I have now spent a semester at Penn State University on my year abroad as part of my geophysics program and my first thoughts are primarily of the form “that was not what I expected”. This is not to say that my experiences were bad, far from it, last semester was fantastic just in different ways than expected. When you think about years and semesters abroad you think about traveling and meeting lots of new and interesting people and exploring new cultures to improve your worldview. This was not a wise assumption for me to go into this experience with. As a quick example, in terms of traveling, I haven’t really even been to the USA I have been to State Collage, Pennsylvania. This town is in the middle of nowhere with little to no convenient or cheap ways of getting to other places, and thus extensive travel was very difficult.
The university, however, is absolutely fantastic especially in the geosciences department where I spent most of my time studying. The professors are interesting and enthusiastic, and my academic advisor was very helpful at directing me through some of the bureaucratic challenges that come with being an exchange student in the USA. One thing I will add is that you have to work incredibly hard through the semester compared to at Southampton where most of the graft is put in at the end during exam season. This is because, for my classes at least, the majority of the marks came from weekly homeworks/lab reports and thus the majority of my time during the week was spent on these. I think this is probably a better system for learning than the one we employ in the UK as I was constantly having to think about problems I need to solve, computational tools with which to do that and then how to write up the solution in a coherent and complete way. This meant that I had a lot of practice and by the end of the semester my final geodynamics lab report was probably one of my proudest pieces of work that I have ever done. However, the American system of teaching and learning does have its downsides.
The big downside for me was the complete lack of any real social life. This is where my second expectation of meeting lots of new and interesting people was shot down. The large volumes of work I was doing on a weekly basis essentially meant that I didn’t have the time or the energy to meet many people outside of class so the only other student who I would talk to regularly was my roommate, who is lovely by the way. This slight social isolation took me through an interesting, and at times unpleasant, path. At first, I was good, I was happy and optimistic eager to learn and make my year abroad as good as it could be. As I started class I knew immediately that I loved the subjects being taught, but this also came with the realisation that I have no time during the week. This meant that my quest to go out and find some new and interesting people fell slightly under the radar with the eternal excuse of “I’ll do that some other time”. The problem with this strategy was that as the term progressed I got busier and my want to find people to talk to weighed more and more heavy on my mind. This spiral, which I am sure most human beings reading this are familiar with, was getting worse and worse and at around the beginning of my 3rd month (half way through the first semester) I was feeling homesick, stressed and all kinds of unpleasant things. In short, I was feeling incredibly lonely.
Things did get better, about half way through my 3rd month there I had a realisation about how I was feeling. You see I had set myself a subconscious target based on my assumptions of what a year abroad was supposed to be “go to interesting places and meet lots of interesting people” and in my mind I was failing miserably. At some point, I don’t know how or why, I realised that the reason for all my stress and loneliness was this subconscious failure that I was, for some reason, inflicting on myself. So, I decided that I didn’t care about those nonsense targets I had unwittingly set myself, that I should stop perpetuating this feeling of failure and just concentrate on making what I had in front of me the best it could be. I concentrated more on work and kept reminding myself that I have brilliant friends back home. The quite spectacular thing about this mindset is that it worked for me.
I was much happier after this and the rest of the semester went swimmingly. The exam season was about a million times less stressful than one at Southampton, which was nice, and as I said previously I did a two-week long geodynamics lab that I was incredibly proud of. That about sums it up for what happened in the first semester, but I would like to re-iterate that throughout all this the work I was doing was fantastic and it has certainly reinforced my love of geophysics. Last semester was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, unpleasantries included.
I apologise for any spelling/grammar errors and my terrible writing. I blame dyslexia. I am not going to proof read this as I am lazy and if I do then I will almost certainly take out the 3rd paragraph. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading this.