Following a summer of overthinking, over-talking and over-preparing, I was suddenly at the airport. But let me tell you, I can’t skim over the preparations because they, for sure, are a huge part of the adventure. Particularly when embarking on an exchange to the U-S-of-A, admin is high due to the procedure required to obtain a visa. It was nothing to be overwhelmed by, but definitely something to be wary of and organised about. From filling out forms, being alert of due dates and attending a very early morning interview, not to mention the charges to gain a visa, the task was hard work. Applying to Manchester and the University of North Carolina (UNC) to gain a place on the year abroad scheme and attending necessary preparation meetings were also time consuming. Regardless of all of this, by the time I was at the airport I felt prepared for my adventure, as though the paperwork had in fact also worked as a process to prepare me mentally as well – a challenge that, if I was able to complete, then I would also be able to get myself to the other side of the world and live there for a year. At this point I had also endured all the last minute appointments before leaving the country and packing and re-packing everything I could possibly need. I tried my best to pack as little as possible but it’s pretty difficult to pack for a year when you have never visited your destination before. My only real advice would be, if in doubt, you probably don’t need it!
I had expected the journey to be when my real fear for the challenges ahead would set in, however, stood at the airport with my large suitcase checked in and two other big bags I would be travelling with, having said goodbye to my family and friends I gave my mum a hug and said goodbye to her too. Pretty simple it seemed, maybe due to having already met up with another girl from Manchester who would be travelling on my flight as well. Or perhaps it was just the surreal nature of the experience that meant I didn’t even realise what was happening around me. The first leg of the journey to Boston was smooth sailing. When arriving at Boston, however, the doors out of the plane had got trapped, delaying us only by 5 minutes or so, but enough so that the other flights landing at the same time as us had got ahead of us at the Customs queue. According to the Virgin Delta attendants (we asked about 4) we were not allowed to skip the queue because of the immigration staff restricting us to do so. So we waited and, with an hour and half until our flight from the moment we landed, we became very aware that we were not going to be getting there on time! We dashed through passport control to baggage drop but with 10 minutes to go were told our bags would not get to the flight on time and that unless we wanted to wait to receive our bags later in the week we should get on the following flight. So we walked to the next terminal to check in, only to find that the next flight which was 2 and a half hours later than our first one, was now delayed by 3 hours, giving us at least 5 hours to wait in a dead and poorly equipped Boston airport! Big thanks to the EASE (Easing Abroad Students’ Entry – the UNC international society) for setting us up with mentors and airport lifts but also to my mentor (Kirsten) whom I was able to contact from the airport and she assured Elle (the girl on my flight) and me that she was still able to collect us from the airport at Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina at 1:30am! We safely got to our new residence halls and, after searching for my pyjamas in the dark whilst my new roommate (who I had never met) was fast asleep in the other bed, I got into bed after a long 24 hour day! I mean it wasn’t quite how I expected things to go but it all worked out.
The days to follow consisted of getting used to the area and finding our way around. My Australian roommate, who I am lucky enough to get on really well with, and I brought together the Manchester crowd at UNC and the Australian crowd and between us we went shopping, found our way to Franklin Street (the main street north of the campus full of restaurants and bars) and, of course, to the fraternity houses in the evenings. Meanwhile the Americans were slowly arriving to the dorms and our 8 person suite was beginning to fill up. The friendly and welcoming nature of the Americans was starting to take affect and we felt more comfortable in this foreign environment by the day. Tuesday was the ‘First Day Of Classes’ (a.k.a. FDOC) and all the amazing traditions that come with it! The Monday night before we sat on the lawn in the quad and listened to the University’s A Capella groups perform, concluding with a sing-a-long of ‘Carolina on My Mind’ and the relighting of the Bell Tower! FDOC saw a queue of people by the Old Well all day long to drink from the fountain in it in order to get that 4.0 (a.k.a. 100%!). The facilities on campus were now opened – the two gigantic and fully equipped gyms, two swimming pools (one outdoor) and two dining halls – and I was starting to get an idea of the difference in the resources available to US universities compared to in England. The scale of such facilities, and the number of people they provide for is incomparable to Manchester. I feel very lucky to be able to take the benefit of them for the year.
I can’t fail to mention the stressful nature of this initial week. Finding my way around and adjusting to the online resources required only exacerbated my difficulties in reconfiguring myself to the different teaching methods here. I had originally been signed up to 4 geography modules, unaware of the flexibility of the US system where most students take many classes outside of their ‘major’ discipline. I therefore spent the week panicking about the deadline of the following Monday to add new classes. I managed to work it all out in the end, studying three geography classes and one Spanish class, an opportunity I do not have in Manchester. The weekend that followed I was glad for the week to be over and took a trip to Jordan Lake. Another international society called ‘International Friends’ which is funded by local churches and run by local volunteers were kind enough to take us to the lake and provide us with a ‘cook-out’ (barbeque!) for only $5. It’s safe to say the Americans are keen to take the international students on board. Not only are each and every one of them welcoming and friendly, but they are so interested to hear where you are from and they admire a host of different accents. It has been a pleasure to spend just two weeks here at UNC and I look forward to the next 9 months and whatever friendly people I have yet to meet, or strange traditions I have yet to witness.