Greetings reader!

My name is Rowan and I recently returned from a semester abroad at Penn State University in the US – where I continued my studies in Aerospace Engineering. I was unusually lucky enough to come with two friends from Southampton as well! In this blog, I will walk you through my time away and include some tips for people considering doing a similar trip.

First Few Weeks

After arriving in State College – the aptly named town where Penn State is – I attended the two days of induction events for international students. This was a great chance to meet loads of new people from all over the world and get my bearings of the campus. I soon befriended some lads from Australia who happened to live down the hall from me and my two British friends I travelled with. We formed a strong friendship group which expanded over the semester as we met more and more exchange (and full-time) students from countries including: Italy, Singapore and New Zealand (to name a few). Over the next couple of days the university put on concerts, public skating, sports events and “involvement fairs” (like a society fair) so I could fully immerse myself in campus life.

Social Life at Penn State

The one thing Penn State is famous for, which I was knew nothing about before coming, is FOOTBALL (not soccer)! They happen to be owners of the FOURTH largest stadium in the world – giving games an electric atmosphere. Before each game thousands of fans travel from all over to run “Tailgates” for their family and friends. Tailgates are typically BBQ parties for where everyone revels in college football spirit, footballs are thrown overhead from any direction, country music played load and lots of drinks! My friends and I were unofficially “adopted” by a local friend’s family where they invited us to every single one of their Tailgates. They welcomed us with food, drink and Penn State Football spirit… this really was a highlight of the exchange.

The biggest game I attended was called the “White Out”. This was the biggest game in the Football calendar for Penn State and earnt it’s name through the fans collectively wearing white. On game day every person downtown wore white and once I entered the stadium I was greeted with over 110,000 white-clothed fans all chanting in unison.

Besides from Football, there was never a shortage of activities and events to get involved with at Penn State. I was fortunate in that my accommodation had great communal spaces – swimming pool and hot tub, beach volleyball, BBQ, firepit and courtyard. I took full advantage of this by hosting parties in the first few months (before the temperature became too cold!) Some of my friends and I began a tradition of “Diner Fridays” where we tried out each of the diners in the town (there are quite a few!) Events were also held within the town itself such as a Homecoming parade, Xmas market and pumpkin festival at the University’s Botanical Gardens! Even the campus itself was a pleasure to walk around. It has quintessential “American college movie” aesthetic with its grand architecture and was a joy to soak in it’s beauty.

Academic Side of Things

Studying in Penn State is quite different to back in Southampton. The biggest change for me was the introduction of Mid-Term exams compared to one final exam at the end of the semester. Some courses had one midterm, others had two. I found that my course combination meant I had a midterms roughly every three weeks or so and meant I always had deadlines to meet. But the midterms also meant that the final exam wasn’t too stressful which was nice.

Professors made their office hours very approachable, always making time to help. I have a vivid memory of about 20 people sitting outside the office (some with heads in hands) before a coursework deadline –  every single person was helped out by the professor.

New Opportunities

After attending the involvement fair in the first week, I learned about the rocketry club offering a workshop course on designing and building a high powered rocket. This sounded like an awesome opportunity so I went to every meeting and built a rocket from scratch! At the end of the course, a friend in the club drove us to the launch site in Upstate New York and spent the day launching rockets with an added bonus of attaining a Level 1 cert in high-powered rocketry.


One thing I learned about the States is just how vast it is. In the UK, a “long” drive is 2-3 hours but in the US: try tripling that. I had two main “trips” outside of State College during the semester and both were incredible.

The first trip was during Thanksgiving break. In America, the main holiday in the Fall semester is for Thanksgiving, and at Penn State this was a week long. Some friends and I were very lucky to have been invited by a Floridian friend to spend the holiday with his family. We saw this as an opportunity to travel so planned out a roadtrip to cover seven states along the East coast in six days ending at his home. A few highlights on this road trip were: geeking out at the Smithsonian Aerospace museum (DC) checking out the Space Shuttle Discovery; meeting up with a schoolfriend at his university in North Carolina; walking around the beautiful town of St Augustine (the first place to be settled by the Spanish in the US) at night, then eating some Alligator (gator) tail, in Florida. Eventually we made it to my friend’s family home (which had a stuffed gator in the garage!), where we were introduced to his family and friends via a party in the evening. The next day was Thanksgiving, there was a huge spread of food including deep-fried turkey, pumpkin and pecan pie and macaroni cheese – after which we had a relaxing afternoon and promptly fell asleep from the dinner. The next day, I flew back to State college (to be back in time for class).

The second trip (after exams) was to Boston and New York City, with friends from Italy, Australia, America and UK.

We first went to Boston. After spending the first day sheltering from extremely windy conditions inside Quincy Market and shopping malls, the weather calmed down enough to explore the city. We learnt about some of the British-influenced history of Boston whilst walking the “freedom trail” and enjoyed the beautiful European-inspired architecture of the city. After this, we travelled to Harvard and then MIT, where a professor contact of ours gave us a personal tour of some of the campus. As impressive as both campuses were, in my opinion the Penn State campus trumped them both! In the evening I decided to introduce the group to jazz music by bringing them to a jam in an Irish bar, coincidently right next to Berkely College of Music. This was a lucky chance to experience some high quality music for free!

Finally, my final few days in the States were spent in NYC before I flew home. The city was in full Xmas mode with the Rockefeller tree leading the way. I ticked off all the classic tourist hotspots as well as lesser known things like the skyline walk – which I highly recommend. In the evenings we did “classic” New York activities: a Jazz club and Broadway show. I flew home from JFK airport and landed on Xmas eve ready for a long nap!

Tips and Challenges I Faced


Paying for stuff in the US can be confusing and daunting. I found that opening a Revolut account was the simplest way to pay for things as it was straight forward to transfer from my normal UK account to Revolut and then convert the dollars (although a fee was still incurred). There is the option to open an American bank account but this is more complicated and hassle, so I found Revolut was the most straight forward.

Solo travel :

Despite having friends also going to Penn State, I travelled alone. This meant I had the daunting task of getting from London to my room in State college on my own – I had never solo travelled before! I was worried about getting on the wrong flight at the airport or losing luggage or messing up the visa process. The staff at the airports were fortunately super helpful and upon arriving, a guy I was chatting to on the flight gave me a lift to my accommodation and became a friend over the whole semester!

Long distance:

Before signing up to a semester abroad I was worried about the effect it might have on my relationship, after talking about it with my Girlfriend, we agreed to give long-distance a go. The time separated was certainly difficult but we worked together to get through it. When away, it can be easy to get distracted with the busyness of meeting new people and living in a new place but keeping in contact is essential. The main ways we maintained contact was by comparing calendars (including time differences) and planning out when to have “movie nights” or simply videocall. We also posted letters a few times during the semester. I’m happy to say we made it through the semester!

I also wanna mention a couple more tips…

– Talk to people! This helps with making the most out of the trip, meeting new people and not getting lost… the British accent definitely helped 😉

– Time management. There are an endless list of activities to do, places to travel and people to meet while on study abroad… but there is also still lots of studying to do. I managed my time by writing out my tasks for each week and spreading them out and then setting goals for each day. This allowed me to maximise the time doing the fun “study abroad” things. 

I hope you have found my blog interesting and thank you for reading. To those who would like some advice (or simply a chat) about Penn State and study abroad, feel free to reach out to my email… 😊


Penn State Aerospace Engineering Semester Abroad (Aug – Dec 2023)

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