It was far too early on a Monday morning as I stumbled to my desk for a medieval aristocracy history lecture, Starbucks soy latte in one hand, and finished-at-the-last-minute essay in the other. Having said morning to several friends nearby, I got a notepad and pen out of my bag and waited for class to begin. Except this was no ordinary British undergraduate lecture. We were in fact sat, bleary-eyed at 8am, in a classroom with individual wooden desks facing towards a blackboard reminiscent of a Hollywood film set. The teacher had just begun his first sentence of the day with "Good morning y'all", and we were thousands of miles away in an American university town.
In January this year I temporarily left a history degree at my British university in a buzzing London, for a rural North Carolinian campus, the home of my semester abroad. Almost immediately I was dazzled by the Southern all-American way of life. The "Frat" parties, big budget college sports games and the dominance of country music provided endless moments pondering whether I had walked onto the set of Bring It On or 10 Things I Hate About You. This part of America gave super-size doses of friendly and utterly genuine hospitality. It was a Gone With The Wind type place complete with houses surrounded by porches, churches every hundred metres, and an unbelievably luxurious amount of space.
However, despite the fact that English (albeit a distorted form of it) was still the primary language, and that I was as familiar with American television as a native, my study abroad experience to America was in no way lacking in change. Indeed, basic familiarities meant I felt more comfortable exploring the country's lesser well known aspects, and experiencing for the first time the feeling of being a foreigner.
Knowing you are the outsider, an anomaly because of where you are from, was something I had not expected, having traveled from the international hub that is London. While lots of students at my American university were from abroad, I got the distinct impression as wide-eyed stares were directed my way, as I spoke in shops or on campus, that tourists tend to stick to New York, Florida and California. Nonetheless, it was great feeling so nomadic and otherworldly for a time. I got very used to conversations being easily started because I sounded and was a brunette like Kate Middleton. Many jokes would evolve out of my roommate's blank face as I asked if we had a "Hoover", or when I would order at the campus bagel shop for one with tomato and they would look at me as though I was as quaint as a cup of Earl Grey. Can you please say to-may-toe again?
Sometimes moments were surreal as I reminded myself that I could not simply get a train home, nor pop easily to the nearest decent city, which was a five hour car drive away. Other pinch-yourself-moments happened as I sat on a hot Panama City beach in the second week of March for Spring Break, when I went to "the movies" for the first time (ironically becoming emotional as I saw the tube in Skyfall), and finding myself at the end of the semester up the Empire State Building, on the Golden Gate Bridge and walking along Malibu Beach. I had the opportunity to have this out of the world experience, become accustomed to a life in a different, very interesting country, and I relished it. My Spanish friend back home who herself is at university in London perfectly summarized it: "Isn't it just the best thing though, all the new things you get to see and do all the time".
Obviously there were tough moments. Not being able to speak to friends or family at home properly without Skype cutting out for the thousandth time was hard, as was the logistics of time difference, and not going home at Easter when all the Americans did. Teething issues that come with not being able to buy Maxfactor mascara, having to relearn how to spell words like 'colour', and missing sandwiches were minor but all added up into a vague homesickness. American university is a more difficult experience. The workload is greater, the assessment almost constant and the peer pressure intense since everyone is seemingly on top of their game - or maybe it is the Ritalin talking. Students take education there very seriously of course because they financially invest so heavily in it. My university was the top state college in the United States with fees at $45,806 for non-state students who had to be of the ten percent brightest in the country.
Americans are without doubt the most ambitious people I have ever met. Everyone had their sights set high, a life plan sorted and usually a top notch internship lined up for summer vacation, which is only about twelve weeks as it is. During my semester I worked for the student newspaper which, apart from the fact it was daily, had its own huge newsroom and was buried in Apple software, also had student editors who worked twelve hours every day alongside their studies. Their work ethic in contrast to my determination to go to 'Country Night' every week with my fellow internationals was striking.
I learnt a lot about America and admire a lot of things about its people. Honesty in the United States is very much the favoured policy, and they are almost comically, but endearingly, patriotic.
I cannot express more how invaluable my semester in America was, and how I would encourage everyone to do study abroad if they are able. Learning about cultural nuances like eating a salad sprinkled with crisps, adapting to a new existence where college sports stars reign, and understanding that life is not always easy every time you remember you are not old enough to buy a drink in this country, do strangely teach you some very crucial life lessons.