Academic Experience and First Semester at UMass Amherst

By Lucas Smith (University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA)

With second semester starting imminently, I am now half way through my placement here at the University of Massachusetts. This semester has gone very fast, as I expected it to. Still, I think I have managed to cram in as many activities and experiences as possible. Already it has become a year that I will never forget.

Moving into my second semester here I will now be more accustomed to the academic aspect of my placement. While we were all told in our pre-departure meetings about how teaching vastly varies across the globe and from institution to institution, the reality really only hits home when you experience classes first hand. In my experience the classes are much smaller than what I was accustomed to in Manchester. My largest class consisted of roughly thirty students. Smaller classes result in more freedom in terms of discussion and activities. It is expected that everyone contributes in class which I initially found a bit strange as it is so different to the PowerPoint lecture based teaching I was used to in England. However, as I settled in to this form of teaching I found it to be useful as ideas were analysed closer so a clearer understanding of concepts could be grasped by the students. Aside from how the classes are taught, the work load and distribution also differs greatly from what I encountered in my previous two years at Manchester. Firstly, I would say that the work load is substantially more in the States, however the work seems to be less difficult. This, I believe, has aided my time management skills and work ethic this semester as I have been much busier than I usually would be. While academically I still prefer the system I am used to in England, it has been interesting and enjoyable to experience different styles of teaching and assessment. All in all, I feel the process of studying abroad has made me more rounded by building on skills such as time management.

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However, there is much more to study abroad than just the academics. This semester has been amazingly fun. The campus is so large that there are always activities and sports events going on. Earlier this semester we had the Homecoming (American) football game which was an amazing spectacle for a foreign student such as myself. Thus far, my experience of viewing University sport had consisted of watching Varsity Rugby in Manchester in the rainy and cold conditions synonymous with our city; it was fair to say my mind was blown. Not only are they a much larger deal here, but they are also free for students and make a great day out.

Due to Amherst’s location in the North East of the USA, it has been fairly easy to get off campus and see what the region has to offer.  So far I have been lucky enough to visit New York twice, Boston for Thanksgiving and go on a nine day road trip round Eastern Canada. The highlight so far has been travelling over winter break. Me and two other friends who opted to stick out the winter on campus rented a car after Christmas and headed north to Montreal for New Year’s. We spent a few days exploring the city and doing our best to remember our collective GCSE French. The city was such a contrast to the small town of Amherst where we had been for the term. From Montreal we then travelled east to the nation’s capital, Ottawa. After a short, snowy stop, it was onto Toronto which was the closest to a conventional US city. We managed to brave the coldest temperatures we had ever felt to see the amazing sites each place had to offer before returning home via Niagara Falls. All in all, my first semester was truly amazing and now I cannot wait to get started with my second!

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Keep reading for updates!

Pre-Departure to Amherst

By James Eyke (The University of Massachusetts at Amherst).

After a long summer, all the preparation and sorting out for travelling to America is about to come into effect. Visa in hand, I will soon be stepping off the plane into a completely new environment full of opportunities and heading to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Naturally, one starts feeling very nervous around this time. Having not travelled as far as Northern Spain in the past 15 years, thousands of miles across the ocean is quite a daunting task. The thing I am most apprehensive about with regards to my journey however, has to be getting from Boston International Airport to the town I will be living in, Amherst, which is only a distance of 90 miles away.

The partner University has events during an orientation weekend set up for international students; this will include general admin help as well as two organised walks in the nearby hills and a day trip to Boston which I signed up for. As well as this, the International Programs Office there has a buddy system set up where I have been assigned another student who will hopefully be happy to help with any issues that may arise, making the whole process a bit less stressful.

As for packing, I am thinking it will be best to pack lightly to make way for any memorabilia I collect during the year. This is thinking far in advance, but with airport baggage restrictions one cannot be too liberal with clothes and luxuries.

For when my next blog post comes around I will have been at the University for a few weeks and I look forward to sharing what I have done and what I have seen. Below is a picture of my suitcase! University of Manchester hat in tow, naturally.

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The End… Almost

By Hamish Russell (University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA).

Now that final exams at UMass Amherst are over, I thought I’d fill you in the goings on of the last few weeks. First up was the UMass Spring Concert, which featured the Goo Goo Dolls as the headline act – they were seriously good, despite it being almost unbearably hot and cramped in the Mullins Centre’s standing area.

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The weekend after the concert, I headed over to Boston to pay a visit to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, where I was given a bigger event than I was expecting… The game happened to feature a memorial ceremony before play began that paid tribute to the victims and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing that was carried out last year, and included a moving performance by the UMass Minutemen Marching Band.

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Once play was underway, the Red Sox lived up to the occasion, winning the game in impressive fashion by coming from behind and winning with a walk-off hit in the ninth – and final – inning (I had to check that with my roommate, still working on my baseball terminology).

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After the Red Sox game, exam season began to loom at UMass with essays being written and revision being avoided – almost as if I never left the UK. Despite this, the fun didn’t stop, with impromptu games of touch American football being organised among some of us international students. A few of us, with the help of a couple of Americans, even formed an intramural softball team which was enormous fun, especially when we managed to win a game. And now, with exams all over and my time at UMass up, my trip still has nearly two months left before I return home, so I’ll be posting about some of the adventures that I’ll be embarking upon… As long as I don’t run out of money.

Bye for now

Getting started in the USA

By Hamish Russell (University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA).

Before I even left the UK I ran into some travelling difficulties… I knew I might have a troublesome experience at Heathrow when my passport was scanned at the check-in desk, only for the desk to erupt with flashing red lights. It turned out that the US State Department had put me on their high-security list to make sure that I didn’t have anything in my bags (I didn’t) to suggest I was planning on violating the terms of my J-1 visa – so be careful when packing would be my advice to any future visa holders. New York was brilliant, as always, despite a few patches of Manchester-style weather and a rather loud New Yorker complaining to me that there were too many tourists in the city. I was guided round the city by some family friends, one of whom had studied at Amherst College (which is as close to UMass Amherst as the name suggests), meaning that I learned about Amherst as well as New York during my brief stay. A lot of the usual tourist items were on my New York agenda, but the local knowledge of my friends gave me a whole new perspective on life in the city and made the experience much more rounded and fun than following any guidebook can do. Also, the view from my bedroom over the East River was brilliant, a great place to watch the city rush by.

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I then took a bus from the New York to UMass, meeting fellow University of Manchester students on the way, as well as international students from countries as far afield as Australia and South Africa. Getting introduced to a lot of people so early on made life so much easier on arrival at UMass, with big group trips to buy bedding and other things for our rooms taking place about 45 minutes after we arrived at the university. One of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed between British and American universities is the school spirit – you can’t avoid the sheer volume of UMass apparel. The support given by the students to their sports teams is also incredible, with the 9,000 capacity Mullins Centre used for ice hockey and basketball games – the atmosphere is always incredible, there’s even a brass band playing at every home basketball game.

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The weather here is one thing that I’m still adjusting to, with snowstorms making the occasional appearance and making the freezing temperatures (somewhat) worthwhile. The coldest day that I’ve had was about -18 degrees Celsius, with the wind chill taking it down even further to -26. On that note, the university has closed today due to an overnight snowstorm, so I’m going to wrap this up and go sledging!

Until next time.