Year Abroad in Review
My year abroad in the USA is over. What started off as a bit of a random idea before Christmas in 2016 has come and gone, leaving me with 9 months of experiences behind me, a long summer ahead, and the vague feeling of ‘did that actually happen?’ I’ve now been home for several weeks, and settled in pretty easily – like going to the USA originally, there was no real aspect of culture shock, and, apart from a few new decorations around the house and new shop or two in the village, life seems to have gone on as normal here. In a way, this saddens me – suddenly 9 months doesn’t seem like such a long time, and I half wish that I had gone for longer, just to feel more of a sense of progression in the ‘real world’ when I returned. But it’s also given me some headspace to reflect on my year abroad as a whole, and here I will discuss what made it so worthwhile.
Firstly, an update on my last few weeks. Having flown home via Iceland and spent a few days getting over jetlag, I quickly returned to Southampton, in time to catch the end of the semester, two of my ex-housemate’s birthdays and the Graduation Ball. To tell the truth, I was slightly anxious to go down there and see friends again. Whilst I’d been plucked from Southampton and dropped in Philadelphia, life had continued as normal for everyone else, but, naturally, most have their graduations and post-university lives to consider, so it wouldn’t be as easy as slotting back into a day-to-day routine with all my friends, nor would the novelty of having me back last for long. Naturally, I had overthought the whole thing: it was great to see everyone again and I had such a fun week, whether it was dressing up for the Grad Ball in suits and bow-ties, sitting around in our pyjamas all day afterwards, or just meeting people for proper catch-ups over coffee and getting updated on all the gossip I’ve missed. I definitely wasn’t used to staying out so late after 9 months of Temple nightlife – informing my American friends that I arrived at a party at 12:30 am was very amusing! It was also a strange feeling to ask people about their plans after graduation – which made me feel like everyone’s dad – and it’s hard to imagine that I’ll be continuing student life for another year whilst they go out into the real world. In fact, given everyone’s comments about the stress of dissertation, and the fact that I won’t have my usual gang around, I can’t help but feel pretty pessimistic about my final year in Southampton. But for now, at least, I’ll just focus on enjoying the summer – I’ve already managed to meet up with my first-semester friends Lucas and Fije in London, and am now looking to secure some part-time work and make a few travel plans around England/Europe before the challenge of third year arrives.
Now, I would like to speak generally about my time studying at Temple University and life in the USA. I’m keen to emphasise to people that every day of the year abroad was not as wild as my pictures may suggest – I was still going to university, meaning most days were fairly uneventful. What studying abroad does allow, however, is the opportunity to see and do lots of things on occasion that are not possible in Southampton, be they trips around the country – the convenience and cheapness of Megabus and internal flights made travelling around quite easy – or throwing oneself into cultural things in the city that I would not normally have taken advantage of. I’ve never spoken much about Philadelphia itself, but I grew very fond of the city during my time there. I can see why one would dislike it – it’s quite grey and dirty with little green space – but, much like New York, is a very interesting place to simply walk around and explore, with loads of great bars, eateries and historical sites tucked away. It’s easy to navigate, and I like how there is a definitive ‘centre-point’ in the always-impressive City Hall. Philadelphians themselves are a wild bunch of people, with less regard for social etiquette than the more prim and proper British – horns blaring, shouting across the street at one another, music blasting openly – but are also really funny, good at striking up conversation, and have a great deal of pride in their city. There’s a real feeling of unity in Philly, and nowhere was this demonstrated more openly than the Superbowl win, which still seems unbelievable to have been present for – certainly one of the craziest nights of my life. I definitely think I’ve grown a taste for the city life, and my small Kentish village now seems painfully slow by comparison; I feel a real bond with Philly and would love to return one day!
Temple University is quite different to the University of Southampton. Temple seems to exist in a small, friendly bubble – there is little mention of Philadelphia itself on-campus, and the city could easily exist without Temple, and vice-versa. By contrast, part of studying at the University of Southampton is Southampton itself, be it hanging out on the Common; Portswood high street; shopping at West Quay; the infamous Jesters nightclub. The city and university feel intrinsically linked, in a way that Temple/Philly do not. Without a student’s union, course representatives or end-of-year balls, there’s also less of a sense of university being run ‘by students, for students’. Furthermore, with attendance and participation making up a chunk of your grade, a feeling that learning focuses on breadth rather than depth, and the lack of seminars, university academia definitely seems more ‘high school-like’ than in England – you turn up, get your classes out of the way, then go home. That said, Temple’s facilities are excellent, from its numerous gyms, massive tech centre (supposedly the biggest in America) and vast range of eating options. There’s also much more pride in one’s university, shown through the Temple merchandise worn by everyone around campus, Temple’s promotion of itself through strong marketing and social media presence, and, of course, the massive importance of college sport, which has huge amounts of money involved and whose players are treated like celebrities. Pride is something definitely more associated with Americans than British people, but it’s really quite empowering to feel part of the ‘Temple’ brand, and I’ll miss this aspect of university life.
