Post-semester travelling

Updating y’all on my finals, travels, and internship.

By Stephen Fulham (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA)

I’m writing this sat in the departures lounge of Raleigh-Durham airport, waiting on my delayed flight. I’m not going home just yet, I’m just headed to Chicago this weekend, and still have another couple of weeks left in the US.

I realise that I haven’t blogged since April so thought I’d update y’all (I’m acclimatising, sorry) on the last few months. In this time I’ve completed finals, celebrated my birthday, gone travelling for a few weeks, and started an internship.

The last month or so of the semester at UNC really flew by. Actually, to be fair, the whole semester did. Spring/early summer in Chapel Hill is something special. Campus blooms, the sun shines, and the quads fill with students. Granted, humidity also hits 65-80% which can be a bit much at times.

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My final assessments included papers (essays), group debates, and finals (traditional exams); I even found time to submit some work for extra credit in one class. Unlike courses in Manchester, my UNC classes only had a maximum of twenty or so students. Each class was taught exclusively by one person, some by professors and some by graduate students. UNC are quite strict on grading so I had all of my results back within ten days of taking my finals. This is obviously a lot quicker than the several months which it takes at Manchester to get marks returned. I did okay, but have to wait for my Academic Advisor at Manchester to convert the grades before I can know really how happy I am with them.

Two days after my finals were done, I took an overnight bus from North Carolina to New York City. A group of us stayed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – which was awesome, if exceptionally hipster and so, so different from where I’d stayed in Midtown (Manhattan) over Spring Break – for a few days. It was only my second time in NYC but it is probably already cemented as one of my absolute favourite cities (definitely better than London too!).

From there, Tristan (a Scottish exchange student I met through UNC rugby, with whom I roomed in Charleston) and I headed to San Francisco (via Texas) mostly because of a flight for less than $100 each which is absurdly cheap. There we met up with Arrun, also on exchange at UNC from Manchester, for the California leg of our travels. One afternoon we took the Bart (metro) up to Berkeley, a college town almost as quintessential as Chapel Hill. The students there were still doing finals so campus wasn’t as busy as it might’ve been had classes been going on. Despite being biased towards Chapel Hill, I thought the campus pretty much matched UNC’s in terms of being scenic. It had a very Mediterranean feel, with white walls and orange tiles on a lot of the university buildings – probably linked to the Spanish and Mexican influences on California. It was pretty amazing to see Alcatraz (where we actually met an ex-prisoner!) and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, before travelling to LA on another overnight bus. It rained while we were there, to our dismay and some locals’ joy (California was then experiencing a severe drought). Seeing Hollywood Boulevard, mere steps from our Airbnb, as well as the Hollywood sign and panoramic views of the City of Angels was awesome, but the weather and our lack of a car meant we didn’t see LA at her finest.

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After that we took the Amtrak (America’s cheap but pretty sparse train network) to San Diego. I wore myself out playing beach volleyball alone against the two other guys and then fell asleep for less than an hour on the sand. I woke up, my pale Irish complexion burnt (the lines are still there even now) thanks to a lack of sun cream. Being just a half hour drive from Mexico, the Mexican food in San Diego was unreal. $2 octopus tacos were a definite highlight. Had we been a week or so earlier our visas would’ve allowed us to go into Mexico for the day. I should also note that avocados in California are light-years better than anything I’ve had in the UK, or even anywhere else in the US. The taste of a guacamole dip at a little Mexican ‘mom ‘n’ pop’ (family-run) restaurant will live with me for the rest of my life. That sounds excessive; it isn’t. And neither were the number of Anchorman references during this stop on our tour.

Up next was New Orleans: brimming with jazz, dancing, and incredible food. Think jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp and/or catfish po-boys, crayfish, and alligator to name just a few. This was, I think, the most fun city I have ever been to. Other than walking around the French Quarter, there aren’t huge amounts of touristy things to see in NoLa, but the atmosphere is definitely worth soaking up. That said, Café du Monde is kind of mandatory. It began as a French colonial outpost and café, and has continued serving coffee and beignets (warm, sugar coated doughnuts) after the Americans bought the Louisiana Territories from France. I have to say, the café au lait was nothing special (Tristan, who is much more into coffee than I am, wasn’t impressed either) but the beignets were pretty memorable.

