One Year On – Looking Back

This week marks a full year since I flew out to America to start my study abroad experience and I can’t believe how quickly it has all gone. I’ve now been back in the UK for much longer than my total time out in the states which puts into perspective just how short an experience it all was. Having said that, I managed to fit in so much during the semester and have a lot of memories (and pictures) to take away from it.

Over the course of the past semester back in Manchester I have been a mentor to two study abroad students, one from Germany and one from America. This has been great as I’ve been able to give them advice from the perspective of someone who knows Manchester as well as someone who has studied abroad and knows what it’s like to be adapting to a new country and different education system. It’s been really interesting to see what aspects of the city, many of which I’ve grown very used to, are interesting to people from elsewhere. (Apparently we’re very lucky to have the magic buses but not so luck with the weather.)

If I were to start these past twelve months over again there isn’t a lot I’d do differently. I feel I managed to make the most of my time in New York by travelling, making lots of new friends and getting involved in a sports team whilst I was over there without it all affecting my work too much. Being so far away from friends and family, missing out on the Manchester social scene, being a while away from the nearest big city and generally adjusting to life in a new place were all difficult but the positives far outweighed any negatives. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the study abroad experience is something I recommend very highly to anyone considering it and Stony Brook in particular would be a great choice. If you’re reading through blogs at the minute deciding whether or not to apply, do it! It’s the sort of experience you won’t be able to replicate through travel or work later in life. If anything, I wish I could have stayed out there for longer. A full academic year, rather than just the first semester would have allowed me to spread out some of the travelling I did and take advantage of a break or two in my adopted country. Squeezing it all into one semester was exciting but very tiring at times, especially whilst trying to keep on top of essays, midterms etc. (most of the exchange students from other countries were on a pass/fail system or didn’t have exams at all).

I have kept in touch with some of my friends back in America as well as a lot of the other exchange students around the world and recently managed to meet up with a couple of them in London. I’m hoping to see some others in the near future either here or somewhere else in Europe and who knows, one day I might return to Stony Brook.

Back to Manchester

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook, The State University of New York, USA)

I can’t believe I’m writing this already, but I am now at the end of my first week of lectures back in Manchester. I always knew that four months was going to be a relatively short time to spend in New York, but it flew by even quicker than I expected. Upon leaving I had mixed feelings, obviously heading home for Christmas with the family and catching up with friends I hadn’t seen since the summer was a great prospect, but leaving so soon was tough. I’d quickly gotten used to the way everything worked in Stony Brook, in what is basically its own little community. For all the foreign exchange students, living together, travelling together and generally experiencing life in the US for the first time had meant a lot of strong friendships were formed despite the short time we spent together. Saying goodbye to everyone felt strange, especially given we were all heading home to different countries, and for people like the Aussies and Kiwis, there is little prospect of seeing them again any time soon. Luckily, we were able to get a couple of big social events organised for everyone before we left. There were various promises of reunions in the near future and it will be great if we can make this happen.
Group Goodbye

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time abroad and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Meeting new people and making new friends from all over the world was great fun and now means I’ve got free accommodation in about fifteen different countries if I go to visit. I had the chance to see places I never would have been able to otherwise and I now know New York better than most Americans.

On the other hand, it is nice to be back in Manchester. As great as the Stony Brook campus was, it was in the middle of nowhere with few shops within walking distance and bars that half our group weren’t allowed in due to the 21 age limit on drinking. Having everything I need on my doorstep is a welcome relief, and I never realised just how much I’d missed the Magic buses. I can also easily nip home for the weekend, which obviously wasn’t an option from the other side of the Atlantic.

I had not had to revise over Christmas, having done all my exams before I left, so it was a bit of a shock to the system this week with essays and a dissertation all looming ahead over the coming weeks. I’m living with a group of other second years who I hadn’t actually met before moving in.  At one of the pre-departure socials in Manchester I did a deal with a guy who is doing his study abroad this semester and so needed someone to take over his room. This worked well as it meant I wasn’t worrying about accommodation while I was away. I’ve managed to settle in quickly and get on well with everyone in the house. I think this is definitely a good way of doing things for anyone going abroad in first semester next year.

As of next week, I will be a mentor to two students undertaking a study abroad programme here in Manchester. It will be exciting to meet people just at the start of their experience and I hope I can help them to have as much fun as I did with mine.

