It’s about time!

Wow! It’s almost the end of the first semester, and boy do they provide you with a lot of work… Not too much though, perhaps I’m just being dramatic, but I am certainly feeling the burn.

Part of the problem is Thanksgiving, I suppose. It was on the 24th November, and as you may know, it is a time to meet with family and eat lots of food. I went round my friend Anna’s, a friend from class, and her family could not be more encouraging or welcoming. I even left with lots of food to take home. The problem lies in the four days off you have for the holiday, because you return to class finding you have 2-3 weeks to finish all your work and hand it in. Tiring is not the word, and it’s nothing new to be scrabbling around at the end of the semester but this mini holiday held just before kind of lulls you into a false sense of security.

I’ll be ok though because I have meetings with my lecturers who are all amazing and incredibly supportive people. They say that they really enjoy my work and genuinely appreciate having me in class. Being English – or British to the Americans – is en vogue and I can really appreciate my culture now that I am not immersed in it. Seriously, being here makes me realise how interesting some of the more mundane aspects of my life can be.

For instance, I complimented someone on their jumper at work the other day and everyone was either confused or began to laugh. I realised my mistake, and said they had a nice sweater. Too late, the damage was done, so to speak. But what happened next is incredible. People just wanted to hear me talk. Anything. One girl asked me if I would read from Harry Potter if she brought the book in. Incredible.

Work, you say? Why, yes, work. It’s incredible. I work at the Columbia Chronicle, an eminent college newspaper in America, as a Copy Editor. This is beyond brilliant, speaking as a writer. Back in London, at UEL, I study Creative Writing. Here in Chicago I do much the same only I also work in a decent position within my field, effectively gaining hands-on experience whilst I study. I’ve been saving every newspaper that’s printed and I intend to bring them back to the UK to add to my portfolio when I apply for jobs. What could be more enticing to an employer, than a student who travelled to another country and actively gained hands-on experience doing the relevant job? It definitely sounds more relevant on my CV than the rubbish retail job I had at Stratford…

It’s easy enough to get a job, either on- or off-campus (provided the job is relevant to your degree). There’s an online portal called Handshake where you can upload your CV with examples of your work and list extra-curricular activities which may help your applications. I received a job offer from the Chronicle. After a few necessary administrative steps I was awarded a Social Security number – just like a National Insurance number – and to top it off, the office even back paid me for my time there. Brilliant!

So just to clarify, students have the opportunity to study abroad, learn a whole new culture, gain paid employment in a relevant field and essentially make their CV irresistible to prospective employers. Did I mention that students who study abroad are also statistically more likely to achieve a 1st class degree, and become employed in their chosen field? Think about it for a while.

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops however. I only show the best bits on my Facebook or Instagram, it’s the done thing after all. There have been some incredibly low moments. At first I was quite homesick, missing my family and my friends, and just going down to the pub for a beer and a chat. I miss things like Ribena, silly as it sounds, and ‘proper tasting chocolate’. Every time you purchase something here, they add the tax on at the till, so it can sometimes be difficult to figure out exactly how much it’s going to be when you get there. Even then the amount of tax is different in the city and the suburbs.

Sometimes it’s as silly as simply communicating. Like I said my accent here is en vogue and with some people I find it hard to show that I have content to my words, as well as having an accent. My sense of humour is confusing to a lot of Americans, too. Sarcasm and irony are lost on many, but there is hope. Some people get it and slowly but surely, I have been finding myself making friends!

The trick is to talk to everyone and be yourself. The right people will gravitate towards you and you’ll find yourself relaxing more and more. Invite people out, join a society. Ask people what they’re doing at the weekend and see if they want to make plans. It’s really just like your first year at UEL, you talk to a few people and for some reason a few of them become your best friends. By the end of the semester you don’t want to leave. Also don’t be afraid to talk to other international students. One of my greatest friends here in Chicago is Norwegian because it turns out that Norwegians have a similar sense of humour to the Brits.

Lastly, I want to point out that the team at UEL will not have forgotten about you. I have had some issues here which I might detail in another post just so you know how to overcome them. The team at UEL has been an immeasurable help in sorting them out. I can’t imagine where I would be without them. Unfortunately I had a brief accident which involved a trip to A&E (called ER here) and no time was wasted. With Carly and Felicia working hard to ensure that I had the best protection and support in dealing with medical insurance. If I had a problem I simply contacted them and I knew they would work hard to make sure I was safe. That alone made me feel comfortable I was in good hands. It’s difficult leaving to another country, I won’t pretend it isn’t, but it’s always comforting to know that you have a great team on your side.

