End of exchange reflections (penned somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean when I really should have been trying to sleep)

By Elizabeth Pace (Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA)

So 10 months later and I’m permanently back in the land of real bacon, correct spellings, day/month/year and people who know how to make a proper cup of tea (I’ve had 12 already). For my final blog, instead of getting all sappy and emotional about how amazing this year has been I thought I’d finish off by sharing some of the worldly wisdom I’ve acquired since August. Here are a few of my top tips and insider hints for studying abroad at the University of Illinois, navigating the USA in general, and for all of those things you think will never happen, but actually did:

(interspersed with various photos from UIUC post-spring break and summer travels)

  • First off, Americans LOVE America which only serves to make you even more patriotic about your own country (God Save the Queen, am I right?)
  • Before doing your laundry, be sure to check your trouser pockets thoroughly in case, for some bizarre reason, you’ve left your passport in there
  • Pack light on your way out. You may think you won’t accumulate much stuff while you’re away but turns out that basketball-shaped nacho bowl you got at the Chicago Bulls game and that American flag you bought in the first week are too good to leave behind
  • Rush Greek life. If end you up joining a house, you’ll get brothers/sisters for life and a new found appreciation for arts and crafts. If you don’t end up joining you still get a free t-shirt, umbrella and a great story out of it and can look back fondly at the end of the year on how much money you saved
  • Check your measurements before ordering luggage off the internet or you run the risk of ending up with a suitcase that’s longer than you because you “didn’t understand inches”
  • Wearing a skirt or makeup to lectures will make people wonder what the big occasion is
  • American football is a dull sport. Hold off on buying a season ticket to the college games because chances are you’ll only be able to make it through the entirety of one
  • Don’t think you can pull an all-nighter the day before you fly home and still make your 8am bus to the airport. You won’t and a taxi there will end up costing more than your flight
  • It turns out that -27 ˚C is actually pretty mild for an Illinois January
  • You’ll finally come to understand and appreciate the terms “wind chill” and “seasonal clothing”
  • It’s all fun and games until you get sent the bill and realise how much an eye exam actually costs without the NHS
  • If you only join one society at Illinois, make it October Lovers. Because who doesn’t love pumpkin picking, corn mazes in the shape of a Golden Eagle and barn dances where the only song you recognise is “Timber”?!
  • When transferring money to friends, labelling the payments “Cuba money” will cause your bank to panic and cut you off completely
  • Alternatively, your bank will let you spend as much money as you want on flights to Cuba, but trying to book a flight back to the UK will cause them to panic and cut you off completely
  • Basically, however much advance notice you give them or how legitimate your purchases, your bank is going to panic and cut you off completely at some point. Be sure to come prepared with a way of contacting them from across the pond
  • If you’re one of the lucky ones who are studying abroad on a pass/fail basis, bragging to your not-so-lucky friends that you only need 3 % in the final exam to pass a module will only make you enemies
  • I’m not going to lie to you, college is a lot more fun once you turn 21
  • “Party in the USA” will become your new anthem and you will get extremely over-excited every time it’s played, despite all of the college bars having had exactly the same playlist since c. 2012
  • Mobile phone numbers get recycled pretty frequently in the US so don’t be alarmed if you get a call from the local correctional facility, jury service or the Mormon missionaries on your new number
  • Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy your textbooks from the UK Amazon and have them shipped over than to try and purchase them anywhere in the US
  • Ranch dip. That is all
  • At $16 a shot (on a good night), Vegas will either end up being the dearest or the soberest night of your life
  • If you’re planning to visit Baltimore, Maryland on the Greyhound try and schedule it for after the Greyhound station has actually been built. As of November 2015, the station consisted of a portacabin in the car park of an industrial estate under a by-pass
  • With two free checked bags on domestic flights, Southwest airlines is about to become your new best friend
  • And remember, the best way to shed excess suitcase weight while travelling is to accidentally leave your carry-on luggage on the plane

Well, that pretty much sums up all of the important lessons I’ve learned in America. After wanting to spend a year abroad since before I even applied to university it has more than exceeded my expectations and truly has been one of the best years of my life. I’ve visited 3 countries, 12 states, 20 (ish) cities and have come to accept that seeing The Rolling Stones live in Cuba is probably the coolest thing I’ll ever do in my life.

And I know I said I wasn’t going to make this an emotional post, but I lied, and I have to say that what really made this year so great was the people. One of the best things about study abroad was the shared mentality among fellow exchange students of; “We’re all in the same boat here, we don’t know anyone and have no idea how things work in this country, so let’s just stick together and be friends”. And I love the fact that the people I met in my first week at Illinois were the same people I went travelling with at the end.

So to quote a cliché; “it’s not goodbye, it’s see you later”. Because once you’ve survived 7-, 12- and 20-hour coach journeys across America, a few hours down the M1 or a quick EasyJet flight to Europe doesn’t really seem that far anymore.

Thanks for the memories America. Go Illini!

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