(From the perspective of an Aussie chick studying at Washington State University)
Take advantage of every opportunity:
While it’s impossible to make the most of every single second, it’s not hard to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. The college you’re studying at is likely to have lots of activities organised, whether they are aimed at international students or not. Some might be free, while some might cost a little money. A couple of the things I have done through WSU are attending a Rodeo (with real cowboys!) with a bunch of other international people, as well as go Kayaking on the Snake River, which was organized by the outdoor recreation centre. Both activities were a bunch of fun, and helped me to experience a different part of the United States and its culture.
Before I arrived here, I pictured making friends with lots of Americans and possibly some other foreign students too. However, once I got here I somehow ended up becoming better friends with the other foreigners than Americans. I think it’s because we can all easily relate to one another, as we are here for the same experience. To us, everything is new and exciting, while most of the American students (apart from the freshman) have experienced it all before.
I think it’s important to have some foreign friends because those are the ones who you can relate to, and turn to if you are feeling homesick or something. Chances are they will be having similar feelings. It’s definitely great to make American friends too, because that is a big part of what you are there for. Your American friends will help teach you about the American culture, while you can teach them about yours. Also, Americans love Australian accents so it’s not hard to make friends!
If you are having trouble making friends, keep in mind that there are unlimited opportunities to make new friends and chat to people. You may end up making friends in your dorm, at orientation, at parties, at the bars, at the gym, or by joining a club.
Also known as the first week of classes. I was told that this was the major party week of the semester. “Partying? What about classes?” I was slightly baffled. Turns out that you probably wont learn anything, your classes will be cut short, and you will most likely leave them wondering why you bothered to go in the first place. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go, as it’s a good chance to get to know people in your class as well as your teacher, and what they expect of you. I don’t think I had ever partied as much as I did that week, which was an exhausting ton of fun.
School will be different
The grading system here is different, with people always talking about GPA’s and how a 4.0 is a perfect score (think above 95%). In America if you get a D+ (65-69%), the response will be something like “damn, I need to step up my game or I’m gonna fail.” In Australia if you score a 67% it’s more like “hell yeah, I passed!” Cos as they say, P’s get degrees, right? That being said, from my experience, it seems easier to get good grades here.
Get out of your comfort zone:
If travelling to a foreign country on your own to attend college isn’t leaving your comfort zone, then I don’t know what is. But congratulations, that’s the scariest part! Talk to people you wouldn’t usually talk to, make as many friends as you can, and say yes to as much as you can! If someone invites you to a party, say yes. It might just be one of the best nights you’ll have. If you’re not usually a party person, go to one, you might surprise yourself and like it. If someone invites you to hang out, you might make some new friends. The point I’m saying is, you will probably have a better time and experience a lot more if you get out of your comfort zone and do things that you wouldn’t usually do at home.
Remember how lucky you are:
For the first month you are likely to have moments where you suddenly realize “I’m in America!” which is exactly what happened to me. It’s that moment when you realize how incredibly lucky you are to be on a student exchange at an American college, the stuff you otherwise only see in movies. After a while you will probably stop having these moments, as living at college will become second nature and feel sort of like home.
Try all the American foods:
While American food is known to be unhealthy and fattening, it’s important to experience at least some of it, because I believe a big part of travelling and experiencing a countries’ culture is the food. When I first arrived here, my mouth was watering at the thought of eating burgers and other greasy American foods. My first bite of a cheeseburger tasted like heaven, and I couldn’t wait for more. This was followed by many more cheeseburgers and a lot of pizza too. After a few weeks however, I started getting sick of eating dining hall food and had noticed that I’d gained a little weight. Don’t be surprised if this happens to you too! It’s quite hard to eat healthy in the dining halls, as there are limited healthy choices which are often more expensive than their greasy counterparts.