Socially, studying abroad was harder than expected. Despite Temple’s 40,000 students compared to Southampton’s 25,000, I found meeting people surprisingly difficult, and I’ve mentioned before the ‘British hurdle’ which seemed hard to get over for many people. Living in just a 2-person apartment with Tom, we didn’t have any flatmates with whom to form instant connections, and the rest of our apartment block was very quiet – there was no ‘corridor socialising’ like in halls in first year. Plus, with the way courses are structured, far less connections are formed in class; at Southampton, I can recognise a great number of History students from my year, but at Temple, with students able to take any module from any subject/year group, one gets far less of a sense of who’s who. Indeed, students seem less keen to hang around and chat after class, with most classrooms emptying out immediately after being dismissed. In the first semester, this was fine: all of the exchange students gravitated towards each other, and we were always up to do cultural things or go on nights out together. Second semester, however, was a bit more difficult. Bonding with Americans had been harder than expected – my friendship with the running club members was still in its infancy – and, with most of the exchange students leaving at Christmas, there was a ‘back-to-square-one’ feeling. I think I also unconsciously compared myself to Tom, who, after more of a rocky start than me, had found himself a girlfriend and a tight group of American mates through soccer, meaning my situation appeared worse. January and February, therefore, were definitely my toughest months here, but as I became closer with my American group and did more travelling from March onward, the semester really picked up. I’ll emphasise that I would never have considered solo travelling a year ago, but, having experienced it now, I feel far more capable and keen to go again in the future. In the end, I spaced out my travelling well throughout the year and achieved pretty much everything I wanted to whilst living in Philly, meaning I definitely finished the year on a high note.
All in all, I really came to feel settled at Temple and, upon leaving, didn’t find myself feeling particularly nostalgic for Southampton life. I never treated this year as an interlude to ‘real life’ – as far as I was concerned, Temple and Philadelphia were my real life this year, meaning I didn’t feel an urge to get ‘back to normal’, and so I do find myself a bit lost having finished there. I’ll miss many aspects of living abroad: exploring the big city; trying out new subjects; college sport; university pride; travelling at weekends, and the friends I’ve made. It does feel like it was ‘all a dream’ – a sentiment echoed by many fellow exchange students – but, if it was a dream, it was definitely a good one.
For this final section, I feel that it’s important to thank a few people who have made this year everything it has been. Firstly, I must thank the Global Programs and Study Abroad departments at Temple University and the University of Southampton respectively, simply for providing me with the opportunity to go on a year abroad. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and, being the joint-first student in this new exchange, I am very grateful for the hard work of everyone at both universities who have made it possible, so hope that we can expand this connection and continue to exchange students in the future.
Secondly, thank you to all the people I’ve met this year who have been part of my experience, Americans and internationals alike. It’s a nice thought that I now have friends all around the world and, even if we don’t speak for weeks, months or years, these are connections that don’t ‘expire’ – I suppose that’s the difference between childhood vs grown-up friendships. I believe that our lives are like stations, and the people in them are the trains; some come and go often, others less often, and some stay for a while before departing indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean they won’t always be welcome to return. My thanks also extends to Tom, who was my constant companion on this American adventure. Given that we lived only with each other – a tricky thing to do with anyone – people are often surprised that we weren’t really friends before going to Philly! But it was definitely the right decision, and, although we did our own things much of the time at Temple, having him with me made it a lot easier, and I’m so glad to have had someone with whom to share the experience. I’ve come to realise that any sort of travelling is largely defined by the people one meets, not just the locations one visits, so I consider the people who have made up this year to be a valuable part of the experience. However much time passes, they’ll always have a friend in England!
To conclude this post, I want to address the question I’ve been most frequently asked: “are you glad you went?” It’s an easy “yes”, but, to look at it from another angle, I could so easily not have gone. It would have been far more simple to stay in Southampton, do my third year and dissertation, and now be about to graduate. At the expense of delaying that by one year, I’ve experienced moving abroad; I’ve lived in a big city; partied in Miami, D.C. and New Orleans; explored Mexico and the American south; made friends for life from all around the world, and grown into a more capable, global citizen. All of these experiences would not have been possible had I continued life in Southampton as normal, so, from that perspective, I would recommend studying abroad to anyone, and advise that, sometimes, one should take a leap of faith – you never know where it might lead you.