Having family over here and having spent a few vacations here in the summer means this isn’t the first time I’ve visited the United States. However, this year was going to be unique: I’d be working and studying here. I had to do things.
This trip wouldn’t just be me experiencing the U.S. for the first time as a legal alien; it was personally a test for how much I appreciated going there. Typically, you go somewhere for a vacation or two and you think “Wow, I would love to live here!” That’s a strong statement. I wondered how I would feel after having actual obligations to fulfill; studies as well as work and whether I would actually want to stay afterward. As it turns out, it seems to have made me want to live in America even more. Maybe it’s the weather, or the people or the fact that you get free refills in fast food restaurants, but something really grabs my attention here.
I think a lot of this came from my studies this year at the College of Charleston. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was going to succeed, but after some hard work and copious amounts of caffeine, I did. It introduced me to the so called ‘workaholic’ culture the United States possesses, and it’s something I found myself liking. I'm not sure how healthy that is, and I’m not overly pleased that the country now has a sentient Cheeto for a president-elect or a vice president-elect that may actually be the reincarnation of Lucifer, but that still hasn’t put me off.
Because of my excellent experience so far, I wanted to highlight some particular points about it; the things I loved, and the things I didn't quite expect to find, such as...
1. Wow, you guys do a lot of work.
I think some have the impression that Americans are quite lazy, among other stereotypes. Honestly, they couldn’t be more wrong: I was shocked by how much people actually do. 2016 was the first year I visited the states on a visa, working at a camp in the summer. It let me become aware of a culture that is arguably more workaholic than anything else. I know those with part-time jobs, working as Resident Assistants on top of studying five courses while maintaining a GPA, and I'm sitting there trying to work on an essay like:
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Guys. Y’all have to chill.
It was quite jarring for many of us international students to find out how much work went into the course. A month of work here felt like we had covered at least what three months would be back at home. Homework was given so often, so there was always work needing to be done. Never had I spent so many hours working on assignments and homework. The library became my second home during exams and midterms.
Let me talk a little more about midterms. It’s not something the Brits are used to, where we have our coursework and perhaps some quizzes along the way, and then an exam or presentation towards the end. Finding out that I had three midterms to study for was unnerving for a lot of us. Studying for an exam halfway through the course? SIN.
However, despite the extra addition of stress and the increasing imprint of my butt on the library’s chairs, I actually found midterms to be incredibly beneficial. Being tested on material ahead of time no doubt contributed to how much I learned from my courses and helped me succeed in my finals. While the amount of work received was at times overwhelming, I have to be grateful for the grade it gave me. This is a system I kind of think we need back at home, in the UK.
2. Charleston is so beautiful.
The city houses an incredible array of architecture and scenery. Every street is lined with stunning flora, and beautiful buildings span its roads. Each district appears to be so unique, hosting different construction styles from Georgian to Colonial homes, each reflective of Charleston’s fascinating history. The huge trees and their branches towering over The Cistern Yard stand out in their phenomenal size; the drapes of Spanish moss reminiscent of something out of a swamp in New Orleans (my friends and I agreed that it reminded us partially of the scenery in Scooby Doo on Zombie Island).
We arrived in the summer, in the midst of the intense Southern heat. Initially, we couldn’t handle it, finding it a chore to walk even a mile. But we got used to it, and when we did, we could fully take in the beauty of walking down a road in Charleston. I couldn’t stop taking photos wherever I walked, it was all so picturesque. The sunsets were also a sight to behold, a group of us heading to the Battery to watch the night fall.
While the beaches are further away, especially for us internationals without vehicles (so all of us), visiting Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island, beach via friends with cars or Uber. Initially, the Brits went there to get tanned (it’s part of our culture, it seems) but also because lazing in the sun felt incredible. The ocean was always a fair temperature for swimming, and there was always a blue sky.
To wake up every morning to the sun streaming through the oak trees or watch the immense flora glisten in the rain as I walked to my classes was such a motivation. Even when winter fell, they stood tall and evergreen.
From off the bat, everyone was very approachable. The staff at the CIE were patient and kind, telling me about Charleston and making me feel welcome. The cougar ambassadors went out of their way to make the events for the internationals as fun as possible, dedicating their time to us and even taking us to Target. The colleagues I met and continue to talk to are all so friendly and social, and we get along so well.
3. Southern hospitality is real.
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I think this is another thing unique to US culture: benevolence and openness. Go to England, and unless you know someone, people can be a bit shy. You won’t always get people striking up conversations with you. In London, you’ll experience the polar opposite of Charleston; no one will be as receptive.
This affection is ever so inclusive, and it made me feel right at home in Charleston.
4. The food is awesome.
My diet is a little restrictive, so finding they had so many vegan options available was a lifesaver. Customizable meals, a sauté station, the sandwich bar and even an entirely vegetarian/vegan/kosher restaurant; just a few of the food options available.
The to-go containers? My college at home needs this. The ability to have food you can just take home or out is super useful for working at the library, or simply if you want to avoid any social obligations.
I also think it’s great to hear about the college’s sustainability program, composting food and utensils to prevent waste products. The staff and managers were also incredibly dedicated, making sure they answered any questions one may have, providing assistance when needed.
Also, the vegan sauté? Oh my goodness. Teriyaki sauce just makes everything taste amazing.
5. The college does a lot for its international students.
The Centre for International Education went out of their way to make us all feel welcome, bringing us to football games and fairs, taking us on yacht trips, showing us around Charleston and giving us free college merchandise among other things.
We were all introduced to each other off the bat so we could make acquaintances, and this helped us get to know everyone. The college actively encouraged this, and it did inspire us to make our groups which we maintained throughout the semester. Because of this, we've all made some excellent friends.
The Cougar Ambassadors were also there to make us feel welcome, becoming great friends and helping us when needed. For me, the whole team made us feel a part of the college, and not just there for a year abroad. I feel like a College of Charleston student, not a study abroad student.
6. I kinda don’t want to leave.
It’s inevitable I will have to leave. I have a degree to complete back at home, and I’m here on a visa, and the U.S. government doesn’t tend to like people overstaying their welcome.
But, if I could, I’d totally stay.
My experience here has been incredible so far, and it’s only been my first semester. I didn’t arrive with particularly high hopes that things would change for me: my grades at home weren’t the best, and I had been losing the motivation to continue on with my degree because of it.
Coming here changed that. My ambition reignited for philosophy: I learned so much here, and it helped me remember why I studied the degree in the first place. At times, yes, I wanted to give up; the work felt overwhelming at times, even when I didn’t have many obligations other than my school work. But, in the back of my mind, I thought I could do it.
So I did it. A’s in all but one of my courses was a total surprise for me, but reflecting on the effort I put into it, the time spent working until late at night, and the burnt hole in my wallet after drinking a inordinate amount of Starbucks; it kind of made sense that I did better than last year.
My experience at the College of Charleston has been incredible, and it’s not just its facilities or its gorgeous surroundings or the abundance of sweet tea that I am slowly getting addicted to. It’s the people that make it that way: the professors who dedicated their time to ensuring our grades were the best they could be and the friends I have made along the way. I am so grateful for it bringing back my motivation to pursue my degree.
It’s also why I suggest that if you can do some form of study abroad, do it. Sure, it’s going to benefit your resume and maybe enhance your degree also, but if you’re like me, it may also be a little more life changing than expected.