Year Aboard: Studying (and travelling) in North America
This year I was fortunate enough to be awarded the opportunity to study abroad at The University of Massachusetts for a semester. My experience was enjoyable, filled with events and feeling both expected and unexpected. The first thing I experienced abroad was the somewhat surprising aspect of culture shock. I have an American mother and extended family who all live in various states around the continent; therefore, I had some previous experience with the country and knew what things were like. It was shocking to discover that when I moved over to live here, I was pretty overwhelmed, not only in terms of the significant move but because of the differences in university and general life.
The difference between British and American culture is quite extreme, especially regarding university. For example, University events, such as sports games, are treated almost as seriously as professional ones. There are campus stadiums dedicated explicitly to housing games played by university teams, and students are expected to attend games played by their university regularly. Not only that, but sports games include aspects such as announces and cheerleaders, which are rare in the UK. This isn’t to say that sport events in the UK aren’t of good quality or sportsmanship, but rather that university sports teams in the USA seem to have an almost cult-like following that isn’t really seen overseas.
Secondly, though this is to be expected given the circumstances, University campuses in America are absolutely enormous. American university campuses are almost like tiny towns, set away from the main residential areas of a city or other location. The campus is equipped with anything you could ever need, so it is scarce that people ever actually end up leaving campus. One of the main things that is very different to UK campuses is that students aren’t expected to cook their own meals. Instead, they have many colossal dining halls located all over the campus, where students can get food. At the beginning of each academic year, every student pays for a dining pass, which allows you to go to any dining hall on campus and get as much food as you want at any time. Because these halls are so massive, you can choose from dozens of options. My main dining hall had a station where you could get pancakes and put whichever topping you wanted on top! While this range of options was reasonably expansive, they tended to get a bit samey after a while, and I found myself missing home-cooked meals.
University workload and structure also massively differ. Whilst there are modules you have to take to complete your course, there are also optional modules you can take that cover a vast ensemble of topics! The most memorable modules for me were my Colour Theory, Art Education and Applied Behavioural Analysis modules. In my colour theory module, we learned all about the traditional colour circle, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colours, colour harmony (how different colours combine in a way that is pleasing to the eye) and colour context (how colour behaves in relation to other colours). For my final project, I had to make an art piece entirely compromised of a singular colour. In my Art Education Module, I learnt about how to implement teaching, and of art in the education system and why this was so important. The final project for this module was creating my own lesson plan for children about art. My applied behavioural analysis module was one of the more complex modules I took, but because of that, it was also one of the more exciting modules. This module focussed on a mode of therapy called Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which is modelled after the science of learning about behaviour. This science mainly focuses on how behaviour works, how behaviour is affected by the environment and how learning takes place. ABA takes this understanding of how behaviour works and applies it to real-life situations. The goal of ABA is to increase good behaviours and decrease bad ones. The end-of-term project for this module was to do a bout of ABA therapy on yourself, and I decided to choose a positive habit I wanted to increase. Everything I learnt was fascinating and insightful, and it was a unique experience learning about subjects I would have never been able to study before.
One specific aspect of the content of my education there that I found particularly insightful was the difference in how disabled people, particularly disabled children, are treated in America versus in the UK. The process for getting a diagnosis is incredibly different. To get a diagnosis, a disabled child’s family must go to a medical professional to obtain a particular form. This form is then taken to the child’s school, where the child’s teacher has to complete an analysis section and provide a signature. This process is arduous to implement, whether at the hands of the teacher forgetting or refusing to do it or the child’s parents failing to do it also. Not only that, but the attitudes towards disabled people themselves are also very different. Attitudes towards disabled people are more openly antagonistic, with more hurdles to jump regarding education about disability, accessibility in daily life and resources for families. This is not to say that attitudes towards disabled people in the UK are inherently better than those in America, but seeing how much more difficult the system was, gave me further ideas for how helpful and essential strategies and services could be improved, both in America and elsewhere.
University workload also massively differ. Instead of having one more prominent end-of-year exam or assessment that fully counts toward your final grade, American universities have several more minor exams, and projects dotted around the semester’s duration. Exams are also taken differently, with more of a multiple choice-based system than writing answers down. I found it very interesting to see how different people thrive and struggle in different environments. For example, I found the constant assessment and workload very difficult, as it did not give me enough time to relax and recuperate between each assessment. However, many of my friends actually liked it more, as apparently, they thought that having more work on a regular basis kept them motivated. Whilst it was undoubtedly an enlightening experience to engage in a different educational system, it solidified my personal belief that I do prefer universities in the UK, so I will not be returning to study in America any time soon.
As well as my studying, I was also able to do some travelling around the country. I visited five different places; New York, Cape May, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Puerto Rico. What surprised me the most about these places was that all of the states I visited felt like entirely different countries in themselves, despite being located in one country. It was also generally just an incredible experience to be able to travel around and explore, as well as getting to know people from all different walks of life. I made friends with many American and non-American students and, in some cases, was able to stay with people in their hometowns, which was really cool. These experiences are those that I will cherish for the rest of my life, and the friends I’ve made even more so.
To conclude, my time in America was one full of academic enrichment, personal fulfilment and filled with new experiences. Whilst it was comforting to have some familiarities while being so far away from home, being able to create new experiences of my own was not only enriching but also character-building. Without this experience, I would indeed be less of a well-rounded individual than I am today, and I am not only incredibly fortunate to have been offered this opportunity but also incredibly grateful for it. If I had to offer advice to anyone considering applying for a similar experience, I would definitely recommend giving it a go!
Written by Cora, current BSc Educational Psychology student at The University of Manchester