Here are my favorite eats to try in America (also notice how none of them are healthy!):
Burgers- With American cheese. I think the best ones can be found at bars or specialty fast food joints that are more like diners. Aka. NOT McDonald’s.
Pizza- While technically not American, the people here are big on pizza. Especially pepperoni, which doesn’t tickle my fancy too much.
Apparently ‘deep dish’ pizza is also a thing, which I am dying to try. If you haven’t heard of it, Google it.
Chili dogs– A chili dog is basically just a hot dog in a bun covered in chili. Yum.
Corn dogs– Delicious hotdogs inside a cornmeal batter and eaten on stick. Cover it in ketchup (or mustard) and it is quite delicious.
BBQ ribs– What can I say?! BBQ ribs are delicious, especially when they’re tender and falling off the bone.
Taco’s – While technically from Mexico these delicious little babies can be found everywhere in the US, probably because they are from the Mexican gods.
Orange chicken- Okay, so I’m cheating a little here, but I promise if you go to Panda Express and order the orange chicken you won’t regret it.
Krispy Kreme donuts– Possibly the best donuts ever, enough said.
Smore’s- I would describe them like a sickly biscuit sandwich with melted marshmallow and chocolate in the middle. Often made by a fire.
Cereals– American cereal is much different to Australia, as most of it tastes like ‘candy.’ My personal favourites are cinnamon toast crunch and lucky charms (it has marshmallows in it). If you don’t try it, you’re missing out!
Wings– Chicken wings are popular here, especially on ‘Wings Wednesdays.’ Choose from BBQ, Teriyaki, Buffalo or other flavours.
Biscuits and gravy– Let me tell you that this is not normal biscuits or gravy. Instead, it basically looks like a scone with weird white sauce. I have not actually tried this because it looks too gross, but it seems to be a big thing here.
Chicken and waffles– I cannot understand putting these two combos together, and I haven’t tried it but I’m planning to!
Ben & Jerry’s ice cream- There is sure to be a flavor that you’ll fall in love with, and possibly binge eat a whole tub of.
Four Lokos- possibly the most lethal alcoholic beverage in a can that you will ever drink, which doesn’t actually taste too bad the first couple of times. Word of warning: it will get you F***ed up!
Party it up:
For some reason it’s always more exciting to party in a foreign country, whether it be at a house party, bar or club. I think it’s because the environment is different, the people are different, and you don’t really know what to expect.
One thing that really got me excited was frat parties and the whole ‘Greek’ system, which we don’t have in Australia. There are countless frat parties all weekend long (and sometimes all week!) which, as a girl you can pretty much just walk into and drink alcohol for free. While the frat houses are kind of dirty, with drunken frat boys and sorority girls everywhere, it is usually a fun night! If you’re 21, hit up the bars and clubs too, so you can experience it all.
Word of warning- Americans dance pretty hardcore, or should I say ‘grind.’ When I first saw people grinding on each other, it literally made me cringe. Now I just think its funny (and sometimes join in if I’m drunk enough!)
Don’t forget to study… sometimes:
It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the wild parties, new friends and exploring your surroundings, however, there is one thing you need to keep in mind- you came here to study. Whilst a student exchange is largely about the experience and culture rather than solely about studying, it’s important that you pass your classes too. I may be guilty of skipping more classes than I should, due to being hungover, tired, or just downright lazy, but I usually ensure I am always up to date with assignments, etc. It would be an awful feeling to fail a class at the end of your semester abroad!
Try to stay active:
This is a really important one, because if you eat American food, drink alcohol and party all the time, you will put on weight and feel shitty. Trust me, I’ve experienced it, and it ain’t pretty. I recommend hitting the gym, or going hiking or bike riding which are fun activities and also give you a chance to explore. If you’re into sports, there are plenty of opportunities to join teams or even just play for fun.
You will spend a lot of money:
This really depends on a few factors such as the exchange rate, but generally a semester or two at college will set you back thousands of dollars so make sure you save every penny you can! For me, there have been many unforeseen expenses such as extra snacks, alcohol and random things for my dorm room. It’s hard not to go a bit crazy in a Walmart store!
