A Brief Discussion on Classes at Amherst, Christmas and the Canada Road Trip

By James Eyke (University of Massachussetts Amherst, USA)

Whilst exam period back at home is a month long period of stress and near constant work, the same cannot be said for over here.

The classes I took were much smaller than lectures, one in fact had only six people in it, allowing for a more one-to-one learning experience. This is very helpful in my subject area, Chemistry, because it is relatively hard and allows me to easily get clarification on an area of confusion.

Throughout the term we were given two midterm exams, multiple problem sets and homework, keeping us on our toes and up to date the whole time. This was helpful as back at home it is all too easy to leave exam revision until the last minute.

The exams themselves took place in classrooms in our standard seats, and two out of the three allowed open notes and to a certain extent, online recourses. At one point during a midterm, the professor actually left the class during the exam for five minutes. This is a far cry from the exceptionally strict exam code in the UK and leads to a much more relaxed atmosphere.

My final exams took place over the period of a week and were before we broke up for the Christmas holidays, not the UK standard of January. Once they were done, we had a month off to either go home to England and have Christmas with our families or stay in North America.

We decided to stay in the freezing temperature of North America. It was an interesting time, we had a month off and all but ten days of it was spent in the now empty and desolate UMass campus. Christmas day was a surreal experience. As we had no cooking equipment we had a Christmas dinner of hotdogs and pizza in one of our suite’s common areas. This made us a bit sad. Fortunately it was all worth it though because it allowed us to go to Canada.

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Christmas Dinner

– Canada –

We rented a car from a local rental station and left Amherst the morning of the 30th of December. The first stop was Montreal, which was a total of 285 miles away. The drive took a good six hours but it was still light when we got there. After checking into our hotel, the fantastic Hotel des Arts, we headed off into town to see the sights. It was at this point we realized how unbelievably cold Canada is, especially when the wind is up. But wrapped in our thermals, we managed to see some very interesting old buildings. The second day involved more sightseeing and of course, celebrating New Year’s.

After a few days we left Montreal and drove to the capital, Ottawa. Ottawa was even colder than Montreal and much smaller. Our hotel was the kind of shady motel you’d expect to see in a film, but it was reasonably comfortable. It was here that we faced our first winter snow storm following by freezing rain. On the morning we were due to leave we found the car surrounded by a good six inches of snow and encased in ice. After a good hour of snow shoveling and ice-scraping we managed to get out of the car park and onto the road. The only task that remained was a 300 mile drive on a snowy motorway through the Canadian wilderness.

Fortunately, we made it to our next stop, Toronto, in one piece. We had seen many many cars crashed/stuck in ditches on the drive so we were very thankful to be safe. Toronto was a good city, definitely the most American out of the Canadian cities so far. Sights included the CN Tower, which unfortunately was extortionately expensive to climb, so we didn’t. After a few days in Toronto we left and headed to what would be the high point of our trip, Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls lies on the border between the States and Canada, and when we went it was cold beyond belief. The temperature was -16 degrees on the day we were there, but with windchill it was reported to be -30 to -35 degrees. Cold aside, it was utterly beautiful and amazing to watch. After a good few photos were taken, we got back to the car and headed for the border. The last night of our trip was spent in a Hilton hotel in the city of Buffalo, which was fantastic. The relaxing night prepared us for the 400 mile drive the next day, which was completed without a hitch.

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 Our wonderful vehicle and Niagara Falls

All in all, the holiday was brilliant and made me almost glad I had missed Christmas at home and stayed abroad. Interestingly, while we were away Amherst had reached a colder temperature than we had experienced on the whole of the Canada trip, so maybe heading north wasn’t as foolish as everyone had said it was.

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!

Reflections on Study Abroad on my return to Manchester

By Hamish Russell (University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA)

It’s been six months since I landed back at Heathrow, and almost four since I started back at the University of Manchester after my semester abroad. Getting back into everyday life with family and friends was easy, but adjusting back to the university work in Manchester was actually quite difficult. Having been working at a very different pace while in the US, the workload that I’ve been hit with so far in third (and final) year has been tricky to adapt to. As well as that, it’s been almost strange not always planning a trip to somewhere new, as if that’s the norm for a student.

One thing I have enjoyed since I’ve been back is helping current study abroad students. It’s been quite fulfilling being able to guide people through their preparations for their own study abroad exchanges, giving them information and details that were very helpful to me, and were perhaps not given to me before I embarked on my trip.

