Thought about studying abroad? Well, our wonderful 3rd year student rep, Sophie Peacock, took some time out of her busy final year schedule to tell me all about her semester abroad in California. By the end of it, I was more than a little jealous…!
So, if you’re thinking about going on a semester abroad during your BA English Language degree at Swansea University, then read on.
ALB: Why did you decide to go on a semester abroad?
I decided to go on a semester abroad to challenge myself both personally and academically. I wanted to travel and explore the world, and wanted to experience a completely different way of life. When I saw the opportunity to do this, I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I didn’t think I’d be in a position in my life to go and live AND study abroad in this capacity again. ALB: What made you pick San Diego in the California State System?
I was selected and placed on the list of people that would be studying under the California State System, U.S.A. From here, we were given a shortlist of campuses that taught our degrees/acceptable modules. When I came to decide, I had shortlisted (from the shortlist): Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. I researched at length and spoke to friends who had visited America, and I eventually decided that San Diego would be where I would go for my semester abroad. It had wonderful mix of cultures, sunshine, beaches and was a vibrant city. I was very lucky to be given a chance to study in such an amazing part of the world!
ALB: It must have taken a lot of organisation. What was the process you went through to participate in the semester abroad programme?
The process was quite lengthy and there was a lot of documentation to get sorted, but if you’re organised and meet the deadlines it will run smoothly! Because I was going to the U.S.A., I had to apply for a visa and travel to the American Embassy in London. I then had to wait for my visa to be printed in my passport and be sent back to me. I had to apply for accommodation once I had selected my chosen campus, sort out flights, finalise module choices and lots of other bits and pieces! At times it was very stressful but having a good support network of family, friends and fellow students who were going through the same process really helped me.
ALB: Tell me, what were you most worried about before you went?
I was most worried about getting lost, not adjusting to the culture and not making any friends! However, I think everyone who was going on the study abroad felt that way – you’re travelling half way across the world on your own, it’s natural to be nervous and it’d be odd if you weren’t a little worried. To get around this, I made sure I was super-organised, researched a bit about the local area in advance, and tried to get in contact with my roommates when their names were sent to me.
ALB: On the flip side, it must have been exciting. What were you most looking forward to before you went?
I was just looking forward to being able to travel independently and be solely responsible for everything that happened. It allowed me to understand the importance of organisation and self-confidence. I was also SO excited about going to the U.S.A., as I had never visited before. I think to live in California was a good way to start my first visit!
ALB: What was your host institution, San Diego like?
My host institution was beautiful! Because San Diego is 20 minutes away from the border of México, the University has a lot of Spanish influence in regards to the architecture, the local area, and the fellow students, many of whom were bilingual in English and Spanish. My accommodation was nice too. I was in an apartment block in a flat with 3 other girls (2 of us per room). As part of our accommodation we got full use of the outdoor swimming pool and the huge gym facilities, which was a good way to relax and keep fit outside of lectures. The University as a whole had some of the most passionate lecturers that I have ever had, and they were really knowledgeable in their specialised areas. However, the main difference I found was the way in which you are assessed. Rather than having a coursework and an exam for example (50% each), courses in the U.S.A. counted attendance, class tests, weekly tests, homework questions and a small exam at the end of the semester to accumulate your grade. One difficulty that I would mention to any future students is that I went on my semester abroad when I was 20 years old, and I found it extremely difficult getting into certain places – even just for food – because of my age.
ALB:What courses did you enjoy at San Diego?
I did 4 classes in the U.S.A.: Linguistics & English, Theory and Practice of Second Language Teaching, Computational Linguistics and Creative Writing (elective). I enjoyed all of my classes and managed to gain a place on the Dean’s List of students for my work ethic and grades which was a real honour as it is an institution with approximately 33,000 enrolled students. My favourite class, however, was Computational Linguistics. We used language alongside linguistic mathematics to identify probabilities, entropy and techniques of language use in technology. It is a module that I never would have normally chosen, but it has actually inspired me to (hopefully) do an MSc in a few years in Forensic Speech Science, once I have saved some money!
ALB: What could students expect the teaching to be like at the host institution?
The teaching was very similar to back at home – the lecturers were very helpful (as long as you were willing to ask for help and engage!). I can’t find any differences in teaching style, but perhaps in the U.S.A. the lecturers were more teaching oriented than communication-oriented . There was little room for talking in groups/group work or asking questions, but more of a “listen and make notes” ethos.
ALB: I’ve heard from colleagues that the working practices are different to the British institutions. What should students wanting to study in America expect?
The workload is heavy. It is completely different to being back at a British institution, as previously mentioned, because grades are built up of many different “little” assessments, it is usual to have 2-3 pieces of homework each night and most weekends will be spent doing the longer/bigger pieces of work. Again, I should point out that I did work very hard when I was on my semester abroad, so this workload is subjective and depends on how much effort you’re actually putting in.
ALB: Knowing you, there must be some funny stories from America….?
On the way to the U.S.A. I had a connecting flight in Atlanta, Georgia, but due to delays in immigration I ended up missing my flight and was placed on a waiting list. But flight after flight went and I still wasn’t at the top of the list. In the end, a man who had flown over from Manchester with me and a 17 year old French girl (who didn’t speak any English) grouped together had some tacos, and decided to get a hotel in Atlanta. I shared a room with the French girl, and ended up using a lot of my A-level knowledge of French! Thankfully, we all managed to get on a flight the following day. More of a very surreal story than funny, it almost didn’t feel real! I am still in contact with the French girl to this day, so out of a bad situation I have made another friend from another place in the world!
ALB: Do you think the experience has helped/changed you?
The experience completely changed me and my perspective of the world. It is easy, I think, to become engrossed and trapped almost in the University-world of your home institution and forget that there are other things going on outside it. It taught me how to be independent and, ultimately, the most confident I have ever been. I often think when I am in a difficult situation: “If I can live in America on my own, I can do this”. I am also much more aware of different cultures and customs after making friends from: America, Australia, Ecuador, Peru, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and even different parts of the U.K. (Scotland).
ALB: Key question: What about the finances?
Many people chose not to opt for the California State Option when applying for study abroad because it is the most expensive, as ultimately you are paying for the location, climate and lifestyle that the West Coast provides. However, it has taken a lot of money to live the life I did out there and even now my family and I feel the strain that the California option put on us. However, I am glad I chose where I did, it was suited to me and I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much if I had chosen some of the other available options.
ALB: What can you tell me about the cultural experience of your trip abroad?
The culture shock that I got when I arrived in the U.S.A. is something that I’m sure will stay with me for a very long time. From driving on the opposite sides of the road, the tipping system in restaurants, the academic assessments, the architecture, the food in the supermarkets, the tax that’s added on at the end of your shopping and other minor things we don’t normally think about on a daily basis are what I, surprisingly, found the most obviously different.
ALB: Insider Tip?
If you choose to go to California, visit Las Vegas, Nevada too! It’s only a 2-hr flight from San Diego and it’s one of the most amazing cities that I have ever visited!