November means Thanksgiving in The United States. It’s a Christmas before Christmas: they love the holiday, eating good and celebrating (despite the fact that Thanksgiving has a history which shouldn’t always be glamourised as such).
Fitting to this, it paves the way for a perfect analogy to describe my year abroad to the US. It was made up of all the components you would encounter on a typical Thanksgiving, there was anticipation, over organisation, multiple (family) dramas especially with too many ‘cooks’, several elements that got a touch burnt, multiple history lessons being told, lots of celebrating and a long period of time fueled with alcohol…. In other words, the best day ever.
I experienced my first Thanksgiving during my year abroad and it was everything I’d expected and more. In a beautiful home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, soaking up the sun on inflatable white swans in the day and soaking our bodies in red wine in the evening. Paradise Valley was truly utopic and something I would repeat in a heartbeat.
The University of Leeds is renowned for its Study Abroad programme, where it has over 300 exchange partners sending 900 students away every year. What’s the catch? You have to get a 2:1 in first year and you can only get your top choice university if that is a high 2:1.
Despite the thought of leaving my friends for a year, from the first Study Abroad meeting I was hooked on excitement. The idea of studying in a different country (hopefully the States) had my brain imagining the next year as a Gossip Girl series, with me as the main character.
So you can imagine my floods of tears after being told I was on the waitlist.
I didn’t take First Year as seriously as I should have and because of this it felt like a year abroad was out of reach. On the waitlist we got given the opportunity to look at the left-over universities, the ones with empty spaces and decide if we would want to go to any of them. I remember seeing a couple in China, obscure cities and towns in the States/Europe. Encouraged by my desperation ambition to go to the States, I chose an aeronautical university called Embry-Riddle located in Florida, Daytona Beach. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live a year in the Sunshine State? On reflection, I had no idea what was going through my mind (and my mum’s- she encouraged me). An English Literature student in a space university…
Thankfully with the support of the Study Abroad department (and their endless supply of tissues) I took a gamble and picked The University of New Mexico. This ended up being one of the best decisions of my life.
If you were like me and had high expectations for your dream year abroad, but it didn’t quite work out, don’t give up hope. Even though I had no idea where New Mexico was, I anticipated it to be exactly like the films. Just like the anticipation of a fantastic, well-prepared, well-executed Thanksgiving dinner.
How to fit your life in two suitcases? It’s not a question I can provide the answer to because I hate to say it, I found it impossible. Most people go on their year abroad with the essentials: a couple of t-shirts, flares, skirts, shorts, and several ‘nice tops and jeans’ but I felt it necessary to take all of this plus nine pairs of shoes, fur coat and puffer to the desert. I blamed my excessive clothes on ‘unpredictable weather’.
When I say over-organisation, I may simultaneously mean under-organisation and over-packing. It’s hard to move across the pond and not forget anything, for me I sacrificed bedding for an extra top. This meant that when I rocked up at 2am to my new shared flat, I had to sleep on a towel on the mattress with my puffer jacket as a duvet (I knew there would be a good reason to bring it).
The beginning of this journey starts off bleak for many of us. My sister, who went to Australia for the year, slept in a prison-like room with no windows and spiders everywhere on the first night. It’s character building. But the best advice I can give is to not fill two suitcases until it’s bursting because ultimately you’ll be buying clothes, toiletries, and hundreds of souvenirs (I collected a shot glass from each state) over the next year, you don’t want to end up like me, shipping a suitcase home (full of wrapped shot glasses!). And have no fear about forgetting something, America’s finest Walmart and Target will sort you right out, they really are superstores of dreams and blow Hyde Parks Sainos out the water.
Multiple (family) dramas
Shipping twenty Leeds students across the States was never going to be a completely smooth journey but on the whole, we were mostly all very well matched. I managed to make the bestest of friends with many of them because not only did we travel around together but we spent every evening together, as there’s only so much American ‘banter’ and lack of understanding of sarcasm you can take. I even ended up living with one of them in my final year! Whenever arguments did occur it was due to conflicting ideas on where and when to travel but at the end of the day, you can’t stick together the whole time.
