Reflections on my time at UMass

I’ve been back in the UK for over a month now and it feels like only yesterday I was packing up my room ready to leave Massachusetts. When they say your time abroad will go so quickly, they weren’t lying – it flew by! I had the most amazing time, and here I’ve compiled some of the main differences and hardest things I had to adapt to when moving abroad.

Studying in a brand-new country and adjusting to a new educational system can be tricky at first, especially when there are so many differences between these two systems. I found the style of teaching to be similar but the way they examine and generate your grades is completely different. Due to the constant testing with weekly quizzes, homeworks and midterms, it meant you were regularly caught up on the workload (ideally!!) making the finals less stressful. Having no exams to revise for over Christmas for the first time in what felt like ages was such a relief! I definitely didn’t envy my course mates back in Manchester who had 6 exams within the space of 12 days! 

Being on a university campus was such a change having lived in busy, bustling cities all my life. The campus is huge so I definitely did a lot more walking than I would do in Manchester, as classes could be on opposite sides of the campus. It felt easier to get into a sense of routine, as the classrooms, libraries, dining halls and dorm rooms were all in one place. Although I got used to this sense of familiarity pretty quickly, no two days felt the same as there was always so much going on and new places to explore around campus. It also made a nice excuse to go travelling or visit local towns in order to escape the bubble of campus life for a little while. 

The weather did take some getting used to. The temperature reached as low as -18oC, and snow covered the campus for most of December. Classes had to be cancelled one day due to the heavy snowfall, which meant people brought out their sledges, snowboards or even improvised with bin lids to make the most of the day off.  One regret I have is leaving it till the last few weeks of term to buy myself winter boots and a beanie!

My whole experience was something I’ll never forget – I met amazing people from all over the world, was lucky enough to travel to some incredible places and learnt so much about this country and its culture. For people contemplating studying abroad – as terrifying, overwhelming and daunting as it may seem, step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself! When I read all these blog posts before I embarked on my exchange and heard about other people’s experiences, I thought they all sounded so cliché. But sat here now, after experiencing some of the best few months of my life it turns out they were right. 

Tips for travelling while abroad:

The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus is situated in western Massachusetts, just over an hour and a half drive away from Boston and under four hours away from New York. Being in such a good, central location meant it was easy to travel to loads of great locations, some of which were close by and some further afield. Here I’ve compiled a few of my top tips for travelling while studying abroad. 

  • Make use of all modes of transport 

There are so many ways to get to places, some cheaper than others so it’s important to look around and find the best options available. I made use of a Facebook rideshare group solely for UMass students, where people posted if they were driving somewhere and had spare seats in their car. Most of the time you’d just have to pay for petrol, so rides would be much cheaper than buses, and if you were lucky, they’d drop you off right outside your destination!

  • Find good travel buddies

Making friends in a brand new environment can sometimes be tough, so bonding over a shared interest in travel can be a great way to meet new people. I found making friends with other exchange students was great for this, as we shared a desire to explore our host country and make the most of the short time we had there.

  • Look after your belongings!

Travelling in big cities can occasionally be dangerous and although it sounds obvious, it’s important to keep an eye on your possessions and to stay safe at all times. Unfortunately, I learnt this lesson the hard way whilst on a trip to Montreal in Canada, where I dropped my wallet at the top of Mount Royal without realising. After freezing all my cards (thankfully I had no cash in it) and accepting that it had been lost, I randomly received a Facebook message from a nice lady that worked at the chalet at the top of the mountain saying my wallet had been handed in! Although this story ended happily, I definitely learnt my lesson and made sure I was more cautionary in the future. 

  • Make use of trips organised by the University

My host university had an international programmes office that often organised events and trips for all the exchange students, such as a Halloween fright night trip to the local theme park. Sign up for reminders about upcoming events and make sure to look around – I was able to go on a day trip to New York with the landscape architecture department even though I study chemical engineering! Not only did I get to go to New York and back for only $25, I also got a guided tour of local gardens and parks and got taught new knowledge on a topic I’d never studied before.

  • Listen to locals 

When deciding where to travel to, I found talking to my classmates about where they’ve been and local places they would recommend to be super useful. Getting tips off residents is a great way to get a better feel of the area as they can provide ideas of non-touristy things to do and see. 

Our Thanksgiving Road Trip!

At UMass we were lucky enough to be given a 10-day break for the Thanksgiving recess, so a group of 8 other students and I decided to head down south and embark on an 8-day road trip across America. We travelled to 7 different states, driving for over 40 hours in total and were lucky enough to be able to see lots of amazing sights. 

Day 1 – New Orleans, Louisiana 

We began our adventure by all meeting on campus and catching the Peter Pan bus to Boston Logan airport. We caught a short flight to New Orleans, where we picked up the car and minivan that we’d hired to drive us around the country. After stocking up on some essential road trip snacks and with a long drive ahead of us the next day, we checked into our air bnb and decided to get an early night.

