Share your study abroad experiences!

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When I was in college, I spent a semester studying abroad in London—a big move from small-town Birmingham, Alabama (USA). (Hello, culture shock!)

I don’t recall too much from my classes there, but some of my favorite memories of that time are the most simple. I may never again, perhaps, feel more at home than those many years ago, sitting on the crowded tube at rush hour, a bag of Brick Lane bagels warming my lap.

And learning how to find my way around a new city and claim it as my own was a skill that helped me transition to jobs after graduation—in Washington, D.C., Ecuador, and New York City.

Do you have study abroad experiences to share?
- Perhaps it is the strangest thing you experienced?
- The most exciting person you met?
- A custom you adopted for yourself when you returned home?

Tell us your best memories and experiences, here.

Rebecca Behan 21/07/14    Gap yearAfricaAsiaAustralasiaEuropeNorth AmericaSouth America Link Report

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I had a pretty big dose of culture shock on my year abroad, too! I went from the UK to Japan, to study in Kyoto.

Perhaps the strangest thing I experienced (though it’s hard to pick!) was the Takeuchi festival in Akita, where two groups of drunken men run at each other through the heavy snow with bamboo poles and try to push the other team back. In the last round, the poles are set on fire – madness! Apparently if one particular side wins it means there will be a good rice harvest, but no one really seems to care in the midst of it all…

I was extremely excited to meet a geisha (or geiko, as it’s Kyoto) and maiko. It was a pretty once-in-a-lifetime experience eating, talking and playing drinking games with them, and I doubt I’ll ever forget the impression they made on me. They were at the same time completely otherworldly, in their movements and appearance, and surprisingly down to earth! They really put me and my friend at ease, teaching us games and laughing with us, one even telling us about her love of an Italian fast food chain!

And as for customs I picked up? I very often say ‘itadakimasu’ before eating without even realising it, and I still bob my head up and down when meeting someone new or when on the phone! I wish I could have kept using a fan in hot weather, but people do give you funny looks on the train if you do that…

I’m so grateful I did a degree with a year abroad involved, it was such a brilliant experience. I really do think that, like you, it taught me a lot of skills that have come in handy now. Plus, having filled in Japanese insurance forms and rental agreements, English-language paperwork now feels easy!

Rebecca Hallett 22/07/14    Link Report

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Thanks for sharing your experiences, Rebecca. The Takeuchi festival sounds amazing–and making friends (and playing drinking games with) a geiko and maiko? Too cool. There’s so much to learn outside of the classroom walls.

Rebecca Behan 22/07/14    Link Report

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6 months of studying in Nijmegen, Netherlands added little to my uni education (as I was having too much fun!) but taught me a lot about life. I met some wonderful people from around the world, who I am still friends with, tried new flavours and learned new languages. Studying abroad inspired me to relocate to the UK and I never regretted it. I also experienced Queen’s Day (now King’s Day) in Amsterdam, an event everyone should attend at least once!

Marta Safin 23/07/14    Link Report

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Thanks for sharing, Marta! I’ve never experienced King’s Day in Amsterdam (or Queen’s Day, for that matter) but am definitely adding it to my list. It’s really cool to see that your study abroad experience has led to a life abroad–and one that involves a selfie with a kangaroo. Pretty jealous about your profile pic t ;)

Rebecca Behan 12/08/14    Link Report

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I boarded the Greyhound bus at a very sketchy looking station in Washington DC. It was close to midnight during a very chilly night in January 2003, and after several arrests were made and a large man with facial tattoos asked me to give him 10 bucks because he’d just (and I quote) ‘ got outta out of the ‘state pen’ 3 hours ago’ it was time to board for the 11 hour trip via every gas station in Virgina. I was heading down south to Knoxville to spend a semester at The University of Tennessee, more commonly known as UT. It wasn’t the best day to arrive, grey skies, slushy snow and a biting wind, but the welcome I received was nothing but warm.

I quickly settled into my ‘res’, and being an old man at 27 I was quite glad to have my own pad. Classes were great, and the book to choose them was the thickness of a London phone directory. I sat down in the Starbucks at the library and used my free $10 gift card whilst customising my dream week. I loaded up classes on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and gave myself the longest weekend ever!

The best thing I did was to become part of the International House and part of the events they offered. it was at the time of the war in Iraq, so many heated debates ensued, but it was always great fun to get involved. Visiting speakers, like the time either Ben or Jerry from Ben and Jerry’s showed up with free samples for all of those who took part. I think the whole of Knoxville came out that night, but no one really listened to anything he said, we just ate. A former weapons inspector in Iraq came the following week, where instead of handing out free stuff, he sadly received a lot of free abuse from a certain political section of the crowd. Why do the hecklers always stand at the back? I wonder.

There were also great cultural events on a weekly basis, and I even ended up working at the iHouse. Now I felt like I was really living in America, be it for a very short time, but by having a job and becoming part of the culture allowed me to see more than just my dorm, classroom and meal plan.

When I did all of this, my world at UT opened up. Getting a drivers licence cost me $28 and I soon became an unofficial taxi driver to the mall for many of the international students who were reliant on the unreliable and infrequent bus service.

