10 things I wish I’d known before studying abroad in the US

22 Feb

Last year I swapped my steady student life in Leeds, England, for an unforgettable exchange year in South Carolina. I waved goodbye to weekends in the library and welcomed spending my spare time by the pool, exploring the US and watching American football games with my new international family. 1229944_10153197588695113_295444563_n (1)

I’ve realised that while the pre-departure support and advice I received from the study abroad office was second to none, there were just some things that briefings, orientation sessions and information booklets couldn’t have prepared me for. Here are ten things I wish I’d known before I plunged into my awesome year in the almighty USA:

You don’t need the extra suitcase

I totally regret taking an extra suitcase out to America, not to mention paying for it. I was so nervous about moving my life across the Atlantic that I tried to take it all with me. In the end, I didn’t use half the clothes and supplies and had to pay to ship them all back at the end of the year. If you’re going abroad, pack as light as you can- chances are you’ll want to buy new things in your host country anyway. suitcase

You won’t drink a good cup of tea all year.

Although I did pack too heavily, I wish I’d packed more teabags. If you’re a keen tea-drinker heading to America you’ll need to take a generous supply of your favourite teabag brand, because the chances of finding Yorkshire Tea or Tetleys in American supermarkets is extremely slim. 1175142_10153142825950113_158756582_n

Hope for the best but plan for the worst

When preparing to study abroad it’s best to adopt the mentality that the worst that could happen might just happen. It sounds negative, but that way, when you’re out in your host country and living independently, you’ll have a safety net of ‘Plan Bs’ that you ensured before you left. Make two copies of all your visa information. Take your laptop receipt in case you need to make an insurance claim. Most importantly, buy the most extensive type of insurance cover because it’s always better to be safe than sorry when you’re living in unfamiliar surroundings. 1175438_10153235128700113_576514204_n

Bid for a sorority early

I’ve always been intrigued by the phenomenon of sororities and fraternities and the polarizing reception they get in American universities. I ended my year abroad with a nagging curiosity and the regret that I never got to understand sorority culture from the inside. If you’re heading to America for a study abroad year, remember to check out sorority opportunities before you leave as they often start recruiting before you’re due to arrive. bid day

Studying abroad is an emotional cocktail (not a rollercoaster)
Before I departed for South Carolina I was told that I’d most likely go through phases of emotional adjustment, from ‘orientation’ to the ‘honeymoon stage’ to the ominous ‘disintegration’ phase. But everyone is different. I realised that my emotional experience in the states wasn’t a case of ups and downs, like a rollercoaster, but an emotional cocktail. I’d feel homesick, excited, overwhelmed and settled all at the same time. Even if the individual elements weren’t always to my taste, they never ceased to make for an overall concoction of discovery, anticipation and adventure. 1391661_10153414794925113_1337663628_n-2

‘Bless your heart’ is not a compliment

When I came to South Carolina I heard people saying ‘bless your heart’ and thought it was a term of endearment. Later in the year a friend told me it means something totally different. It’s actually quite condescending- a Southern way of saying something like, ‘No offense, but you’re pretty stupid.’ Thanks for the heads up! 1187141_10153252628835113_1783846883_n

There are no corner shops- just enormous supermarkets

Having spent my life in England I’ve always been within a few streets of a nearby corner shop (or convenience store, as Americans call it.) I never realised how much I take them for granted until I moved to America and the only convenience items available in the nearest shop were crisps and sweets: no milk, no eggs, no bread. This meant I had to plan my weekly shopping trips to Wal Mart with military precision if I didn’t want to go without my beloved cups of tea for the rest of the week. So much for ‘convenience’… wal mart

You’ll need more than just shorts and t-shirts

When I learned that temperatures in the Palmetto State stay mostly warm all year round, as a Brit long deprived of sufficient sunshine I went into overdrive packing bikinis, shorts and t-shirts. Little did I know that I’d need thick jumpers and socks for South Carolina’s first occurrence of snowfall in years. british snowman

Americans love driving more than you can possibly imagine
I had no idea just how much American driving culture would affect my year abroad until I arrived in Columbia. Despite being South Carolina’s capital city, Columbia isn’t pedestrian friendly to say the least. I quickly learned that being 21 without a driving license is the rare British exception to the American rule. There were so many times when I’d set out to the nearby town to find the pavement stop dead at my feet, turning my innocent shopping trips into questionable expeditions along the side of the road. Bless my heart! DSC02791