Returning to Manchester has also impressed upon me the importance and significance of studying abroad. Every time I talk to someone about university, or opportunities for after leaving university, I am always asked about my time abroad. I won’t have brought it up specifically, but it’s on my CV and seems to be something that catches peoples’ eyes. As well as making my time at university that bit more special, studying abroad has already begun to have a positive impact on my future.

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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Post-UMass Travels, Part 2

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

So before I head home after six of the best months I could have asked for, I’ll give a little update on my travels.

The first port of call after leaving Philadelphia was Washington D.C., the capital of the USA. I spent my two days in D.C. mainly on and around the National Mall visiting pretty much everything, starting with the Lincoln Memorial on the west side and ending with the Supreme Court building to the east. I also spent some time in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, which was huge, but somehow made to feel small by the sheer number of people inside it.

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After D.C. I kept heading south, through Virginia, where I visited Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson. Next stop was Savannah (Georgia), where I spent most of my time in the historical district – which was beautiful – being told by tour guides and street signs about the various films that had been filmed in Savannah, especially Forrest Gump.

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Charleston in South Carolina had some streets possibly even more picturesque than those of Savannah, especially an area of houses known as ‘Rainbow Row’. In Savannah a great way to see the city was to take a trolley tour, but in Charleston the case was similar for the harbour tours that show off the city.

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Following Charleston, I headed to my cousin’s holiday house in North Carolina for some downtime that included some serious messing around on jet-skis and generally making the most of the glorious weather before heading back to Philadelphia.

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I guess all that’s left to do is come home. Which is a weird thing to write. I might have to try and fit some more little adventures in, but I’ll just have to see how everything pans out – either way, I think this is it for my blogging. It really has been a brilliant six months.

 

 

 

 

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

Visiting Philadelphia

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

Spring break was a really nice change of pace for me; having already done the clubbing sort of holiday with my UK-based friends I was more interested in hearing the tales that others brought back, and staying clear of the fray myself. So, while many of my friends from UMass headed to Cancún for the week, I caught my flight from Boston to Philadelphia. As soon as I landed I was thrown into the culture of a new city, with new terms for seemingly trivial things replacing the new words I’ve become accustomed to while in Massachusetts. I was told off for being difficult with the security people at Philadelphia Airport for insisting I didn’t have any tennis shoes with me, but it turned out that any form of sports shoe is known as a tennis shoe across Pennsylvania – which I did have. Even sandwiches have different names, ‘grinders’ in Massachusetts and ‘hoagies’ in Pennsylvania; any food confusion was avoided however as my uncle was keen to use me as an excuse to break the strict diet rules that my aunt tries to make him follow – making Philly Cheese Steaks our first choice for lunch.

While staying with my aunt and uncle, I visited the town of Gettysburg, the site of the US Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. You’re allowed to drive around the battlefield without a tour guide, stopping at points of interest crucial to the outcome of the battle. While similar to visiting First and Second World War battlefields, this site has a different feel – you can easily visualise each attack and movement.

View from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
View from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

After Gettysburg, I visited the city of Philadelphia itself. The National Constitution Centre, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and Reading Terminal Market were my main stops. Reading Terminal Market is Philadelphia’s answer to London’s Borough Market, with a plethora of stalls, stands and choices. However my lasting memory of it will, unfortunately, be being knocked from behind into a small girl sending her slice of pizza flying… I apologised to almost the entire market before buying the girl and her brother some replacement pizza before leaving as quickly as possible, my face burning red with embarrassment. Needless to say my other stops are much less painful in the memory, and all incredibly interesting.

Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Philadelphia
Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Philadelphia
DiNic's, Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia
DiNic’s, Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent much of the remainder of the week in the safe confines of the golf course, trying not to humiliate myself too much or lose too many balls to the hazards. Very few of the rules of golf were followed, and the rounds were dominated by stops at the various refreshment stands placed around the course and small wagers on holes – meaning scores were patchy to say the least, but the rounds were huge fun.

Getting back to UMass at the end was good fun, being able to catch up with people after a week away and hear their stories, especially when the first one told was that one of the guys was missing in action having been asked to get off a plane in North Carolina on the way back from Cancún… Still not 100% sure about what happened with that.

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.