Travelling Stateside

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook, The State University of New York, USA)

One of the main advantages of living so close to New York City is being within travelling distance of plenty of other major cities along the East Coast. I was keen to make the most of this and have managed to visit Washington DC, Philadelphia, Toronto and Boston during my time here so far. I enjoyed them all, but had surprisingly different experiences at each of them.

Washington DC

I visited the capital city quite soon after arriving with a group consisting of three Aussies, a Danish guy and Annabel, the other Manchester student. My residing memory of this weekend is always going to be the sweltering heat. The temperature was well in to the 30s all weekend and although I have seen this in parts of Europe before, the humidity that came with it was something new for me.

Washington is great in that the vast majority of the major attractions are contained in one small area of the city. We were lucky enough to find a nice, cheap hostel within walking distance of all of them.

Whitehouse

The White House was obviously something we were all keen to see. As it was Labor Day weekend, quite a big deal over here, I was expecting it to be extremely busy, but there was only us and a few other foreign tourists. Well, there were also a couple of protestors, one of whom – an old guy with a huge beard – is apparently there all day, every day playing the same recording on a loop. The complex itself was very impressive, as was the level of security. There was an armed cop or even more armed military personnel in every direction. The view of the White House is almost identical from both sides with high railings, a large fountain and immaculately kept grounds leading to the building itself. From the rear of the building, the huge Washington Monument is in clear view. This is a very tall obelisklike structure that was pretty much in the centre of everything we wanted to see. It had the White House to its right, the Korean War Memorial to the left, the Lincoln Memorial ahead and the Mall with countless museums behind. As it is raised and looking over all of these things, it was also the spot for probably the best views I’ve seen within a city. We spent time here and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, deciding to save the museums for the following day. This turned out to be a good idea as there is a huge number of museums within such a small area, much more than we initially realised, and each on was large enough to spend a full day in (and they are all free!). Obviously we couldn’t see them all, but we did manage to fit in the Air and Space, American History and Natural History museums before heading to the National Archives. This was a highlight as it is where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are kept.

Lincoln Memorial

On the final morning before leaving, I woke up very early and did one of my favourite runs to date. I revisited the White House which was deserted, not even the beardy protest guy. I then looped around the Washington Memorial and up the Lincoln, again almost completely alone, before circling the Mall and heading home.

Overall, I would say that Washington DC was less busy, less culturally diverse and generally a lot calmer than the bustling streets of New York, which I found strange given it is the capital city. I don’t think this is the case in any of the European countries I’ve been too. It was a brilliant experience though and a big box ticked on my American to-do list.

Philadelphia

I went to Philadelphia with my twin brother who had flown over to visit me and his friend from Uni who was also in the States at the time. It is a much smaller city than either New York or DC and had less to offer in terms of quantity of major tourism landmarks. It did however, have both the Liberty Bell and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, better known as the place that has the steps that Rocky ran up.

Rocky

The area we were staying in was, according to the bus driver, not the nicest place in the city. On first sight I had to agree, but I tried not to be too judgemental and the hotel itself was nice enough. Walking back there late at night was, however, the least safe I have felt during my time in the States.

Whilst there, my American friends had advised me that I was obliged to try the local delicacy; the Philly Cheesesteak. Apparently they’re very proud of it, and we managed to find a local restaurant specialising in them. This claimed to be world-famous and to be fair, did have signed pictures of some pretty impressive people eating there. These included former presidents, famous sports stars and Denzel Washington. Needless to say, my expectations were high, but I was to be disappointed. The Philly Cheesesteak is basically a beef sandwich with some poor quality American cheese melted on top. I didn’t have the guts to say this to any of the locals though.

The nightlife in Philadelphia was a highlight. The barstaff and locals were all very keen to ensure that we had a great time and visited their favourite places, and just generally to look after their new British friends. Whilst I enjoyed my time in Philly, I probably won’t be revisiting it in the near future. It doesn’t offer as much as the other places I have visited.

Toronto

Quite a large group of the exchange students went to Toronto together. Some by plane, whilst others decided to brave a thirteen hour coach journey. By the time we had all arrived and checked in at the hostel it was early afternoon, so we headed out to explore the local area. Very close by was St Lawrence Market, a huge and very impressive multicultural food market with everything from Belgian chocolate to Indian spices. Just further was the Old Town; this looked almost Victorian and was very different from anything I had seen in any of the American cities. It included a bizarre sculpture, a microbrewery and the best chocolate shop I’ve ever seen.