Then it was on to Chicago for a long Memorial Day weekend. We stayed with my friend Dori, who was on exchange at Manchester from the University of Illinois during my first year. It was great to see her and finally experience Chi-City (so stylised by Kanye West) which I had heard from many to be on a par with, or even better than, New York City. The food there probably about ties (Chicago hot dogs, deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches versus deli meats, fresh bagels, street meat, dollar slices of thin pizza).

Chicago is on Lake Michigan (which is bigger in area than Wales!), and one can walk straight out of downtown to the beach which is pretty damn cool. The city centre is full of beautiful parks. The SkyDeck is worth checking out, although I have to admit I was a little terrified when in the glass room which sticks out of the hundred-storey-plus Willis Tower. Dori gave us a great tour of the city, and we went to a Chicago Cubs game on Memorial Day itself. While it seems not dissimilar to rounders, the atmosphere at the game makes it so much more. Peanuts, beers, and forty thousand plus natives cheering at Wrigley Field made my first experience of America’s favourite pastime extra special.

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After that, I stayed in the DMV (locals’ name for the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) for five or so days with my friend Anna. In DC itself one can pretty much walk between all of the major attractions, just like in central London. Granted, this became a bit more of a challenge given the heat wave which had hit DC while I was in town. The Capitol, White House, National Mall, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument, Smithsonian Museums, and Arlington are all very close together. Anna taught me how to pick apart (I’m still not entirely sure of the correct verb here) crabs with my hands which provided a bit of a workout, which maybe almost balanced out the huge table-covering portion we ordered before heading to the Orioles game (Baltimore’s major league baseball team). We drove to Delaware to go to a NASCAR race. Neither of us had been to one before and, knowing that I’d be living in the South for a semester, it’d been on my USA bucket list since before I came, even if I’d forgotten about it for most of the semester. The trucks (yes, trucks, a lower budget version of F1 which still has a huge TV audience) roared around the mile-long track a couple of hundred times while we were there. We then went down to Ocean City, MD, (apparently the equivalent of Myrtle Beach, SC, where I stayed for a few days over Spring Break) just to try their crab-stuffed pretzels. They were worth it, I can’t lie.

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Then it was back to Chapel Hill for a night before moving to Raleigh (the capital of North Carolina). My internship is in Rep. David E. Price (D-NC04)’s district office, where I’m doing things similar to the stuff I’ve done in the UK before. Rep. Price sits in the US House of Representatives (their House of Commons equivalent) for parts of North Carolina including most of the Triangle (Chapel Hill, Raleigh, and Durham) and a number of other counties. I’m now living in student apartments, sharing a kitchen and living space with three other guys who are also doing internships involving government. Two weeks there have already flown by. There are beach volleyball courts in the dorm complex so I’ve taken that up again, despite a flock of geese which seem to follow me around a fair bit. Next weekend I’m going to Wilmington, on North Carolina’s beach, for a beach volleyball tournament so that should be fun too.

As ever, hit me up with any questions at stephen.fulham@student.manchester.ac.uk

Our Three Winners

Stephen Fulham | The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

It had been a while since I’d last blogged, so I used my previous one to post on what I’d been up to. I deliberately didn’t mention the tragic events of February 10: the shooting of three students in Chapel Hill. It would’ve felt unnatural to cover this in passing or alongside other stuff that I’d been up to.

I felt, and to an extent do still feel, like I needed more time to reflect. As I’m typing this I realise that I’ll be unable to find the impossible and craft words which could make sense of this.

In and of itself a shooting in the town where one lives would be scary, but when we found out the next day that three students from the Triangle area of North Carolina were the victims it was beyond terrifying. Moreover given that the triple-murder is widely believed to be motivated by hate, one is rendered lost for words through disbelief, anger, and grief.

Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, were all killed that afternoon by their neighbour.

I was never lucky enough to meet them, but as with the rest of campus and the wider world was struck by stories of their kindness. A usually vibrant and cheerful campus darkened. Professors and students in my classes tried to talk through what we were feeling, attempting to support one another.