This section isn’t as such about my fellow Leeds exchange students but about the living arrangements American university life exposes you to. It’s typical for students to share dorms at University, especially if they don’t live in a Sorority or Fraternity house. Luckily for me, I was an apartment complex in my own room but had to share a flat with three complete strangers: two from Alaska and one from Puerto Rico. Unluckily for me, all of my close Leeds girl friends, who I flew out with, were all living together. As you can imagine the first few nights were a bit lonely. Despite this, I would not change a thing. I ended up making the closest friend in my flatmate Zulai, she was everything and more of what you would want from an American best friend…including having a car.
It wasn’t all late-night drives to Sonic and Chick-fil-A though. Flat sharing with three people who are from completely different cultures than you was a culture shock in itself. Imagine taking your first-year halls and ramping it up to not only having contrasting personalities and mannerisms but different languages, traditions, and cultures. We did get along most of the time and we got to know each other inside out, but we had several arguments over the mess, the loudness of parties, the addition of flat pets and the inclusion of alcohol in the flat. There is definitely a thing as too many ‘cooks’ especially when humour gets lost in British to American translation.
Let me just say, I managed to pick up a few swear words in Spanish here and there due to my loving nature of my flatmate- at least I learnt something!
Surpassing the primary burnt aspect of my year abroad being my sensitive Irish skin under the strong New Mexico UV rays. The toughest and crispest bit was the cost of the whole year. With the desire to visit as many states as possible, including larger trips over Christmas and of course, a memorable spring break, these things were not going to come cheap. The idea of getting a job was out of the picture (although I did try) so a reliance on a reduced student loan partnered with slaving away behind a bar the summer before and reluctantly asking your parents for money when times were tough, the cost of it all was definitely the downside. But not a reason to hold you back.
I was fortunate enough to be able to use my weekends to travel: I had class on only Tuesdays and Thursdays and due to New Mexico’s ideal location, you could cover some huge cities like Dallas, New Orleans, Austin, Denver, Tampa, Phoenix, LA all by car, saving a lot! But if you were in the North West and wanted to travel to the Deep South then internal flights were not cheap.
Organisation is vital and was a skill we all attempted to be good at but failed multiple times. After deciding we wanted to spend our Christmas exploring the East Coast from Boston to Miami, we only realised halfway through that it was impossible with our funds to hit every spot. Sadly, this meant we had to give up the likes of Virginia Beach and Charlotte, North Carolina. Reality is that you cannot go everywhere so we had to pre-plan and prioritise our end of year trip around Central America in order to avoid any more ‘burnt bits’ of disorganisation.
A year abroad is an expense and is it is definitely the ‘burnt’ bit of the experience, especially when you have to call your parents up and beg to borrow $600 for a flight to Cancun for Spring Break. But, I knew I would just have to spend my summer on my return working to pay them back and start getting myself out of my overdraft. It’s an adult time in your life where you have to make solo, savvy decisions on money and think about whether trips are worth it (which it normally is). The student travel living invites you to situations you would never dream about being in with your wholesome family…including spending the night in random Motel 6 just off the freeway in the sticks of Texas for only $34.
It would not be a family get together without reminiscing the past and American’s love traditions and their heritage. My biggest example of this would be the Sororities and Fraternities that are so prevalent in American culture, yes they do exist and yes they become your life and soul if you join one. In New Mexico it is not quite as big as other states but it definitely still controls a huge proportion of the social life at the university.
Side note- we popped to a UCLA frat party and it was identical to everything you see in the movies.
I always dreamed about being in a sorority, very Elle Woods-esque, believing that as soon as I got to New Mexico I would join. This idealisation came to an abrupt halt when I saw the joining fee, I knew I could not give up that kind of money and time. This made me slightly sad as I saw the idea of being a Kappa girl disappear into the distance.