You may get homesick:
Getting homesick is completely normal, and most people will experience it to some degree. As someone who usually doesn’t experience homesickness, I have experienced small bouts of it that usually only last a day or two. I miss the little things like my dog, the food eaten back at home, and the freedom of having my car to drive.
Whether you are very homesick or only slightly, there are many things that can help you deal with it. My suggestions are to hangout with your friends, keep busy, keep active, and speak to family and friends back home via Skype or Facetime.
You will become more independent:
As someone who has always lived at home, I am accustomed to my Mum doing almost everything for me, from washing my clothes to vacuuming my bedroom. If I’m ever asked to do these tasks at home, I respond with “I can’t, I don’t know how to.” But when you’re in a foreign country with no one to rely on except yourself, you force yourself how to do laundry and other necessary chores. I can now say I know how to do laundry (even if I’ve shrunken a few things in the process, oops!). I’m also more motivated to clean my room, as it’s the only space I really have to myself, and who wants to live in a mess?
Ultimately, you have the freedom to make every decision for yourself. Have to choose between studying for an exam or an awesome trip to a theme park on the weekend? Well, the choice is up to you! I know which one I’d be choosing…
Document your memories:
Whether it’s through a journal, blog, or even just lots of photos, your time away will be something you will want to remember forever. While I planned to keep a journal or blog while I was here, I soon got carried away with having fun and exploring that I completely forgot about it and ended up with about 2 journal entries. However, I have taken many photos (and selfies), and written down summaries of stuff I’ve done most days.
Make a bucket list:
One thing that can help you plan and also look forward to things is making an American bucket list. This is a list of all the things you would like to do before the end of your exchange program or time in the US. It may include things such as going to a rodeo, attending a college football game, or meeting a celebrity. Not everything on the list has to be achievable, which is what also makes it fun. Imagine if you actually ran into a celebrity and could tick that off your list! Some of the things on my American bucket list were to go to a frat party, go on a road trip, and party in Vegas. So far I have achieved 2 of the 3.
Attend sporting events:
Americans are big on their sports, and as someone who is not usually interested in sports in the slightest, America has changed me. I was always excited to experience every part of the American culture, even the college football games, which didn’t disappoint! Although the very first home game was freezing cold, raining, and half the people left half way through, I was determined to stay until the end. Our team was tipped to win and there was no way I was missing that! Unfortunately the Cougars ended up losing, but what made the game so amazing was the atmosphere. The marching band was playing, the cheerleaders were cheering and the crowd was chanting and going crazy! I felt like I was in a movie, as it was something I had never experienced before.
I’ve also been to a couple of Volleyball games and had no idea what to expect. Turns out they are crazy fun! Everyone stands the whole time, cheering and chanting the school chants. Some of the cheerleaders and marching band are there too and the whole game is very suspenseful. If you have the chance to go to football, volleyball, basketball or baseball games, make the most of it! When your team wins you will feel part of something truly special, and you won’t experience an atmosphere like it anywhere else.
Get into the school spirit:
American schools seem to be big on school spirit, especially mine. Every time I go to class or walk through campus, I can’t help but notice a ton of people wearing crimson and grey (the school colours), and sporting t-shirts or jumpers that say ‘Cougars’ or ‘Washington State’ on them. The school holds many sporting events, as mentioned above, where almost everyone will be wearing WSU clothing to show their school spirit and loyalty. So make sure you attend college events and wear your school colours with pride!
There will be language barriers:
You would think coming from one English speaking country to another would be easy, and for me it is mostly. However, half the time Americans can’t understand a word I’m saying! Simple words like ‘here’ or ‘bones’ have caused a lot of confusion, due to the slight differences in pronunciation, which can be frustrating. Many words and slang words such as arvo, or capsicum will also confuse them, because apparently they’ve never heard the terms before.