Thousands of people gathered in the centre of campus for one of many vigils held in the following days. With other students, I struggled to hold back my emotions as their friends and family told of their dreams which had been cut incomprehensibly short. I can’t even imagine what they are going through.

Vigil in the Pit, Chapel Hill, NC (Photo Credit: WNCN)
Vigil in the Pit, Chapel Hill, NC (Photo Credit: WNCN)

Deah was organizing a project to provide urgent dental care to Syrian refugees in Turkey. The project had aimed to raise $20,000. At the time of writing the total stood at more than half a million dollars. It is still possible to donate at: http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/syrian-dental-relief/206249

Yusor was going to enrol in UNC’s School of Dentistry in Fall semester, having graduated from NC State in 2013, where Razan was studying architecture.

Reminders were everywhere in the first few weeks, and still crop up from time to time.

Walking to class through the quad and seeing a couple holding hands: reminded that Deah and Yusor had been married for just a few months. Seeing the crowd at a basketball or lacrosse game: reminded of the sea of students who filled the Pit. Sitting in a class, drifting off, and feeling guilty for wasting such time.

One could be desensitized to reports of gun violence in the US. They cross the Atlantic with tragic frequency. They accumulate. Towering with what seems like a horrifying inevitability. But near the epicentre of such an event it becomes more personal, more painful, and more real.

Post Spring Break

Stephen Fulham | The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

I realised it’d been a while since I last wrote one of these just before Spring Break, but couldn’t find the time to type one during travelling, and then in the fortnight since I’ve got back I’ve had a lot of deadlines. In short: I’ve been really busy in the past few months.

I mentioned the academic differences between UNC and Manchester in my previous blog. Since then, the workload has increased and it sort of feels like the same amount of work (in terms of quantity) as sixth form because every single class session requires readings and there are weekly written assignments for each class that I take. I’ve had a couple of midterms so far, which are generally worth one-fifth of each module’s overall grade. One of them was similar to Manchester’s essay based exams (one hour per essay) but was delayed by the snow so was turned into a take-home. Actually, I’ve had quite a few days of classes cancelled because of the snow (or threat thereof), which has been quite nice. Professors seem to have a lot of freedom in how they structure assessment, and another class’ midterm featured a lot of fill-in-the-blanks as well as shorter questions. Also new to me as an Arts student back home, was an assessed group debate which I did yesterday.

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I’ve been playing rugby quite a lot since I got here, with at least three training sessions a week and usually a game against another university on a Saturday. This has enabled me to travel to other places in North Carolina which I otherwise probably wouldn’t have ever visited. We went on a tour down to South Carolina including Charleston, which was a really beautiful city. This past weekend we had alumni weekend where old players at UNC come back, socialise, and play a match against the current team – this was a lot of fun!

vs Coastal Carolina University
vs Coastal Carolina University
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Rainbow Row, Charleston, SC

 

The day before Spring Break, Duke played UNC. For those of you who aren’t familiar with basketball (I wasn’t hugely before I got here), this is a really big deal. The two universities are just a few miles apart, and both are well known both academically and for basketball and so are huge rivals. Seeing as America is the country with the highest standard of basketball in the entire world, and one of the few countries where it’s followed at large, as well as the fact that rivalries in the NBA don’t really match college basketball for intensity, this means that this is one of the biggest basketball games in the entire world. Just the previous day I had visited the UNC Basketball Museum, seeing more about the great history this university has in the sport: Michael Jordan made his name here, UNC have won five national championships in their history, and boast one of the best records in college basketball. I managed to get hold of a ticket after a week of desperately trying, and even though we lost, it was still a fantastic experience and great to be part of an amazing crowd at the Dean Dome.

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Over Spring Break I went back down to South Carolina, staying at a friend’s house down in Myrtle Beach for a few days. We found an amazing seafood restaurant where I had the best crab cake I’ve ever eaten. In the middle of the week we then drove back to North Carolina, stopping off at my friend’s farm. I got to shoot guns, including a Clint Eastwood style .357, which was very cool.