One downside to Greek life is the infiltrated gender-specific rules, for example sororities are not allowed to have parties but fraternities can. These ideas are so happily accepted due to the glamourised nature around them but it was something of a shock for us Brits. Now, they aren’t all complete misogynistic cults but they definitely have an agenda dated back for many years which changed my mind on the whole system when I was out there. At one party we either had to pay $5 to get in or let the boys on the door touch our arses, all because we weren’t apart of a sisterhood. Due to us being four very strong-minded British girls, we obviously did not stand for it.
For American students, Frats and Sororities run the social calendar and control the access to many parties, so it is understandable that so many join because you can be exiled and isolated without at least a connection to someone inside. Here is where it came in handy being British because everyone just swooned over the accent.
A further history lesson introduces me to the University side of things. You need to complete enough credits in your subject sure but only to pass the year (for my degree anyway). So I used this opportunity to try something different and learn something new. For me this was an American Politics class, I was in their country and did not really know much about the system and how it all worked. This was my favourite class over the two semesters, it was not only quite easy to pass (most classes you can take in one A4 side sheet of notes- Imagine?!?!?) but it was so informative that I managed to understand their complex system. It’s interesting to be aware of political and cultural issues occurring in the country you are living in, especially as New Mexico was a thriving blue state but faced with the threat of Trump’s ‘wall’, so it was constantly bustling with new news.
History lessons predominated my time away as I was the foreigner infiltrating a new society, so being taught about the life around me helped me to not only understand it better but sympathise and agree with the people who are fighting so hard against the extreme views that permeate through the country. Before I get too caught up in the politics I’ll move on to something lighter.
Most of us turned 21 out there, so it was a year full of celebrations. Las Vegas was a prime spot that I managed to get to twice and I would fully recommend it. We spent four days staying in the Hooters hotel for one of the Leeds girl’s birthday during December, where you get to try your hand at blackjack, poker, the slot machine and test the waters of the infamous clubs Vegas has to offer. From Caesars Palace to the Bellagio Fountains, I am a complete advocate for Vegas and where else would you want to blackout on your 21st birthday? A definite place to tick off the bucket list.
We thought of everything and anything to celebrate and have an excuse to party, which aligns perfectly with the many national holidays the States has.
Copious amount of alcohol
Words of advice: one Four Loko is the only drink you’ll need for a whole night out.
Most American’s I met when I was away thought the Brits were reckless, wreckheads with our excessive drinking and love of vodka, and we could not prove this stereotype wrong if we tried.
At the beginning of the Fall term you’re met with Tailgating, a classic American tradition of BBQs and Beers before a college American Football game. Think Hilary Duff’s Cinderella Story and put that setting of where she rushes down to romantically kiss Chad Michael Murray’s character in action and that is what American Football games are like. Except before this, there’s a huge rager going on in the car parks and grounds surrounding the stadium. There are beer kegs, beer pong, and red cups swarming around as the DJ blasts EDM remixes of your favourite songs.
One thing Americans would never fail on is drinking games. They love a flip cup pre or a beer pong break mid-party. You think all these activities happen just for films to heighten the cringeness of the likes of American Pie, but they are actually real-life and are pretty fun? It made me reminisce to the time when I first started drinking and I think I might have said once or twice in my final year at Leeds if we can play some form of drinking game?
Tumultuous but all in all a successful day
Overall, a year abroad is an invaluable life experience that I would never not recommend anyone to take part in. It had its ups and downs because at the end of the day you are away from your close friends and family for a whole year. But it’s a chance to live a completely different lifestyle and immerse yourself in a different culture for an England University fee (cheap as chips compared to the states). A chance to spend the year ‘studying’ in Disneyland, in Burbon Street in New Orleans, on the Golden Gate Bridge, in the jungle of Costa Rica…no idea why no one would say no. This brings me back to the beginning, if you’re disheartened that you did not get your dream location for your study abroad then do not have a meltdown like me, without my waitlist situation I would have never considered New Mexico and now I could never imagine myself considering anywhere else.
My whole year was just like a Thanksgiving, especially with a ridiculous amount of mac and cheese.
English Literature Graduate, 2019