My name is Sam and I’m a 3rd year mechanical engineering student here at Southampton. I have recently returned from a semester abroad exchange which Southampton was kind enough to offer as part of my degree program, and wanted to tell you a little more about it through this blog. My semester abroad took me to the United States of America where I studied at Penn State University for around 4 months last year, and I wouldn’t be doing it justice without saying that I had the time of my life out there.   

Arriving at Penn State

I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends from Southampton, also going on the same exchange as myself, which certainly made the daunting process of going to a new country a whole lot easier. I travelled to Penn State with a friend, flying from London to New York (JFK) and then getting a bus from there to the university. Penn State’s main campus (University Park) is located right in the centre of Pennsylvania in the appropriately named town of State College. State College is pretty far away from any major cities in the state, which if you like the city, might sound like a bad thing. However, trust me when I say this place has everything.

I made sure to arrive a little earlier than was needed, which allowed me to learn my way around campus and the downtown area before the start of term. And this campus is absolutely stunning. The enormous and historic feeling of architecture, combined with the beautiful green spaces and wildlife comfortably prove why this university has the reputation it does.

One of the first things we did upon arrival was an orientation hosted by the unit. They brought together all the international students from all over the world, allowing us to meet one another, and this was where I met the majority of my friends who stuck with me for the rest of the semester.

Social Life

While abroad I made many friends, the majority of which (as I just mentioned) were also exchange students, from all over the world. I can now say I have friends whom I’m still in contact with from countries as far as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and of course America, just to name a few.

I’m sure I’m the same as a lot of people in that before coming to the US, my preconception of the place mostly came from movies and other pop culture. I would say my experience at Penn State did a pretty good job of living up to expectations. “Greek Life” was something I didn’t get to experience too much of, but yes frats and sororities are real, yes the houses they have are huge, and yes… the frat parties are incredible. Downtown in State College also offers lots of student bars and clubs to choose from, with the only downside being, that you have to be 21 to enjoy most of it.

Alongside the parties, there was never a shortage of things to do. Hundreds of different societies offer different things to do and there are larger events such as the homecoming parade, or the pep rallies for the sports teams which really highlight the school spirit, truly providing the foundation for college sports as a whole.

College Sports

The sport is a massive part of life at university in the US and quickly became one of my favourite things about the place. The support and the hype surrounding it is truly infectious, with the questionably named “football” being the main driving force for sure.

Penn State owns the 4th largest stadium currently in existence with a recorded capacity of over 106,000 and can sometimes reach attendances over 110,000 on big games. The Penn State “Whiteout” is renowned in the American football community as one of the best shows in college sports, and is an annual event that draws in crowds from all over the country. Everyone in the stadium wears white, the atmosphere is electric,  and last year I was lucky enough to get a ticket along with a few friends.

However, arguably some of my favourite memories from “game days” weren’t from inside the stadium. Tailgating is an activity where all of the car parks, fields, and open spaces for miles, get filled up with cars/trucks of people cooking food and partying, before, after, and sometimes even during the game. I made friends with a girl who hosted one of these “tailgates” and she was kind enough to invite my other friends and me every week, meaning we could still have fun on game day, even if we didn’t have a ticket!

However, it’s not just American football. Ice hockey, basketball and wrestling were all incredible. I managed to attend at least one event for each of these sports in my time away and would seriously recommend giving it a go if you ever get the opportunity.

Academics & Opportunities

While everything I just mentioned made my exchange that much better, it was called “Study” abroad for a reason. I was lucky to receive quite a bit of freedom with the classes I was able to take while away, allowing me to pick modules that might not have been available in Southampton.

Studying in America has a very different format to that in the UK, most notably the assessment methods, and grading scales. With the introduction of “Mid-Term” exams, it initially came as quite a shock that I was expected to sit an exam only weeks after beginning classes. However, this format meant I was able to build up marks towards my grade throughout the semester, taking a lot of the stress out of the final exams, unlike those I would normally take here in Southampton (which often only rely on one exam). The support from my academic adviser and lecturers was something I have commend Penn State for. You could tell that the lecturers wanted to help you as best they could, and it really helped in making the experience of learning a lot more enjoyable.

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Penn State in particular was because they had a society deriving directly from the one area that inspired me to become an engineer in the first place, Rollercoasters. I became a member of the Theme Park Engineering Group (TPEG), which offered me opportunities for industry connections and even the opportunity to get a backstage tour of some of the rides at Hershey Park. Finding people to share this passion of mine with was something I was never able to do in the UK, but I did at Penn State.


I also got the opportunity to do some travelling while away, with the first notable trip happening during the week we had off for Thanksgiving break. One of my American friends invited a small group of us international students to his home in Florida for Thanksgiving, and over the week, we road-tripped down the country through 7 different states, visiting Washington DC, among other places. Despite the long hours on the road, This week was definitely a highlight for me. The adventures we got up to along the way have given me memories which will stay with me forever.  

After my final exams were finished, along with a small group of friends, I celebrated by travelling to Boston for a few days, and then finally to New York City to round off the trip before finally coming back to the UK for Christmas. New York was magical In the days leading up to Christmas, and I’m so thankful that this study-abroad opportunity gave me the chance to experience this.

Tips for Future Students

Make friends with the other Southampton students who are going, before you go, it will make the whole settling-in process a lot easier, and it is always nice to have a friend who can remind you a little of home while so far away.

Try to get to your destination a few days before you’re needed, it will allow you to organise all of the small things which you might forget about when moving to a new country (e.g. getting a sim card, opening a bank account, forms you need to fill out etc)

Time management is very important. There will likely be 101 different things you’ll want to do in your time abroad but you still need to make time for your studies.

Thank you for reading and I hope you found this blog of my time away interesting. If you have any further questions about my time away or would like some advice, feel free to email me at sb5g21@soton.ac.uk.

Semester Abroad – Penn State

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