Following this, we headed into the centre of the city to go up the CN Tower. I knew this was tall, but it towered over everything so much that it almost looks out of place in the skyline. We unintentionally timed our visit very well as the sun was setting, so we got both a day and night time view of the city. This was obviously a brilliant view, but the most striking thing for me was that, even from the top of the tower, Lake Ontario is too big for you to see the other side. It genuinely feels as if you are next to the sea because it’s such a huge body of water with its own ports, harbours and tides.

Toronto

The day after, we had booked on to a coach tour to Niagra Falls. This was about a ninety minute drive away. The Falls themselves were mind-blowing and it’s probably my favourite experience of travels so far, but I was disappointed by the surrounding area. It is hugely commercialised and organised into a main strip which feels more like Las Vegas than Canada. Luckily our tour took us to a nearby town, which was much more like what I was expecting. On the way back, the tour made a pit stop at a vineyard where we got to taste the local speciality, Ice Wine. The grapes are harvested when they are frozen in winter, meaning there is very little liquid and the wine is extremely sweet.

That evening, back in Toronto, we were able to sample the nightlife as a big group together. This hadn’t been possible so far due to some of them being under the drinking age (21 in US, 19 in Canada). It’s safe to say they made the most of it.

Niagra Falls

Toronto Island is a small island in Lake Ontario about half a mile from the city. This gave brilliant views of the city’s skyline. Apart from that though, it was a bit strange. There was a small “zoo” which basically consisted of some farm animals in a barn. There was also a roller coaster and log flume which were closed for the winter. Most intriguingly, although I didn’t check it out personally, there was a nudist beach.

Overall, I would say that Toronto is my favourite city to have visited. It’s a lot cleaner and calmer than New York, with the British and French influences it has a lot to offer culturally and the Canadian people in general are extremely polite and actively keen to help.

Boston

Me and a group of friends visited Boston over the Thanksgiving weekend. After avoiding the Black Friday crowds and enduring a four hour bus journey, we arrived to find Boston covered in snow. The city itself looked more European than anything else I’ve seen over here, with fewer skyscrapers and more old buildings like the town hall and countless churches. The hostel was perfectly located, close to just about everything we planned to do over the weekend.  First stop was ice-skating at Boston Common and Public Garden which is a small park in the middle of the city that had a rink set up for the winter. Despite being a lot worse than most of the people there, including most of the very young children, falls were kept to a minimum and serious injuries avoided. Mission accomplished.

The following day the hostel was running an unofficial tour of Harvard. Unofficial meant free, so we all signed up without hesitation. The campus itself was slightly underwhelming, and it was more the stories that the guide and other locals told us that made the tour interesting. Various souvenirs were bought and we decided to walk the two miles(ish) to MIT. This was vastly different to Harvard, with huge manufacturing facilities, technological hubs and multi-storey labs dotted everywhere around.

Boston State House

We had left our final day in Boston dedicated to completing the Freedom Trail. This is a three mile trip, marked out by a red brick line, which encompasses all the historical points of interest in the city. Many of these, including the City Hall, State House and various churches, all tied in heavily with when this area was under British rule. This was interesting, yet inevitably led to a few jokes aimed in my direction. The trail passed through Quincy Market; we had heard good things about this and weren’t disappointed. This a basically a giant food hall with stalls selling food from all over the world. We decided to sample the local delicacy, clam chowder, before crossing the bridge over the river and reaching the end of the Trail. This was close to the USS Constitution, a 200+ year old ship from the US Navy. It was only after I’d spent a good few minutes admiring the cannons that I realised this ship is primarily famous for the number of British ships it sunk. After this, a slightly more modern boat, a water taxi, took us back across the river allowing great views of both sides of the city. A final visit to Quincy Market and we battled the Thanksgiving weekend crowds back to New York.

USS Constitution

The US Exam System

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook University, The State University of New York, USA)

The Differences in the Exam Process

Studying is obviously a massive part of my time abroad and I haven’t really mentioned it in my blogs so far, so am going to cover it here.

The exam system works a little differently over here and this comes with some pros and cons. Obviously Stony Brook is the only place I have studied, but from what I can gather, these differences are widespread in the US. First of all, there is no January exam period. At Stony Brook, the assessment is continuous throughout the semester. This means that the exams I take towards the middle of December will be my last. There will be no revision over Christmas and January will be completely free which is obviously a massive bonus. However, given I have been in uni since the middle of August as opposed to the end of September, the total study time for the semester is very similar.

