Postcard from Abroad – University of Urbana-Champaign Illinois USA

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. 

I am about to embark on my second semester at the University of Illinois (at Urbana-Champaign) after a two-week break back in England. When I touched down in Chicago it was – 21°C. I made a mental note that I could never say anything bad about standard British weather ever again. Wintery weather on campus is extremely variable. Some days it is sunny while other days end in six inches of snow on the ground and the streets become a free ice rink. No matter what, Foellinger Hall and the Grainger Library look great whatever the weather.

Sans titre

The past few weeks have been the lead up to a very important event in American culture: the Super Bowl and, despite my lack of knowledge regarding the rules of American Football, I knew I couldn’t miss it. Why?

1) There would be lots of food.
2) I would get to see American Football players’ muscles in HD.
3) I would have to dress up in red, white and blue (which I assumed everyone was doing but it turns out I had somehow made up this social norm in my head and in fact there is no dress code).

For my roommates the Super Bowl is a momentous day in their calendar. So significant is this day that one of them drove to Best Buy to replace our 40-inch TV with a 50 inch HD flat-screen before the game. During this year’s game, a guy intercepted the ball and won the game for his team (it was his first year playing in the NFL final) so now, apparently, he’s the coolest person ever. Getting a beautiful TV for the weekend was worth it for witnessing that alone.

The food was typically American: nachos, wings, pizza and fizzy drinks. I could have even eaten it out of a bacon bowl (pictured here at Hobby Lobby).


Everyone happily chatted away during the game but if you disrupted anyone’s viewing during the adverts, you would get the death stare and had to leave the room. Culture shock. At three million dollars per 60-second advert, the commercials are the reason a great deal of people watch the game. Back home I am used to muting the TV during the ad breaks and yelling, “shhh it’s back on” at the end of the breaks. Naturally the boys switched to immediate and full concentration during the Victoria’s Secret ad.

Not all exchange students are allowed to study abroad for the year, and over the break I was thinking about how fortunate I am to be able to come back. The USA is the country we’ve all grown up seeing and hearing about since childhood, ever since our parents gave in to our pleading and finally subscribed to the Disney Channel. Time goes by fast.

Luckily I have had the chance to meet a wonderful group of girls through my sorority. I joined AOII (Alpha Omicron Pi) around September and it has been the best decision I made since coming to U of I. We run events, volunteer together, study together and do all sorts. When we go out I get to meet others involved in Greek life from a variety of sororities and fraternities. We recognise and support our sisters when they need help and congratulate each other for our achievements. During the break I met up with one of my AOII sister’s cousin who was studying in London, which is one of the perks of the AOII network. I have a family of three big sisters: Anna, Megan and Lisa, three generations who have spoiled me with gifts and have been nothing but loving from the start.


It has been pointed out that I’ve been living in Illinois around five months now so I should probably start liking country music or no one will want to be my date for the barn dance. ‘Sorority Girl’ by Luke Bryan is somewhat catchy so at least I can sing along to one track. If all else fails I will have to set up a profile on the dating website called Farmers Only and pretend I know a lot about corn. I’ve made a mental note to remember that Illinois corn is Field Dent and not Sweet Corn. I made the mistake of writing it wrong last time.

A few weeks ago I went on the university’s ski trip to Colorado, which was fantastic. The bus ride from Illinois to Colorado took 18 hours but we passed through Nebraska (which I remembered only because it is the birthplace of Penny from The Big Bang Theory) and Iowa. In Colorado we visited the high altitude slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail, and I attempted to teach my Australian friend Rosie how to ski for the first time.


It turns out there isn’t awful a lot to be frightened of in Colorado, well except for snow sport injuries, the threat of wind-burning your nose and moose (perilous creatures).

PS: If you are interested in coming to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, send me a message.

Sarah Johns

Images courtesy of Sarah Johns

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