Me: “Ah damn, I lost a thong last night.”
American: “OMG you lost a thong, you must of gotten wild…”
Me: “Ohhh, not that kind of thong! A ‘flip flop.’”
Me: “I went to Macca’s last night”
American: “Who is Macca?”
Americans will love your accent!
…Wait, I have an accent? Here are some of the weird and wonderful things people say when they find out I’m from Australia:
“Omg, you’re Australian, that’s so cool!” … Yeah, I’m pretty cool, hey.
“Wow, I just wanna listen to you talk forever.”… That’s kinda creepy.
“I’ve never actually heard an Australian person talk before.”… Seriously?
“Just don’t stop talking… keep saying words.” Well now I don’t know what to say!
“So are there kangaroos everywhere?” … Sure are mate.
”Isn’t Australia filled with heaps of deadly animals like spiders and snakes?”
“Do you throw shrimp on the Barbie?” … Nah but we chuck prawns on the Barbie (occasionally)! Who even says shrimp?
And then there are questions that don’t even make sense:
“Is your main language English?” … What?
“What currency do you use, the Euro?” … Australia ain’t in Europe mate.
“Do you know who Kim Kardashian is?” … I live in Oz, not under a rock.
Stay in touch with friends and family:
The fact that you can communicate with someone on the other side of the world in just seconds ceases to amaze me. It’s a powerful tool and should be used to your advantage. Stay in touch with family and friends as much as you feel you need to, as it can help with homesickness and probably make the transition coming home easier too.
You’re in a wonderfully diverse country, so take the time to explore as many places and cities as you can! You will find that each state is completely different, like 50 little countries within one very large one. I have been to the US on two family holidays before I came here on exchange, so I’ve been to 10 states total.
Depending on where your university/ college is located, there will be many opportunities to explore the surrounding cities or towns. For some, you might be stuck at a university in the middle of nowhere (which isn’t a bad thing!), while others may be located in or close to a major city.
I’m in a college town called Pullman, which is 1.5 hours drive from the nearest city, Spokane, and a 5-hour drive from Seattle. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck on campus, especially as I don’t have a car, but I try to make the most of it. There are always plenty of things to do on campus, and it is easy to walk or catch the bus into town. There are hiking trails nearby, and a bike trail that leads to Moscow, Idaho, the next town over.
So far I’ve managed spend a weekend in Seattle, go on a shopping trip with a friend to Spokane, and next up I’m hitting Portland!
If public transport is not an option to explore, you will have to seek out other means of transport such as bikes, hiring a car, or friends who have cars.
If you’re on a tight budget, seek out inexpensive options such as camping or even couch surfing.
Take advantage of free stuff
When you arrive at your new college, you are likely to go through some form of orientation. During orientation week there are lots of free (and fun!) events, free giveaways such as t-shirts, and best of all, free food! Take advantage of every free piece of pizza or other form of food that you can, because it will save you money on your dining dollars. As a college student, saving every penny counts!
Walmart may be your new best friend
What can I say? I just love Walmart. It has everything you could ever possibly need all under one gigantic roof. From stationary to alcohol, you will find it here. When you first arrive you will probably need necessities such as plates, towels, laundry detergent, etc. which you will find at Walmart at very low prices. If you’re looking for cheap meals, look no further than Ramen, which is essentially the same thing as 2-minute noodles. Whilst it’s not exactly healthy, you can buy 12 packets for $2.27 USD, which works out to around 20 cents a meal!
Furthermore, check if your town has a ‘dollar store’ as there are many things you can buy at even lower prices than Walmart (for only a dollar!). Dollar stores tend to sell items such as stationary, cutlery and even food!
You don’t want to come home after your student exchange regretting the things you wished you had done. So make as many friends as possible, go to as many parties as possible, and explore as much as possible! Go Cougs!