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A Brit's guide to studying abroad in the States

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You’ve done it. You’ve landed yourself a study abroad placement in the land of the free. Frat parties, spring break, tailgating, American football games… your life is going to be exactly like all of those American college films you grew up watching.

There are certain lessons every British tourist learns during their first visit to the USA. Don’t skimp on tipping. Don’t strike up a political or religious debate with people you’ve just met. Try not to discuss guns or obesity or the extortionate cost of healthcare.  

When it comes to attending an American university as a British exchange student, there’s a whole new set of rules to live by along the way. I spent a year studying at the University of Maryland, a huge campus college on the outskirts of Washington, DC.

There are a surprising amount of cultural differences to adapt to, from getting used to sharing a room, eating diner food three times a day, and finding a way around the drinking age.

Based on my experiences - and mishaps - here are the three golden rules for British students about to embark on their stateside study abroad.

United States Capitol

Become American. Or at least a little less British.

Being British at an American college is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, everyone is obsessed with your accent (being from Birmingham this is a real novelty), but if you’re a bit of an introvert you’re going to hate the stares you attract introducing yourself during the first week of classes. In fact, being shy isn’t going to do you any favours. Say goodbye to private time and personal space and hello to sharing your room with another human.

It’s a bit like when you shared bunk beds with your siblings when you were little, except sometimes you have to stroll round campus aimlessly for an hour when your roommate brings somebody back. Being ‘sexiled’ isn’t the worst thing in the world, though, and you’ll be grateful for it when it’s your turn. Anyway, if you’re lucky, your roommate will fast become your best friend and alleviate the daunting loneliness of the first few days.

Embrace the American school spirit!

Everyone might speak the same language and eat (mostly) the same food, but you’ll notice immediately that the biggest cultural difference between your university back home and your new American college is the sheer magnitude of school spirit.

Wearing t-shirts, hoodies and even sweatpants branded with your new university’s logo will basically be your uniform for the entire year. Fraternities and sororities are real and they live in huge houses and have crazy parties where everyone drinks out of red cups. College football games are attended by thousands and thousands of people and preceded by day-long tailgates (AKA drinking in the parking lot before the game – kudos if you make it to the final touchdown). They are adorned with cheerleaders, half-time shows, school chants, mascots and weird traditions. Just a tad different from the thin line of spectators standing in the drizzle at your home university’s football matches.

For some Brits, the enthusiasm might be a little much – but don’t give in to your cynical urges! Grab your new roommate, throw on your university-branded gear and head to the nearest tailgate. You’ll likely never get the chance to live in a dorm in an American college again, so embrace the school spirit and make the most of opportunities you wouldn’t get back home. I ended up sitting three rows up from President Obama and his family at a basketball game within my first couple of weeks in America. Anything could happen!

NYC

Get out of the college bubble.

As fun as on-campus living can be, some of best days of my year abroad were those that began with me forcing myself to leave the comfortable confines of college and explore DC and its surrounding areas. I met my favourite author at a book signing on the National Mall, discovered my favourite place in the city by accidentally wandering in to the Sculpture Gardens at the National Gallery of Art, and inadvertently joined a march honouring the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ speech up to the very steps where it was delivered.

No matter how much your head is pounding from that keg stand the night before, make the most of your weekends and get out. Chances are the state you’re in has a lot to offer and you’ll regret not exploring it to the fullest, so catch the metro to your local city and soak it up. There’ll be tonnes of festivals, museums and cultural landmarks that are unique to the state you’re living in. A favourite of mine was the Cherry Blossom Festival in DC, where the National Mall was embellished with gorgeous cherry blossom trees that had hit peak bloom.

Cherry blossoms in DC

Hit the beach if you’re fortunate enough to live on the coast. Go hiking in your nearest national park or stretch of wilderness – there’s always a natural wonder nearby to marvel at in every corner of the USA, from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls. I found that even in a metropolitan area like DC, there are stunning natural landmarks like Great Falls Park just a couple of metro stops away from the city centre.

Make sure you’ve scoped out seasonal events, figured out the best bars and restaurants, found hidden treasures and know your way around the public transport system so when your friends and family pay a visit, you’ll be an expert tour guide.

Travel far and wide.

Write up a checklist of everything you want to do while you’re in the States and do it. This was mine:

1)      Enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

2)      Spend Christmas Day in a bikini on a beach in San Diego.

3)      Understand and ultimately become the master of beer pong.

4)      Ice skate in Central Park.

5)      Cycle in Central Park.

6)      Yoga in Central Park?

7)      Go skiing in the mountains in Pennsylvania.

8)      Walk along the Las Vegas strip yelling “Vegas Baby!” in the most obnoxious way possible.

9)      Hit the Hollywood Walk of Fame (and inquire about getting a star named after me).

10)   SPRING BREEEEEEEEAK! (Whatever that may entail)

Your list might look different to mine, and that’s fine - although I do strongly recommend trying to become beer pong master. It’s a skill for life.

If you’re not going back to the UK, make the most of those breaks and tick off as many states as possible.

Catch the famous Times Square ball-drop on New Year’s Eve, shake what your mama gave you at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, party on South Beach in Miami, rave it up at Coachella… and the big one – SPRING BREEEEEAK!

A huge annual college tradition, spring break is the perfect opportunity to join your new mates in one of America’s beach party hotspots, from Mexico to the Bahamas. If partying isn’t your cup of tea, many colleges offer volunteering opportunities – a lot of my friends spent their spring break building schools in Honduras.

Venice Beach, LA

There you have it. My top tops for living, studying and travelling in the USA. You have a year – make it the best year of your life!




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