Carpe Diem

“The world is big, and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.

~ John Muir ~

Midterms are not fun.

I remember once being asked by a LUSU volunteer if I thought Lancaster should implement January exams, and replying that I couldn’t really say, having never had to take them. Well, here at McGill (and pretty much every other university this side of the Atlantic), you don’t just get January exams; you get October ones, November ones and of course, December finals. And I can tell you now, it’s a big step up. The workload here can get rather intense, and these past few days as I holed myself up my favourite corner of Second Cup (the Montréal equivalent to Costa), I found myself yearning to get out of the city for a bit. And so, that’s just what I did.

During my Orientation Week, I connected with a handful of other exchange students all hailing from various corners of the globe, and a group of us (five including myself) decided to take a weekend trip down to the States. It being the middle of autumn, New England was on all our bucket lists, so we hashed together a rough plan to drive down on a Friday afternoon after class, spend the weekend hiking in the White Mountains and then hit the road again on Sunday and be back in the city in time for tea (or, in my case, my final midterm on the Monday). To me, my brain ready to melt from constantly revising Marxist Critical Theory and Nuclear Deterrence, it seemed like the perfect respite.

They say even the best laid plans go awry, and we definitely encountered more than our fair share of bumps in the road (and I’m not just talking about Québec’s pothole epidemic). A misunderstanding with the car rental caused a three-hour delay into our four-hour journey, but nonetheless we eventually made it and, after yet another slight hitch (which involved flagging down a kindly local at 12am on a deserted road in the middle of the woods to borrow her phone so we could email the owner of our Airbnb and get the code to unlock the door) I was ready for a fun but chilled-out weekend during which the only thing I needed to worry about was not falling down the side of a mountain, something I seem extraordinarily prone to doing. And I have to say, New Hampshire in the fall is truly spectacular.

One does not simply walk into Mordor

One does not simply walk into Mordor

In the week leading up to the trip, I had begun to wonder if I was making the right choice in going. With my final midterm looming ominously on the horizon, I couldn’t help but worry if perhaps I should stay behind and study for it just like everyone else seemed to be doing. But I found that the more I considered dropping out, the more I felt like I needed to go. After all, I didn’t come all this way just to see the inside of a library. I’ve wanted to go on exchange ever since I knew it was possible to do so – even before I had chosen to come to Lancaster! It’s part of my whole reasoning for studying Politics and International Relations as a degree; when I graduate, I want a career that’ll take me around the world and give me the opportunity to explore its many wonders. Of course, I know I’ll never see everything our planet has to offer, but for me that’s the beauty of it. I can see and experience a thousand different places, and there will still be a thousand more.

Hella Atmospheric

Hella Atmospheric

And now, I can tick another place off my ever-growing list. And though I’ve already said it, New Hampshire was breath-taking. I know now why some of the treks are known as the Fire Trails; I have never seen such a magnificent, blazing ensemble of colour in all my life. And, despite a slight delay that was primarily due to me being incapable of making it down a mountain without falling over at least a dozen times (plus one or two issues with directions that were most definitely not my fault), we still made it back before midnight on the Sunday, in time for me to get a good night’s sleep ready to nail my midterm. In fact, looking back this evening, I think I might even have done better in the exam than had I spent the weekend cramming. Getting out into the woods refreshed my perspective on things, and standing on top of Mount Lafayette surrounded by clouds and listening to the wind roaring in the valley below, you remember that there really is more to life than one exam that, in hindsight, is only worth 20%. The world might be full of amazing opportunities, but if you’re not paying attention you can blink and miss them just like that. So even though it’s important to take your academic (and other) responsibilities seriously, there’s nothing wrong with cutting loose for a weekend and getting lost in New England with some new friends (plus the occasional chipmunk).

Autumn Colours

Autumn Colours


Making it down without falling

Making it down without falling

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.

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!)