Reverse culture shock is worse than initial culture shock

As I was waiting for my inbound plane to pull in to the airport for a long return flight to the UK, I breathed a sigh of relief. I moved my life across the Atlantic for an entire year and had the most phenomenal time. What I didn’t expect was that the day-to-day impact of that year was far from over. Adjusting to life back home and parting with my new American family was one of the hardest and most unexpected trials of the whole year. While the shock went away within a few weeks, the reverse back to British culture will never be 100% complete. Wherever I go, I’ll always remember that there’s a welcoming American community out there in Columbia, South Carolina, that I’ll be sure to meet again sometime soon. 1167608_10154121806310113_7578574395160019972_o

On goodwill, social media and the North-South divide

17 Feb

Last summer I enjoyed my second work experience placement at The Liverpool Echo. While I was there, I had an unexpected and life-affirming experience. Here’s my speech about the incredible act of goodwill I encountered during my time there, which turned a seemingly ordinary two weeks into a summer I’ll never forget.

I gave this speech at Yorkshire’s renowned public speaking phenomenon, ‘Bettakultcha.’ It invites anyone and everyone to give a speech on any topic of their choice. What’s the catch? Stick to five minutes only, with 20 automated slides lasting 15 seconds each. Click on this link to get involved!

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A letter to my fresher self

4 Feb

Dear my fresher self,

Congratulations for choosing to study English and History, I know that careful decision took a long time. You’ve been accepted at Leeds and secured the accommodation you wanted at Clarence Dock. It must feel like you have everything worked out. That’s nice. Four years later you’ll have an arts degree under your belt yet still no grand life plan. Whatever people tell you, not knowing what you want to do for the rest of your life at 21 really is OK.

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Packing for the big move…

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My first year student halls

Despite choosing a Northern university you will spend most of your degree socialising with Southerners who talk about how great London is. In your final year, you will meet employers at networking events who will tell you about the benefits of moving to London and about how great London is. Be prepared to defend the North, love.

Don’t rush out to buy any of the set texts- especially not from the almighty rip-off that is Blackwells- find the books in the library or get them cheap on amazon.

There was really no need to email your tutor about missing the welcome lecture. Nobody takes attendance there, just a heads up.

Students can be…how should I put it…ruthless individuals. If you are late removing your laundry from the washing machine by even a minute you will find your freshly washed clothes gathering dust on the floor. 310607_10150832245100113_2023834161_n

Carnage is the most overpriced, overhyped and despicable sequence of events that could possibly be strung together in exchange for your precious money. It won’t do your bank account, your waistline, your self-esteem or your general well being any good. Please, just, don’t go.

Stop buying new fancy dress items for every fancy dress night out. That’s not what your student loan is for. Geek glasses and some face paint will suffice. 298520_10150899680830113_2003306070_n299800_10150918622820113_8638098_n

The Hidden Café is not a cutesy little coffee place you discovered by the miracle of getting lost in Freshers’ week. It is the most conspicuous place on campus to take your laptop, eat overpriced lunches and pretend that you are working.

There’s a corridor that connects the Edward Boyle library to the Roger Stevens Building- yes, really. Find it and use it- unless you in fact prefer climbing 10 flights of stairs and arriving at all of your English lectures sweating.

After your first year you’ll go on a life-changing trip to Costa Rica, during which staying in the jungle will make you feel as if you could conquer any living situation life will throw at you. But living in a below average student house with a broken boiler through the winter months in Leeds will make you drastically reconsider that statement. 199123_10152091047120113_1095390777_n

During your third year you’ll find yourself in South Carolina, enjoying a whirlwind year of cowboy boots and sweet tea, country music and American football, rock-climbing and travelling all over the US: basically having more fun and learning more life lessons than the rest of your university years combined. You’ll also hear about how great London is from Americans who went there once when they were 12. Savour that year, because time flies faster than a Gamecock when you’re studying abroad. 1148862_10153153567195113_790654073_n1267851_10153197620035113_1460927503_o

Returning to Leeds for a final year spent in the library will feel like the world’s biggest comedown. It is. The study abroad blues never go away, especially when you insist on putting peanut butter and jam on your porridge every morning. Make sure you stick to your hobbies and passions more tightly than ever before during fourth year, as you’ll need them in order to feel like a sane human being who is more than just a degree.
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If I had to end with one piece of advice for your impending university experience, it would be to make it yours. Don’t get sucked in to what everyone else might be doing, because comparison kills joy. Don’t  compete with anybody but your former self: know your own values, priorities and goals and focus on exceeding those. Student life is your precious time to start figuring out who you’re going to be, so make it yours and get stuck in. 1229944_10153197588695113_295444563_n (1)