Classes were great, the difference in energy and contribution from the students compared to my uni in the UK was massive. People simply got more involved and I left class feeling quite energised. Some often say that the US is a little over-the-top when it comes to positivity, but there’s no escaping one fact – it’s infectious, and I loved it.

I had a meal plan which seemed like a good idea from a cost perspective, but for my waist line, not so good. Those pancakes for breakfast were hard to refuse, and I often didn’t.

We had heavy snow one day and I remember sitting eating breakfast and watching the restaurant staff quickly removing all the trays. When I asked why they told me to look out of the window, there must have been 100 people all sliding down a hill on trays whilst the campus cops tried to stop them. It was like a scene from the Dukes of Hazard. The students were not giving up!

Many students seemed to be tall, white cap on backwards, beige shorts, white socks, New Balance sneakers, tee shirt with something written on it in big letters, and that was for both women and men! Oh, and gum..you can’t forget the gum. As for the cars, I know in the UK as a student you’re lucky to drive an old Fiesta, but this lot at UT? Brand new jeeps, trucks and large cars…I was perplexed. How? Then I was told by one of the drivers…” It’s ma daddy…he got me this for ma haaah school graduation”. Wow, I think we went to Pizza Hut in Reading when I left school. I doubt my parents could have afforded (or found) a ‘fully loaded’ Chevy Tahoe in Wokingham.

The grades were handed out like popcorn, and it seemed from day one as if it was going to be an easiser ride compared with the UK. I’m not dumbing it down, the staff and content were both fantastic, but I ended up leaving with 5 A’s and a B+. In order to get those grades in the UK I would need to sweat blood. Maybe it was just Art Education classes, because I had some friends studying law and politics and I think I actually saw them sweat blood. I got the B+ because I was once late for class…and that is the real reason! I was told that if I contributed to class discussion and showed up on time 90% of the time ( 2 tardies allowed) then I would make an easy C. So I decided to REALLY contribute, always be on time and I got an A. Professors were very open for the most part, even offering to meet students for coffee to discuss anything they didn’t understand. One even had a group of us at his house for a BBQ, imagine that in the UK!

So I borrowed a knackered old Buick with suspension like a bouncy castle and steering like a canal boat, worked at a Montessori school as part of my class, travelled around the area, partied in Asheville, hiked around Lake Fontana, visited my old summer camp, Camp Carolina, biked, ate….and of course, got some work done, too. Talking of food again, I highly recommend visiting Waffle House at 4am, you see some really interesting characters. London may have taxi drivers that are full of worldly advice, but try an American truck driver heading from Charlotte to Texas, and wow…you really hear some stories that make your grits stand up.

We went to a bar one night, so of course I took some ID with me. I arrived at the door to the bar, the bouncer asked for proof of age. I showed him my British passport. “Wait here”, he said. “Sorry sir, I can’t accept this as a form of ID”. I tried to protest, but there was no budging him. So I headed back to my dorm, took my laundry down to wash, watched TV commericals about drugs with side-effects including suicidal thoughts and cleaned my 300 fruit of the loom tee shirts whilst chewing on a plastic kitchen floor tile..aka…a Fruit Roll Up and drinking drain cleaner…aka, root beer, which I like in a strange way. Good old Rocky Top (woooo!!!) Rocky Top, Tennessee! Such a great university, so much spirit, but if you don’t like orange..better choose somewhere else.

The gift store on campus was like a supermarket, and the only product I didn’t really understand was the UTK branded toilet paper..why would you want to do that to your school? I picked up a couple of tee shirts and wore them with pride, even though most people back in the UK probably thought they were from Footlocker. I think the university shop in Worcester comprised of a couple of boxes of tee shirts in a cupboard next to the student union office. This was a different scale. Whenever I wore a UT shirt it brought back so many memories, and as silly as it may sound for just one semester…made me feel quite proud to have been there.

Oh…bit of advice. If you have an in-growing toe nail, don’t try and pick it out yourself. I did, and spent the last week in Tennessee hobbling around like I’d been shot. I suppose you could call this last bit of advice….a footnote..ha.

James Wren 24/07/14    Link Report

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This is so great, James. Such a great snapshot of your experience. (And I think you may have nailed the Tennessee accent.) Interesting to hear the compare/contrast between your US and UK universities. Also a great point about getting involved in the community as much as possible and just throwing yourself fully into the experience.

How do you take your hash browns at Waffle House, by the way? Scattered, smothered, and covered . . ?

Rebecca Behan 30/07/14    Link Report

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Thanks Rebecca. It was a great experience there, loved it all. As for Waffle House, I don’t remember options for the hash browns, but I do remember the patty or link question, and of course..the eggs..that questionnaire took about 5 minutes. But I’m a real American traveller..because, not only have I experienced Waffle House, oh yes…I have also experienced the life-changing Huddle House. For a real flavour of America, I would recommend this place at 4.30am in a town where NASCAR takes place. Characters or what. Oh, and back to Waffle House, went to one in Charleston near the Holiday Inn, they proudly displayed their sanitation grade certificate on the door, which was great…aside from one thing.

They got a C.

Bon appetit!

sch_createthink 01/08/14    Link Report

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Ha! You definitely have bragging rights if you have dined at a Huddle House. (I do hope you attended that NASCAR race, too!)

Rebecca Behan 12/08/14    Link Report

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