The cumulative assessment works differently for different courses. For one of mine, there are three exams throughout the semester, each covering of a third of the course and each worth the same amount. Another splits the grade between three midterm exams worth an increasingly higher proportion, and two essays. One is based just on two essays which I write and my lab module is based on a weekly lab report, weekly quiz and class participation. All of this means that, at times, the workload can be very intense. Due to the nature of the courses, it is very possible to have two essay deadlines in the same week as two midterm exams and a lab report. These weeks can be tough but the thought of a revision free Christmas period helps in getting through them.

Whilst some of the first year modules at Manchester did have online assessments throughout the semester in my first year, they only totalled around 20% of the grade for the module or even less, meaning an individual assessment could be worth less than 5%. The exams at the end of the semester contributed by far the most. This meant that having exams in October that contribute very significantly to my grade was a bit of a shock, but did ensure that I was learning the material from the start rather than cramming close to exam time. Obviously, this is never an advisable tactic, but I’m sure most Manchester students have done it at some point. With the system here, it’s just not possible. The lack of a large pre-exam revision period felt a bit strange at first, but I have found that learning the material in smaller sections as I go long is actually a better way of understanding it.

Another big difference I have noticed is that the major/minor system over here means virtually none of my classmates are studying four higher level biology classes like I am. They will choose maybe two third-year neurobiology classes but then have two “electives”. From what I can gather, pretty much anything goes. One of my lab partners does a first year political science class, whilst another does one about film studies. They seem genuinely surprised that, as a neuroscience student, I would only choose neuroscience or at least biological modules. Some of the other foreign exchange students have taken advantage of the chance to study something different but, all my classes had to be approved by the Department of Life Sciences back at Manchester before I left. They were, understandably, keen for these to match closely with what I would have been studying had I not been abroad. In addition to the extra workload I seem to have compared to my American classmates, I am having to get used to the different grading system. Over here, an A or A+, which is roughly equivalent to a first at home, requires around a 90% average over the course as opposed to 70% in Manchester. This is a little intimidating, and knowing that my grades will be scaled down upon my return means that I am finding myself disappointed with scores that are much higher than I would be achieving back home (percentage-wise).

I have been managing to enjoy myself on top of all the studying. I’ve already visited Washington DC, Philadelphia and Toronto and intend to see Boston before I come home. My family have been to visit, which was eventful but brilliant, and a friend from home is coming to visit soon too. I’ve been taking advantage of being so close to NYC by heading in as much as possible. It feels strange to have such little time left here already but I’ve loved it so far and am looking forward to the time I have left.

First Visit to NYC

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook, The State University of New York, USA)

The first weekend at Stony Brook arrived and me and a group of friends decided we were going to take the earliest opportunity we had to go in to New York City. So far, all I’d seen of the city was a brief view of the skyline from the runway at JFK before being taxied out to Stony Brook, so I was understandably very excited. There is a coach service that runs from the campus directly into the centre of the city so we turned up bright and early to wait for this. By the looks of it, almost all of the other 200 exchange students had had the same idea. I was expecting a Megabus style experience, but this wasn’t the case at all and 90 minutes of luxury later (leather seats, air-con and free snacks), we arrived in NYC.

Having seen a few of Europe’s major cities I wasn’t expecting to be as overwhelmed as I was by the size of everything. After a few minutes of standing around staring at everything, the plan we formulated on the bus came into action. First stop, Central Park. After a slightly longer than anticipated walk, we arrived and were greeted by various groups. Guided tours in different languages, a running team, a yoga session and a gaggle of old women on segways were all within a stone’s throw of the entrance. We managed to wander about halfway across the Park before hunger got the better of us and we decided to move on. Next stop, Times Square. During the walk between Central Park and Times Square, we came across a myriad of street vendors selling souvenirs, music, art and food. I’d seen this in other cities before, but never to the extent on show here. Eventually, we reached Times Square and immediately made the most of the photo opportunities. We had to be careful, though, to avoid the people dressed up as characters ranging from Minnie Mouse to Iron Man who are apparently known for jumping in to ruin your photo and then demanding a tip for doing so.