Sweet treats for your back to uni shopping haul

3 Jan

It’s January, and there’s nothing worse than the thought of returning to university for essay writing and exam stress. In the next week most students will be waving goodbye to luxurious home comforts and returning to our shabby chic (but mostly shabby) student houses. With the #newyearnewme social media onslaught in full swing, many are starting to get stuck into detox regimes and diet plans. But if you have a sweet tooth like me, you’ll be needing small, everyday pick-me-ups to take the sting out of exam season. Check out these delicious, inexpensive sweet treats that I’ll be taking back to Leeds:

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-52-41-1Peanut Butter & Belgian Hot Chocolate
When I’m craving something sweet after my evening meal, making a hot chocolate is my go-to solution. I recently discovered ‘Peanut Hottie’ peanut butter flavoured hot chocolate and it didn’t disappoint. For those who don’t like nuts, try my staple hot drink: Options’ hot chocolate- at only 40 calories per mug you can’t go wrong. Both are available from Tescos, around £3.

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-48-52-1 Organic Peanut Butter & Jam
I can’t start my day without a bowl of porridge. Since my study abroad year it’s become super Americanised by adding a dollop of peanut butter and ‘jelly’. These organic indulgences do just the trick, and are a cut above standard peanut butter and jam. Available from Holland & Barrett and most major supermarkets, around £3.

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-45-09-1 Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-47-05-1Choccy Biscuit Spread
This Morrisons’ own chocolate spread is so delicious it almost started a war in our house. It tastes just like melted Ferrero Rochers, compressed into a tub for our chocolatey gooey enjoyment. It’s so good, we’ve all been eating it by the spoon and we’re #sorrynotsorry. Get Morrisons’ 4 tubs for £5 offer before they’re gone!

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Lemon, Ginger & Manuka Honey Herbal Tea
This tea is definitely the healthiest treat on the list- but that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t tickle the tastebuds. These flavours melt together to make a sweet, spicy and warming mug- great for relaxing just before bed. Available from most major supermarkets, currently on offer at Tescos for £1.50 in a variety of flavours, or Sainsbury’s for 2 for £3.

Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-54-24-1 The Body Shop Strawberry & Coconut Shower Gels
Of course these luxurious shower gels aren’t edible- but they smell good enough to eat. They’re a special treat and a nice change from budget shower products- also great to use in bubble baths. As you can see I just couldn’t wait to start using mine before driving back to Leeds! £4 each.

              Screenshot_2015-01-02-18-40-46-1IMG_20150101_162350Funky Country Honey & Amber Scented Candle
Anyone who knows me knows that I love to relax with some scented candles. Funky Country candles are a huge indulgence at £15 but worth every penny. With really unique flavour combos, they’re the best candles I’ve ever smelt and they last over 40 hours. Available from many boutique shops across Leeds, (mine was from Fodder at the Great Yorkshire Showground)- or via the Funky Country website.

How are you coping with the move #backtouni? Tweet me @EvelynHRobinson to share your coping strategies or chat about all #thingsbetterthanjanuary

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I think I’m in Christmas denial!
Snapchat--8821485566944019635

10 ways you know you’re a final year arts student

19 Dec

Freshers’ week lasts forever…right?

I’ve made it halfway through my final year as a BA English and History student, and there’ve been many painful moments of realisation over the last few months. Despite my best attempts to keep the work-play mix in checks and balances, as I slump to the library for another daily grind I find myself lamenting the slow and painful death of my social life. Perhaps the saving grace stopping me from going completely mad is the fact that my course-mates seem to be going through the same thing. So here are ten symptoms well known to those battling through the final year of their arts degree:

You know exactly what you want to do after you graduate…just kidding
You’re really glad you chose an arts degree, because they have the best possible reputation for post-graduate employment, and you don’t know which job offer to accept next September. See you in Costa Coffee, future baristas.

quickmeme.com

quickmeme.com

Your social life has become that of an ageing bohemian
I never thought I’d go to a cheese and wine night until I was in my 30s, but arts students hold them regularly as a happy medium between a night on the town and a night on the sofa. Good food, great alcohol, even better company and none of the annoyances of jostling about in a sweaty nightclub with a bunch of strangers. It’s pretty em-mental. Sorry.

hdbitz.org

hdbitz.org

Someone just recalled the one library book you need over the Christmas holidays, and it caused you to have had an existential meltdown

But that’s the one book…what do they need it for…I can’t write my essay now…may as well not do it…why did I choose this degree…life is pointless.

butler.edu

butler.edu

You’ve finally given in to using a backpack daily

Remember that canvas tote bag that you used to use all the time? No, you probably don’t, because you ditched it in September when it became heavy enough to use as a hammer throw. Now you’ve succumbed to using your Roxy rucksack to carry your books to the library. Mum always did say something about comfort over style…

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You’ve been studying so hard you forget which words are real- and invent your own

Last week, at the end of an eight hour library stint, I used the word ‘premacy’ in my essay, to discover that it is not a word, other than being the name for a Mazda minivan. Primacy is a word, as is pre-eminence, but premacy is definitely not a real word.