Broadway at the Beach, Myrtle Beach, SC
Broadway at the Beach, Myrtle Beach, SC

We then got the bus overnight up to New York City, changing in Washington, D.C., arriving around 6:30am. I didn’t really sleep much on the way there, so got to see a little of Richmond (Virginia), Baltimore (Maryland), and Jersey City (New Jersey) before we arrived. Our check-in time at our Airbnb was 2pm, so we walked around for ages. Seeing Times Square, the Empire State Building (which was actually two blocks/streets away from where we stayed, and of which we had a great view) and Central Park was kind of surreal. I also managed to find a phenomenal pastrami sandwich (hardly difficult in New York), which was by far the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Being in the early morning rush of the world’s most famous city was a sharp contrast from the quite rural part of America where we’d been just hours before. That night we visited Korea Town and went down to Chinatown on the subway. The latter seemed bigger than Fallowfield and really made Manchester’s and London’s seem tiny!

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The next day we explored New York’s shopping areas, walking down Broadway, around Mercer Street, and along 5th Avenue (which I think might be named after the club on Princess Street). I spent what felt like a significant portion of my student loan – oops! – and we were all exhausted. The ACC Tournament was on while we were in NYC so we streamed the UNC games on a laptop in our room, seeing us beat both Louisville and UVa – go Heels! The next day we checked out of our room, and walked around New York for the rest of the day, eating at a posh hotel on Union Square; walking round the financial district and Wall Street; and seeing the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, before getting a slightly questionable bus back to North Carolina, arriving back on Sunday.

Bull. Horns. Studying Abroad. You know.
Bull. Horns. Studying Abroad. You know.

Bagels, biscuits, and basketballs

By Stephen Fulham (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA)

stephen.fulham@student.manchester.ac.uk

I arrived in Chapel Hill just under three weeks ago and it’s safe to say it’s been one of the busiest, and most exciting, times in my life so far. Yesterday I represented Manchester at UNC’s study abroad fair (complete with my ‘pie boy’ beanie hat) and thought it might be a sensible time to reflect on how I’ve been settling in.

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My flight from Heathrow to Raleigh-Durham was the longest one I’ve ever taken, and felt like it. But it already feels like so long ago. After Orientation on my first full day, I went for a wander around campus and was stunned: the football stadium here holds over 60,000 (more than most Premier League teams), and the numerous quads really do look amazing under the Carolina-blue sky. I still feel like I’m in a film or on a TV show when I walk down Franklin, it still feels like I’m on an extended holiday or something. When it reached almost 20°C on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this college town looked even better than usual.

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Classes started with a bit of a shock to the system, an 8am the morning after my first night out here was a challenge . The weather didn’t help either: even with my thermals and big coat I still felt the force of -15°C, even if there was no snow or ice and not a cloud in the sky. My class sizes range from a dozen to just under twenty students, compared to several hundred at a time in Manchester. One of my professors has been teaching at UNC since 1976 and is the authority in his historical period which is very cool. Participation is an absolute must here.

Food in America has certainly lived up to the stereotype. I thought my meal plan of fourteen meals a week might not be enough, but some days it feels like too much! Bagels are nothing like what they are in England, and I certainly won’t tire of getting fresh ones on my way back from early morning classes when I’ve slept in instead of going to breakfast. Biscuits are also an entirely different thing: here they are a cross between a scone and a bread roll. I had my first one in Time Out (a restaurant featured on ‘Man vs. Food’, so inevitably accompanied by fried chicken) and wasn’t impressed, but have really changed my mind after going to other places.

I also seem to be a little infatuated with basketball. School pride at UNC is really big, everyone owns university-branded clothing and a lot of people wear it to class. The atmosphere at the basketball games I’ve been to so far has been pretty amazing. Yesterday evening I went to see the women’s team play Duke (UNC’s biggest rivalry). The stadium they play in holds 8,000 and it was pretty much full. The crowd was amazing, and we even managed to get moved (from the wrong seats, oops) to ones three rows away from the basket. UNC lost in overtime, alas, but it was still an awesome thing to see.

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American sports, especially college sports, are incomparable to what we have back in the UK. In my first few days here I went to an ice hockey match in Raleigh, and have since been to UNC men’s basketball too. I’ve also taken up rugby again, having not played since sixth form, and have been getting used to playing on astroturf. Hopefully I make the team so that I can go on tour with them in a few weeks to South Carolina.

