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 Big Apple

By Annabel Savage (Stony Brook University, The State University of New York, USA)

I’ve just returned to SBU from Thanksgiving, and while passing through New York, on the way to visit friends, I realise how much I have taken my proximity to the city for granted. Life will be a little less magical when it is no longer a bus ride away.

No matter how many times I go into the city, it will never loose its charm. Only a bus ride away from campus, and with four months to explore, I was convinced I’d tick everything off my list. Instead, everything is still very much unchecked and I find myself with only 2 weeks to go.

Although there is still a list of things I would like to do, I feel I’ve explored the city as more than a tourist, and often find myself wandering around, trying out different cafes and taking in the atmosphere downtown.

Here are some of my highlights:

  • Bike Rides in Central Park – My brother came to visit for a weekend in October and the weather was still nice enough to enjoy all the Park had to offer. The Park itself is huge, so you’re slightly limited by foot, but renting bikes allowed us to get all the way to the top of the Park, see the different lakes and get a little exercise (so we could pretend to justify the food we ate later).
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Bike rides through the park
  • Ice-Skating in Central Park – Running theme; the Park is beautiful! To celebrate our last weekend together in the city before Thanksgiving and exams, some of the internationals and I went into the city for the weekend; and no Christmas trip would be complete without ice-skating. It was picturesque and relatively quiet and felt like we were on a film set!
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Ice-Skating in Central Park
  • Broadway – Coming from London, I’ve seen quite a few West End productions, but there was something magical about seeing Matilda the Musical on Broadway! I took a 7 year-old family friend, and I’m not sure who enjoyed it more! I was also lucky enough to see a play with my brother which had transferred from the West End.
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Even the set was incredible at Matilda
  • Top of the Rock – For such a tall city it’s difficult to see it from above, but the Rockefeller, at 70 floors high, gave us a great vantage point over Central Park, the Empire State and the rest of Manhattan. I’m still hoping to fit in a night-time trip too!
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Central Park from the Top of the Rock
  • Long walks – My dad also came out to visit and we spent 8 hours walking from the Park down to the World Trade Centre Memorial. The Memorial itself has been beautifully done and it a lovely place for reflection. We explored Downtown – Soho, Greenwich Village, Tribeca with amazing shops and cafes!
  • Shopping – No trip to the City would be complete without a little shop! I’m saving myself for the last weekend here, so I don’t run out of money before I return home, but with cheaper prices and numerous exclusive chains and boutiques it would be rude not to!
  • Eating! – Finally the food! Although the portion sizes often leave me defeated, it’s hard not to be lured in by the endless options of quirky cafes. I’ve eaten overlooking the Grand Central concourse, tried out ‘kronuts’ and shared a table with Jake Gyllenhaal in Soho at breakfast! Certainly beats eating in the Uni canteen!
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Gelato in Eataly

Thankfully I still have one weekend after finals to explore before I head back to England! For now it’s back to the library!

Continue reading “The Big Apple”

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.

A lot can change in a year

By Annabel Savage (Stony Brook University, The State University of New York, USA)

This time last year I was trawling through blogs trying to decide if I was going to apply for the Study Abroad Programme. If this is you today… DO IT! A year ago I was sitting in Manchester, searching through the lists of different universities, trying to match up courses and wondering if perhaps it was too much of a challenge, and that was just the application let alone the move! Now I’m sitting on Long Island, packing for a trip to Canada, with New York my closest major city… This blog focuses more on the studying, which is the biggest aspect of my time on campus, so choose somewhere with courses that appeal to you, not just for the reputation or location. I am hugely lucky that I get all 3! The time is flying by and choosing SBU is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Academic Differences

When I arrived in America I wasn’t sure how the teaching between Manchester and SBU would match up. However, 7 weeks in, I’m starting to feel like the similarities may be fewer than the differences.

Exams

Unlike at Manchester, there is no break between classes and exams to consolidate your knowledge. I’ve just finished my first round of midterms and, although there is less content, the techniques and study skills required here are very different. There’s always room for improvement and I’m still learning, so hopefully this will reflect in my scores next time.

Classes/Credits

In the first week I had wondered why the American students in my classes gave me slightly odd looks when I listed off the classes I was taking. Turns out no one takes four third year Biology classes without risking social suicide. The credit system here is set up so that as well as taking classes from your major, you also have to take electives, which will be first or second year courses. However, the professors are amazing and the content is challenging but interesting and the library has quickly become my refuge!

Lectures

Unlike Manchester, the lectures here start at 8.30am, which has been fine on sunny days, but I’m dreading when winter sets in. The lectures also all run for an hour and a half, something I am still getting used to. It’s great because the content is taught thoroughly in large blocks, but it’s also a challenge to stay focused for such a long time period and I find myself needing to review the last 15 minutes more thoroughly than the first after the lectures!

It hasn’t been ‘all work, no play’ though. Since I last wrote, the Uni organised a trip to a Yankees baseball game, with the Yankess beating the Toronto Blue Jays by 5 runs to 3. Hearing the whole stadium sing ‘New York, New York’ at the end is something I will never forget.

We also had our homecoming game (Varsity but on another level) which was incredible. I spent it with American classmates and got the ‘true’ experience. The loyalty to the Seawolves was evident all over the parking lots and the atmosphere inside the stadium was electric. Unfortunately, we lost the game in the last minute and a half, but it was still a day I will never forget.

I’ve also seen friends from home, been to a Broadway show and seen the city from the ‘Top of the Rock,’ so I am certainly making the most of my free time. This weekend a group of international students are making a trip to Toronto to see Niagara Falls and my mum is coming to visit the weekend after, so there’s a lot to look forward to. With time is flying by, we’re already planning ahead to the end of November!

Study abroad has already provided me with many challenges and amazing memories, I can’t wait to see what the next few months will bring!

At the Yankees Stadium!
At the Yankees Game!
Empire State of Mind
Empire State of Mind
On top of the World
On Top of the World
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Germany, NZ, England and Australia at Homecoming