The Mazda Premacy is delightful but not what I need right now

The Mazda Premacy is delightful but not what I need right now

You’re buying lined paper at an abnormal speed

I swear I bought a new pukka pad last week and I’m already making notes on scrap paper. Where did it go?!

sanitaryum.com

sanitaryum.com

You worry about your argument in your daily life

Not arguments with real people, oh no. But the argument you’re meant to be having with all of the scholars you’re citing in your latest essay. Is my argument strong enough? Should I side with Winthrop or Koritansky? What is the meaning of all this?

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You get the best ideas when you aren’t studying and write them all in your phone
No matter how long you spend in the library, you’ll get the best ideas for your work when you spend some time away from it. Then a ray of brilliance shines down on your thought process, and you’re on the toilet, or out with friends. Who are you texting? Myself, actually…

text

Your sense of humour revolves around ironic socio-cultural references

This probably explains the cheese and wine nights. Where else will we fit in?

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gopixpic.com

You have dissertation complaint stand-offs with your course-mates

All discussions about final year projects have become a tirade of one-upmanship to vie for pity: I’ve only written 200 words. Yeah? I haven’t even decided on my title. Urgh.

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Despite starting to smell like a library, you wouldn’t have spent your degree any other way than exploring the wonderful, fascinating, inspiring and challenging world of the humanities. Let’s face it, maths was never an option.

lookhuman.com

lookhuman.com

Is there a secret to public speaking? Lessons from Bettakultcha

26 Nov

This week I delivered a speech at Leeds University’s very first Student Engagement Showcase. It was an afternoon of presentations designed to highlight the many ways that Leeds students are engaged in university life outside their studies.

We heard from a variety of speakers with an array of interests, from volunteering in India, to music improvisation, to entrepreneurship, to rugby and medical ethics. My speech was about my passion for media and journalism, which has been burning steadily alongside my studies in English and History ever since my first work experience placement at my local paper in 2010. 1507365_292918607566928_7053378692667460006_o

On hearing ‘afternoon of presentations’ you might think that the Showcase was a long string of speeches that had the crowd’s heads lolling about their shoulders. But the speeches weren’t merely factual regurgitation- they were inspiring, entertaining and heart-warming narratives, written with the sole purpose of sharing unique and untold stories.

Prior to the event, when the showcase team had selected each speaker, we attended a training session led by artist and professional speaker Ivor Tymchak, who has been making (tidal) waves of creative impact lately in Yorkshire. Ivor is the co-founder of indie phenomenon ‘Bettakultcha’, a cultural event in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield that invites people to deliver presentations about their passions.

But there’s a catch- all presentations must be five minutes exactly, consisting of 20 slides lasting 15 seconds each. All slides must move automatically on a timer- and the crux of the idea is that all presentations must tell a story. Forget all your one-dimensional presentation styles like describing, explaining and listing- and start thinking more along the lines of engaging, exchanging and inspiring.

What the in-house illustrator made of my speech

What the in-house illustrator made of my speech

So what did we learn from Ivor? Listening to him bestow his public speaking wisdom took me on a journey back through all the embarrassing presentation mishaps of my past. The first thing he focussed on was that presentations are a two-way experience. Not only do you have to think about getting the bare bones of your presentation right, but you also have to remember that the audience will only relax at your discretion. “If you feel awkward and nervous, the audience will feel awkward and nervous.”

The brilliant Ivor Tymchak

The brilliant Ivor Tymchak

He also told us not to pretend to be someone we aren’t, as audiences have a natural intuition and will be able to see right through it. So rather than spend an entire evening watching Ted talks and deciding that you’re going to adopt a different accent or start using an array of fancy hand gestures, try focussing on what makes you unique, and whatever that thing is- nourish it.

Something I’d never considered before was to remember to make your presentation human. Don’t let the podium, the microphone or the spotlight go to your head and remember that you’re just like the audience. They’re much more likely to relax if you talk about relatable or humbling experiences- or even the times that you failed. 1441575_294113977447391_2743191964987906894_n

But the ultimate piece of advice was to speak from the heart. Think about why you’re passionate about your topic in the first place. Why do you care about it, why is it important, why is it pressing? Think about the many reasons why you are emotionally attached to your passion and share them.