Times Square

After a few more minutes of standing around staring at everything, we decided to head to the SkyLine. This a relatively new addition to NYC that consists of a boardwalk raised about 30ft in to the air on platforms so you can walk through the city with a view from above the roads. I was surprised by how much more we could see even with an elevation so tiny in comparison to the skyscrapers surrounding us. We could see down to the Freedom Tower at the south end of the city at one side and over to the river on the other. It was also strange to be in the middle of such a bustling, vibrant city without having to worry about being run over by a taxi. The final major landmark we managed to visit that day was Grand Central Station.

Grand Central

With over one-hundred tracks, this is by far the most impressive station I’ve ever seen. There seemed to be more tourists there just to view the station than people actually using it for travel. The marble floors and huge arches made it look more like a palace than a train station. I can certainly see why so many scenes for films are shot there.  Evening came and we decided to head back to Times Square to eat in the Hard Rock Café. Here, we met a waiter who claimed to be able to remember the order for every table he had ever served and promised if we came back in the future he would know exactly what we all wanted (I am planning to test him on this at some point). This Hard Rock café, like most of the things I’d seen that day, was similar to ones I’d seen in other cities, only twice the size. Beers and burgers were consumed and eventually home time came. A two hour bus journey later and we were back on campus on Stony Brook. There were plenty of attractions we didn’t manage to fit in and so much more for us to see that we’ll no doubt be back in the city again very soon.

Arrival in New York

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook, The State University of New York, USA)

After all the planning, forms, emails, goodbyes and last-minute packing, the time had finally come to set off for Stony Brook. Unfortunately that time was also 3am. Leg one of the journey was a drive from Liverpool down to Heathrow Terminal 5 accompanied by both parents. One seeming ever more nervous about her eldest jetting off to the other side of the world and one seeming ever more annoyed at having to be up at 3am. The drive went smoothly but unfortunately it was about the only thing that did that day. Immediately after saying goodbye and getting through security I was informed that my flight would be delayed by about 45 minutes due to the doors on the plane not locking properly (I didn’t think this was as minor an issue as the announcer seemed to make out). The 45 minutes passed and the doors were fixed but another announcement revealed that now the toilets were broken so we would have to wait for another hour while they were fixed. Eventually I got on the plane, and after waiting another 40 minutes for a space on the runway, leg two of the journey was under way; Heathrow to JFK. 8 hours, 2 films and some dodgy plane food later I got my first glimpse of the New York City skyline as we touched down on American soil and was suitably impressed.

Landing at JFK

The delays in London meant there was now a huge queue at customs so we weren’t even allowed off the plane for a while and then, when we were, had a 2 hour wait. All of this meant I was 4 hours late for my shuttle ride out to Stony Brook but luckily, didn’t have too long to wait for the next one. This was when I met my first genuine New Yorker, the taxi driver. He was extremely nice and friendly to me and the other passengers but hurled verbal abuse and repeatedly blared his horn at every car, pedestrian and animal that got in his way. All of this whilst arguing with his wife on the phone and eating a hot dog. Finally, 22 hours after setting off I had reached Stony Brook. I had time to very briefly meet some of my flat mates (Yunichi from Japan, Ben and Dave from Hong Kong and Luis from Spain) before I collapsed into bed.

 

The following morning I met up with Annabel, the other Manchester student at Stony Brook, to find somewhere for breakfast and explore the campus a bit. The first thing I realised was that I was woefully underprepared for the heat. Even early on it was at least 25˚c, which may not sound outrageous, but for someone who is gingerly inclined and used to rainy Manchester, it was a bit of a shock. After last year’s polar vortex I’d made sure to pack enough warm clothes for winter without giving too much thought to what the weather would be doing when I first arrived.

The campus itself is huge and the heat combined with the unfamiliar trees and terracotta buildings make it look almost mediterranean. This isn’t the only way it is very different to Manchester. The food outlets on site offer countless options from all over the world and the sports facilities are much better than I’ve seen anywhere in the UK. They include a 9,000 seater stadium for the (American) football team, whose opening game I am going to see next week.

EW La Valle Stadium

 

Next up was the orientation meeting for all the international students. For the next six hours we were introduced to the staff we had only known via email for the past few months and told just about everything we needed to know for the coming semester. There were about 200 foreign students with big groups from Korea and Brazil, a few from the rest of Asia, Australia and a few European countries as well as four English (including me and Annabel). During this time I befriended some Aussies and some Germans and have already made plans to visit the city with them this weekend and to be as stereotypically touristy as possible, which will no doubt be covered in my next blog.