Day 2 – Nashville, Tennessee 

Waking up bright and early, we began our long drive to our first destination. Driving through Mississippi, we stopped off in Birmingham, Alabama for some typical southern BBQ food before heading on to Nashville. After exploring the city, we ended up on a dancefloor being taught how to line dance whilst being accompanied by a live country music band! 

Day 3 – Chattanooga, Tennessee 

We began the day by heading to a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens, situated in a park just outside of Nashville. We explored the city centre some more before stopping for some brunch on a rooftop restaurant. We broke up the drive by stopping at a waterfall in Tullahoma, then headed to our wood cabin where we’d be staying for the next two days. 

Day 4 – Exploring the Smoky Mountains

We spent our fourth day discovering the Smoky Mountains and its beautiful surrounding national park. The views whilst driving through the winding roads were breathtaking and provided lots of great opportunities for photographs. We stopped off at a typical American diner for dinner, where the food was delicious but the portions were enormous! 

Day 5 – Charlotte, North Carolina

We travelled to a small historical town called Cherokee in North Carolina for a pit stop on our way to Charlotte. We had many interesting stops on our drives, my favourite of which was the Peachoid, which is a 135-foot-tall water tower that resembles a peach located in South Carolina.

Day 6 – Montgomery, Alabama

The morning of our sixth day was spent discovering Charlotte, famous for museums and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. We hired electric scooters to whiz around the city and explore the local attractions. We made a slight detour to briefly visit Atlanta, Georgia where there was a Christmas lights festival in the botanical gardens, as well as Christmas markets situated in the Centennial Olympic park. We then headed to Montgomery, where we’d be staying in a treehouse for the night, surrounded by acres of greenery and trees. Being out of the city meant the stars were fully visible and were amazing to gaze up at.

Day 7 – New Orleans, Louisiana

We completed our round trip by driving back to where we started. Our 7th day happened to be thanksgiving, which meant the roads were very quiet. However, disaster struck when the van got a flat tyre in the middle of the highway and we had to be towed to the nearest shop that was 30 minutes away! Nevertheless, we eventually made it back to New Orleans and spent the evening exploring the busy and vibrant city.

Day 8 – Boston, Massachusetts 

We ended our exciting trip with a flight back to Boston, where we visited local museums and indulged in a bit of black Friday shopping, despite the shops being very busy and chaotic!

Overall, despite a few mishaps and alterations to our original plans, we had an incredible trip and felt very fortunate to be able to travel to so many spectacular places. 

A typical day in my life at UMass Amherst

7:00am – Rise and shine

My alarm is usually set for around 7:00 as my classes here can start as early as 8:30am. Attendance is recorded so there’s no sleeping through my alarm! I’ll shower, get ready for the day and head to one of the four different dining halls on campus for some food. 

7:45am – Breakfast

As if it isn’t mentioned to us enough, UMass dining is rated number 1 in the whole country, so unlike the catered halls I was used to in my first year in Manchester the food is actually enjoyable! There’s a lot of variety and so many options to choose from. Today I resisted the tempting chocolate banana bread and opted for fresh fruit with granola instead. 

8:30am – Classes

After breakfast, I head to my first class of the day which is around a 10-minute walk away. The college campus here is gigantic and can take up to 30 minutes to walk from end to end. Luckily all my buildings are grouped close together so it’s never too far to get to. I had four classes on this day back to back, so I didn’t finish till 2:15pm. I had a surprise pop quiz in one of my classes, meaning the professor decided randomly to give us a mini exam on concepts we had learnt in the previous few lectures. I’d never had one of these before, so it caught me by surprise (as I’m sure they’re intended to!). It has definitely taught me to stay on top of all the work and assignments I’m given and to be prepared for the unexpected. 

3:30pm – Studying

After picking up a quick lunch from the grab and go at one of the dining halls, I head to the library to make a start on all the homework, quizzes and projects I’ve been given. It’s non-stop work and assignments here! I think this is the earliest point I’ve ever been to the library during a semester – typically I only venture to the library in Manchester in the final few weeks of the semester in the approach to exams. One of the benefits of studying in the library is the incredible view! It’s the third tallest library in the world, with 28 floors making it a great spot to study at.

W. E. B. Du Bois Library

5:45pm – Yoga

After finishing some homework, I meet up with a friend and head to one of the free gym classes at the recreation centre on campus. This day I went to a yoga class, which is a good way to unwind after a long day of classes and take my mind off all my assignments. The sun was beginning to set during the class, which provided the most incredible view to look out on to!

7:00 – Dinner and chill

After grabbing dinner with friends, we decided to have a card night and watch a film. Despite the intense workload, I find there’s still the opportunity to enjoy spending time with friends and meeting new people. Finally, I head back to my dorm ready for the next day.