Postcard from Abroad – University of Urbana-Champaign Illinois USA

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Sarah is a third year Geography student on her year abroad in Illinois, USA. Finding herself in a campus bubble surrounded by three hours’ worth of sweetcorn fields in every direction, she experiences culture shock on a weekly basis. Her West-London accent is so strong that her flatmate “translates” for her when people don’t understand her pronunciation. Nevertheless she feels very at home amongst the pretty university which has a student population of 43,000. Keen to live the full US experience she has joined a sorority, practices new American vocabulary and aims to tick off a list of states to visit before her visa runs out. Other hobbies include interviewing Americans about their thoughts on England via Snapchat story.

Hi I’m Sarah and I’m almost at the end of my first semester at U of I (the University of Illinois). It has been an amazing term so far and I would highly recommend anyone to study abroad because it is such an adventure. Comparing American movies to real American Uni life is also pretty fun. I know several people who live in Evanston and I can report that Mean Girls was not filmed at North Shore High School but that the Walker Brothers Pancake House is real and that the pancakes there are out of this world because I went during Thanksgiving – so American.

Sans titre

Firstly, Americans place a lot of importance on team spirit. According to the unspoken law of school pride, everyone must bleed orange and blue on “Game Days”. And you better wear the school colours to whichever sporting event is having a match or you’ll stick out like a sore thumb in the crowds. Want to show off that you are either a freshman or an international student? Wear the free “Illinois” hoodie you and every other new student to campus is given for setting up a bank account affiliated with the Uni. You’ve got to hand it to American universities for how passionate they are about supporting their teams. Going to a home-game American Football/Volleyball/Basketball/Ice Hockey match is incredible, the atmosphere in the stadium is amazing.

Unfortunately my first American Football match ended with everyone evacuating the stadium due to lightning strikes and tornado warnings but the second one I went to was great. I was in the student section called “Block I” where you and a hundred other students are handed big orange, blue and white cards. Then you all simultaneously hold up the colour your seat is assigned to and the crowds around you see messages such as “Go Illinois” and pictures with the big ‘I’ for Illinois that you have created.

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A lot of people pick up on my accent – no I am not from Australia or South Africa and my name is not Hermione Granger. Most people I’ve met are from the suburbs of Chicago so sometimes when I’m asked me where I’m from I pretend that I’m really good at putting on a British accent and that I also live in a suburb just outside the windy city. With my sorority sisters backing me up it’s pretty convincing.

The minimum age to enter bars on campus is 19 but the drinking age is 21. Underage drinking fines will set you back over 330$ – around 210 quid. I have to use my passport as ID to get into the bars because when I showed my UK drivers licence they thought it was fake because we write our dates differently, “it’s not fake, it’s genuinely my country’s way of proving I can drive”. It has been mightily confusing to me how they put the month first, then the day and then the year. Speaking of driving, America drives on the right side of the road. This has caused me to nearly get run over multiple times because I look the wrong way when I first step out on to the road. For both my safety and avoidance of the extortionate medical bills, I am forcing myself to remember how not to cross the road. 3000$ for a ride in an ambulance is money I’d really rather spend on rent and some cookies. Also, if crossing the road when the “Don’t walk” sign is showing was against the law in Leeds like it is on campus, I would fear for the future of the Otley Run.

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New words I’ve learnt? “Jank” means dodgy, whereas “dank” means cool. You don’t say dodgy though, you’d say “sketchy”. Every time I say English words like swimming costume, jumper, trainers, I get reminded that I am in the USA, that “we’ve been over this” and that I must call them swimsuits, sweaters and sneakers. To this, I can’t help myself replying “I CAN’T EVEN”. As for teaching Americans British words? It’s a lot fun. I taught them “Big Name on Campus” (BNOC) and “knackered”. As for biscuits, in America, they are cookies, even if they are definitely not cookies. Biscuits are savoury cakes, a cross between scones and English muffins and are served with gravy (not what you think it is) at “Brinner” (breakfast eaten at dinnertime).

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What about the food and drink so far? Entering the US I realised I really had said goodbye to the beef stew, endless cups of tea and the wholemeal bread rolls that I was served on the flight. I was genuinely concerned at what would become of my diet. At least we get a free gym membership… Here the shear landmass of the nation means way more food miles so food has to be preserved a lot longer than in the UK. Hence why a lot of packaged foods taste really sweet. The only other time in my life I consumed more sugar is when I had a candyfloss flavoured rock in Brighton – which I suppose was just sugar flavoured sugar. Americans have come up with food combinations I couldn’t have possibly imagined; glazed doughnut sandwiches with egg, sausage and bacon, cookie sandwiches with icing in the middle, and as for coffee, forget milk and use “French Vanilla Creamer” instead.

The portion sizes are huge; honestly a small beverage is probably an English medium size. On a recent trip to Missouri I accidently ordered a burger and chips and received a burger with crisps – oops, rookie error.

Sarah Johns

Images courtesy of Sarah Johns

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