Two weeks and I get to relax for the holidays. I met a lad at UEL called Andrew, who is from New York and we became such good friends in London that I have been invited to have Christmas with his family in New York! We’re going to go to Salem, Boston, all over New York and Long Island, where he’s from. We’re also going to drive north to see Olivia and Heather, two more friends from London. I’m so excited to see them again, and I count my lucky stars that I have met such amazing people at UEL and Columbia College Chicago. Seriously, whatever you’ve read in the news, Americans can be the most welcoming people. I’m already having enquiries about New Year celebrations.

A Chicago Thanksgiving, a New York Christmas, and the possibility of a New Orleans Spring Break. I have to say even though at times it can be difficult, studying abroad is offering me some of the best memories of my life.

I Really Couldn’t Say…

I set off for America at 5am on Tuesday August 30th, and I was largely terrified. I had never flown by myself before, and my mum’s insistence that she see me off, coupled with her nervous attitude towards flying, didn’t exactly fill me with the blind confidence needed for such things. But it was actually really simple. I waved goodbye to Mum and Diane, checked my bags in at the relevant desk, walked through security confident that I wasn’t who they were looking for, and found my gates easily enough through a combination of the bold announcements and the large screens littered everywhere. Simple. In fact, the first whiff of trouble came during my layover…

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I was to fly from Birmingham International, across to Dublin – where I would check in through American customs – and then onward to Chicago, O’Hare; and you’ve guessed it, it was in Ireland that I found my first sizeable hurdle. In Dublin you pass through the American Consulate, which checks your passport and decides whether you ‘get in’. Imagine a bouncer outside your favourite club checking your provisional driver’s licence, but they’re doing it on your doorstep to save you a long journey home, should you not get on the VIP list.

“Address of where you’re staying, sir?”

I gave the address.

“Once more, sir?”

I complied.

“Follow me, sir, you have been selected for extra screening.”

My heart sank as the lady led me to a room containing several other people, whilst she marched off with my passport to some unknown beyond. I sat calmly for around 15 minutes – something that can’t be said for a redheaded Irish woman, who took it upon herself to holler like she was a particularly bad audition for the X-Factor. I could almost see the American clerks behind their desks edging their hands towards the button that controlled the garish red ‘X’. Eventually it was my turn to be called forth, and I was nervous, I’ll admit. The lady simply said there was a discrepancy with the address I had provided. That I had said ‘South State’, when I should have said ‘State St’. I was fine. Get out of her sight. So I did, and I’m not ashamed to say I went straight towards a pint of Guinness. After all, I was in Ireland, and my nerves were shaking.

So that was that! I spoke with a lovely American couple at the bar for an hour, and proceeded to catch my flight. The journey was forgivingly dull, and the most eventful thing that happened during my eight hours in the air was when I dropped some rice and I thought I might enter the US with stains on my crotch. Thankfully, this wasn’t to be.

(I might add at this point that, during my leaving party on the weekend before, I had sung so loudly that I had lost my voice! I was devastated that I would be entering the great unknown without the ability to ask for help. This was where my great deciphering skills had to come into play. I was reading everything, and paying close attention to all announcements – which meant no headphones! If I could give you a top tip, it would be to ask. You may seem embarrassed, but people are there to help you, and some may even be in the same position as you! If, for some reason, you cannot ask, then hitch onto the airport Wi-Fi asap. You normally get the first 30minutes free, which is what you’ll need to search for directions – or possibly translating!)

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I was lucky to have been assigned a buddy who could drive, and who drove me from the airport to my apartment. He even gave me a miniature tour of the campus, a quick trip for groceries, and then helped me move in. I cannot thank Mati enough for his continued help, even to this day. If I have a question or problem, he is the guy that offers a solution. I urge you to check if your new university offers a buddy scheme, and sign up well in advance.

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So there you have it. The hard part is over. The only thing left to do is contact my family and friends to let them know I’ve arrived safe (although my constant Instagram updates would have been enough to vindicate me in any court); head to the International Meet and Greet; make friends; figure out the currency; become comfortable with my surroundings; get used to the time difference; understand the local customs; feed myself; and become ready for classes. Yeah, it seems like a lot, now I think about it, but it’s not. You just tackle each day as it comes, and solve every problem that arises, when it arises. The hard part is over, you’ve taken that first step (or 3’860 miles in my case, whatever), and the start of your once-in-a-lifetime experience begins here. Just try not to lose your luggage, your nerve, or more importantly, your voice.

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