7 Must-Dos on your year abroad

1. Make friends with other exchange students.
Despite the initial awkwardness, the other exchange students and I formed a close-nit group. They can be there for emotional support because they understand the pressures of adapting to somewhere new.

2. Make friends with the locals.
Obviously you should get to know people who actually live in the country you are visiting to a. understand the culture better and b. make contacts should you ever visit again! I made good friends with a girl in my German class and she invited me to her house for Thanksgiving, which is something I had never experienced before and therefore I was more than happy to accept the invitation. For anyone that doesn’t know, Thanksgiving is essentially a holiday where you get to eat loads of food – which was great! Which brings me to my next must-do:

3. Embrace native traditions.
This is your chance to see how the other half live. I recommend going to sports games: I have seen baseball and ice-hockey and I’ve heard that American football games and a basketball matches are really fun experiences. I also suggest trying some of the fast food that we don’t have in the UK, but don’t indulge too much; it can be very easy to eat badly in America.

Elspeth with her friends in Binghamton

4. Travel!
Make the most of your weekends or short breaks: get a group of people together and see the sights. So far I have visited Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York City which has been brilliant! This would be so much harder to do if I wasn’t living in the US so even if you are worried about expenses, make the most of where you are! Because what are the odds you will be in such a perfect position again?

5. Attend campus events.
I think it is important to immerse yourself in life on campus. Firstly, go to on-campus events; there were loads of orientation events at Binghamton (and there was always free food and t-shirts!), there was even a fun-fair. I also attended a talk by Nev Schulman from Catfish: the TV Show which was very cool. Secondly, I would recommend joining a club or society. This is one thing I didn’t do last semester and I wish I had. It can be a good way to get exercise or make friends. My friend joined the field hockey team and made loads of American friends and had the chance to compete all over the state.

6. Enjoy all the compliments on your accent!
“Where are you from? Are you British? Oh my god I LOVE your accent. I wish I spoke like that!” Never gets old.

7. Skype home.
Remember to take a little time out of your busy schedule to keep in touch with your friends and family at home. I think it is really important not to lose touch with people who are important to you, and keep up to date with everyone’s gossip. On the other hand, try not to talk to people at home constantly and forget to live in the present. Make the most out of your year abroad, even if you are feeling homesick.

(It’s pretty cheesy, but) Seize the moment!

There have been a couple of times I’ve hesitated before grasping some of the great opportunities that have presented themselves during my first semester, but the answer should always be: YES! For example, I was desperate for the toilet after driving from Binghamton to New York City (approx. 3 hours) before travelling home for Christmas. I had the choice of going straight to the hotel to relieve myself or to take the half hour drive to Brooklyn to see the famously ostentatious Christmas lights at Dyker Heights, which incidentally was one of the things on my USA bucket list. I am so glad I said “yes” to going to see them! I found myself running around, squealing like a little kid because they were just so christmassy! (And so much more impressive than in the UK!).

Christmas lights on house in New York, USA

Honestly, it hadn’t felt at all like there was less than a week to go until Christmas day until I was walking around this brightly twinkling neighbourhood. The following day I had decided to tolerate the long subway journey into Manhattan, do some last minute shopping in Times Square and to see the Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Centre. Stupidly, I forgot to take my umbrella and I wasn’t wearing a hooded coat so, surprise surprise, it absolutely chucked it down with rain! I got so soaked that when I popped into Starbucks to use the wi-fi I actually formed a puddle on the floor around me. It would have been easy enough to just give up at this point and go back to my hotel but instead I got in contact with a couple of my friends from the exchange programme who had mentioned they would be in the city too and together we braved the pouring rain to walk about 15 blocks to the Christmas tree; it was so, so worth it!

New York Christmas Tree

Miraculously, the rain even let up for a while when we reached the tree and the mist the weather had created around the top of the Rockefeller building gave the whole place a magical purple glow. Pardon the cliché but it may have been a once in a lifetime opportunity, I may never find myself in New York at Christmas again so I couldn’t be more pleased that I said “yes” to visiting the tree.

My advice to you for your year abroad is that even if you are feeling tired or lazy, or you really need the toilet, or even if you are worried about money, just take advantage of the amazing opportunity you have and get out there and see the sights because this could be the best chance you will ever have to do so!

Studying in the USA versus studying in the UK

Firstly, not only is attendance to class compulsory (with a certain number of allowed absences) but you are also graded on it, as well as punctuality. I also have a lot more contact hours than my friends taking humanities-based subjects at Lancaster which can make you feel very busy and leaves less time for your independent work. Secondly, I get a lot of homework, sometimes for the following day, such as online work for my German language class or making notes on a reading that the professor will collect in class and mark. Homework contributes to your overall grade too. This makes university in America feel a lot more like school than university in the UK where you have a lot of independence in your learning. I think this can be a blessing or a curse depending on your learning style. There are also frequent smaller assessments rather than just big coursework pieces or heavily weighted exams. Last semester I was graded on quizzes, midterms, finals, papers, performances, oral exams and in-class participation. The positive side of this is that you can always make up for a poor grade on a later assignment because each one is worth a smaller percentage.

An image of the campus

Despite the workload, I have personally found it easier to get good grades in America than the UK, least of all because the pass rate in the US is 60% compared to 40%. This means if you get a B in the US you get 80% which actually translates to an A back at home. Finally, by the time we go abroad we already know what our majors and minors are because we applied to uni for a specific course. The American students, however, take a wide assortment of classes and then “declare” their major later on. They also have to take “electives” in order to satisfy different requirements such as physical (e.g. Running) and aesthetic (e.g. African Art). This means there is the opportunity to study something new that interests you for some extra credits which you might not have been able to do at Lancaster.

Funny things American’s say:

Class vs Lecture/Seminar
Study vs Revise
Schedule vs Timetable
(They honestly had no idea what I meant when I used these last two!)

My first (and last) all-nighter

To begin with I struggled a little to adjust to the workload both of second year and the university system at Binghamton. One night I made the stupid mistake of leaving one of my coursework assignments until the evening before it was due in. After starting work on it at 6pm, at 1am I was only two paragraphs in and having a complete panic. I didn’t think I could do it a. well enough or b. in time for the morning. Luckily I turned to my friends for help because if I hadn’t I would probably still be sitting there trying and failing to finish it. So here is my advice if you find yourself in a similar situation, or even if you are just finding something difficult to cope with while you’re on your year abroad: turn to someone who understands what you are going through.

A pile of library books stacked high

The first person I spoke to was my friend Madi, who is also studying abroad in the USA this year. She tried to boost my confidence and also recommended I take myself away from the situation and calm down. So next I messaged my friends from the exchange programme at Binghamton who were also adjusting to a different education system. I was invited to their flat to take a time out, watch TV for an hour and clear my head about my essay. One of them also suggested I sit down and just write without redrafting anything or worrying whether what I wrote was halfway decent. This really helped me when I returned to my work which I didn’t finish until ridiculous o’clock allowing me less than two hours sleep before my first class. What I took from this is that it is really important to establish a support system whilst you’re abroad. Making friends with other students on the exchange programme at your foreign university can be really beneficial. Secondly, I learnt not to do as the locals do i.e. DON’T leave the work right until the last minute and DON’T pull all-nighters; despite my grade turning out fine in the end, the stress and anxiety were definitely not worth it. With the increased work load it is more important than ever to organise your time. I personally rely on making lists and writing in my student planner. I make sure it I always up to date with what work is due in when so I can’t miss anything but you have to figure out what works best for you.