As I thought back over the various speeches I’ve listened to in the past, this last piece of advice immediately made sense. It reminded me of sitting in the audience at World Merit Day 2014, when I was moved to tears by a speech from Hillsborough disaster campaigner, Margaret Aspinall.

Margaret lost her son James in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and has campaigned for truth and justice for the last 25 years. The weight of the journey she’d already endured, the enormity of the path ahead and an unwavering determination to carry on the fight were articulated loud and clear with every word she spoke.

I didn’t give her a standing ovation because I thought she was well rehearsed, because she was especially articulate, or because she used just the right amount of triplets. I gave her a standing ovation because she had moved me. I was roused from my seat because I’d forgotten I was listening to a speech at all. I wasn’t hearing a speech: I was listening to Margaret and her story.

I’ve been writing and blogging for a lot longer than I’ve been public speaking. But what Ivor helped me realise is that what unites the brilliance of the written and spoken word is very simple. As Sir Philip Sydney once said, ‘Look in thy heart and write.’ The next time I’ll be taking to the stage, I’ll remember to look to my heart for inspiration before opening my mouth. Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 10.59.24

Kim Kardashian is just another battle in the cyber war over women’s bodies

14 Nov

The naked pictures may not have broken the internet, but they have proven a point about the extent to which the female body has become a digital commodity

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Kim Kardashian’s hyper-sexualised naked body is this week’s internet ballyhoo. Her greased behind, paraded by Paper Magazine as the photoshoot to ‘break the internet’, has been glistening in every dark corner of cyberspace. Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress- you name it- internet users have been unable to turn a corner without being visually confronted by Kim K in the raw.

As with all nude internet sensations, the photos have sparked a furore of polarising debates. Aside from Kim’s robot fans who have applauded her with automatic adoration, humans with brains have raised a variety of issues with the photos, from the representation of her naked body: completely hairless and oiled up, the backlash against her being a sexualised mother, the way in which a female body in and of itself can create superstardom, and the racial undertones to the images.

Some may well defend the photos as female empowerment- ‘women are entitled to do what they want’, or as just another unsurprising day in the internet world- ‘women get naked on the internet all the time, what’s the big deal?’

Fair play. Just last week, Kiera Knightley got her breasts out for a photo-shoot and comedian Tig Notaro performed an entire set, topless. Sadly, as an internet user of the 21st century, the persistent appearance of women’s bodies in the media has rendered me desensitised to seeing them at regular intervals throughout my day, whether I like it or not.

But the difference between Kiera and Kim is that they’re standing at opposite ends of the internet battlefield. While Kiera posed topless on the condition that she wasn’t photo-shopped, making a point about the great variety of women’s natural body shapes, Kim went nude to break the internet. Bravo. As ever, she wasn’t trying to convey anything inspiring or profound. At most, the photos are a continuation of Jean-Paul Goude’s trademark ‘art’ that sexualises the black female body. At least, they’re a sensational attempt to generate an infamous media reputation. Gossip= clicks, and clicks = money.

The photos are standing in a long line of recent internet battles over women’s bodies. The leaked nude photo scandal brought issues of authorisation and consent under the spotlight. Calvin Klein’s size 10 model begged the question, ‘Which size is plus size?’, and Victoria’s Secret’s ‘Perfect Body’ campaign sparked a torrent of bullets against the promotion of one limiting archetype of the female body. Screen Shot 2014-11-14 at 15.26.52

Whether each of these debates have been settled in a positive or negative light- or not at all- the sheer frequency and ferocity with which women’s bodies are being verbally attacked, defended and dissected on the internet demonstrates the disheartening reality that the internet has fast become a battleground for the female form. Women’s bodies are being pushed back and forth in internet spats, as lifeless pawns to be claimed or defended like territory. They’re hostage to cyberspace whether the women behind the bodies like it or not.

I might be a dreamer, but I look forward to the dawn of web utopia: the day that women’s naked bodies aren’t plastered so freely all over the internet. But if they are, the best possible public response will be one of complete and utter indifference. That’s the day we’ll know that women’s bodies have ceased to become the hotly contested benchmark against which we measure the value of women themselves.

In this sense, Kim’s photos are nothing new, just another battle amid a war that’s already raging.

What continues to bother me about the photos is that they edge closer to achieving their lurid goal of ‘breaking the internet’ every time they get talked about- praise or no praise.

So please, can we stop liking, sharing and talking about Kim Kardashian’s body and use the internet for something a little more worth our time? Quick, somebody grab an iPhone and pass me the ice bucket.

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