Although a little delayed, it has taken me a while to appreciate and reflect on my time abroad. My second semester was packed with ceaseless moments of embracing the rest of my time abroad. I felt a sudden urgency to make the most of everything and every opportunity and as I result found myself buried in work in my free moments. The big difference with America is the constant stream of work which you receive from all classes you undertake, largely different to the few assignments each semester that my professors at Manchester would set. Therefore I, like many others at the university, would spent my entire evenings in the library!
Arriving back in Chapel Hill was really difficult given the change around that had happened. My roommate had moved out and I didn’t know my new roommate at all yet. It felt like I was having to settle in all over again, especially considering the excitement of the Christmas break had now come to an end and I was having to adjust back to getting down to work. I also started working at the Student Stores – a 3 storey shop in the centre of campus which sells everything from textbooks to everything you could ever want in Carolina colours. I am now 6 weeks into term and it has absolutely flown past so far. I have a new English roommate who I have also happened to get on with really well and am so glad to say that!
Meeting my parents and sister in Tampa, Florida was a big sigh of relief. I had made it through four months without them successfully, the longest time I have ever spent away from the three of them. I had also academically made it through my term and finished my exams and could now relax and enjoy the holiday. I arrived to the airport to my sister (Jennie) standing at the bottom of the escalator and then met my parents a little later in our hotel’s lobby. We left the hotel the next morning to head down to a small island about 2 hours south of Tampa called Sanibel. Sanibel is attached to the Tampa Bay area by a causeway bridge but is only around 14 miles in length itself. The four of us resided in a small apartment just 200m from the seafront in a small cluster of apartments with a private beach. The island had a small town atmosphere but with plenty of outdoorsy activities to keep us entertained. After three weeks together we had all had a good old catch up and I definitely got my dose of England for the meanwhile. We said an emotional farewell, in the knowledge I wouldn’t see them for another six months and I flew on to LA while they flew back to England. LA consisted of more catching up with family, and enjoying the American culture of California which is so different from North Carolina and Florida. We enjoyed Venice beach, Santa Monica, Malibu and lots of activities with my sister (Amy’s) 9 month old son and 2 year old daughter.
Living the US for 3 months by November had provided a lot of experiences. Therefore, I decided that making the decision to stay out here for the Christmas break would only enhance my experience. I was lucky enough to be able to convince my parents and sister to join me too, and November saw the flights get booked and the holiday be planned. I would then fly to LA to visit my other sister who lives there with her family. I was excited to say the least, especially as this would help me push through the last couple weeks of the semester.
I never thought I was properly settled into Manchester until second year. Getting to know everything about the city, the best places to go and how to get from place to place took a little while, and so it also took a little while to realise how great the city was. Problem is that I’ve only got a year to live here in Chapel Hill, so settling in may have to be a little quicker. In comparison to when I wrote my first blog I certainly feel more settled. I am far more aware of the way the Americans do it, and the way that the Carolinians do it. But I also realise that the longer I spend here, and the more settled I feel and so the more I love this place and appreciate the opportunity I have been given to spend a year abroad.
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.