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UNC Chapel Hill: Pre-departure Reflections

By Stephen Fulham (The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA)

 stephen.fulham@student.manchester.ac.uk

I’m writing this while back at home in Bristol during the Christmas break. I’ll be flying from London Heathrow to Raleigh-Durham in a few weeks time to start my semester abroad in North Carolina.  I haven’t even started packing yet, but my folder of travel documents is already meticulously ordered. I can’t help but think how fast this has all come around. I still remember writing my application and then finding out that I would be going to the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill as if it were yesterday.

I thought for this blog I’d reflect a bit on how I’ve been able to get to the point where I’m moving countries in less than two weeks.

The process itself has been simple enough. Once you get mailed a form by your host university you can go through all the various forms required to get a student visa for the USA. You then go to the Embassy, go through their security and, in my case, wait three hours for an interview lasting less than a minute and comprising less than half a dozen questions. Granted, because of this I did miss my train back and have to buy another ticket, but I have a feeling that it will be so worth it once I get to Chapel Hill. That reminds me, make sure you leave a lot of time if you’re booking same day return from London, and secure the earliest spot you can at the US Embassy (8am I think): someone else I know did this and was there for less than half an hour.

Finding someone to take over your room (if you’re going to study abroad for a semester and living in a shared student house while in Manchester) might be something that you’re worried about – don’t be! I advertised my room on a lot of websites and through the IPO, and got a lot of interest from both students already in Manchester and those from abroad who would be arriving here soon. You will find someone, don’t think of it as challenging.

After talking to someone who studied abroad in the USA last year, I’ve gotten a Caxton card. This is basically a Visa card which you can transfer money onto from other accounts (online, via text) so that you can use it without getting hit by massive withdrawal fees like you would if you used a UK card. Hopefully it also means that I can avoid the hassle of setting up a US bank account. On this note, I should also say that I went into town today and got some dollars (useful just to have them with me for when I arrive, just in case the card doesn’t work). Not only do they have an odd smell, but I was also struck by how long they are. They also seem make-believe and kind of cartoonish. I say this because it has really made me realise that I’m going away very soon.

Cartoon money

 

When booking flights, most people I’ve spoken to have gone through STA Travel (yes, other operators are available and no, I’m not on commission). They’re cheap, friendly, and have a store on Oxford Road if you want to talk things through in person before you book. They, and likely other operators too, offer a flexible return. This means that I can change my return date and airport pretty much as many times as I want. This is really useful, especially given the month or so you get on your visa to travel might mean that you’re not exactly sure when you want to come back or where from, but still want to save a bit of cash by buying a return ticket.

I’d also say, when applying to study abroad, to consider the alternative assessment you’ll have to undertake. For me, it’s worked out at about an essay a week/ ten thousand words over the Christmas break. This is doable and I’m on track. Being able to go to university in the US is certainly the best motivation I’ve ever had to not leave the reading for and the writing of essays down to the last minute. It’s not too hard obviously I’d rather be watching the Muppet Christmas Carol on repeat for these three or so weeks, but just factor it in to your thinking when you’re deciding.

I have to be honest, leaving Manchester and finishing my academic year there a few weeks ago (in December) was quite strange. I’ve always found it difficult to say goodbye to people (at least for the six months or so that I’ll be gone) and while this might have been hard it really does make my semester at UNC Chapel Hill seem like even more of a fresh start.

Thinking about the cultural differences makes it seem especially so. I’ve just found out who my roommate and suitemates are (prepare yourself for this eventuality if you’re going to the USA) and spoken to them via Facebook, realised how sparse my Manchester timetable seems in comparison to my new one (8am classes are a thing at UNC, apparently), and I’m trying (and failing) to convince myself that the gym in my halls over there will balance out the attractions of the state which gave the world pulled pork and a multitude of other barbeque goodness. I’m honestly feeling a little daunted by the thought of doing five different, and individually seemingly quite difficult, modules while at Chapel Hill but I’m very excited at the same time.

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Drop me an e-mail (above) or comment if you have any questions, I’m sure I’ll write again soon.