For example, one is more likely to have read every harry potter book than know the name of our prime minister.
15) Everyone loves your accent:
When you speak in a lecture or give a presentation, all your nerves will melt away because you realize that a British accent makes everything you say sound more intelligent than it actually is. People love hearing you talk and will instantly gravitate towards you. I even had a guy who was trying to hit on me ask whether I could come around to his and read him a book.
The simplest way to describe the experience would be “university life in HD”. I loved the experience and would recommend it to anyone to do during their student life.