17 December 2013

In the second of two blogs about studying abroad, geography student James Lester gives his take on the ‘American dream’

An hour and thirty minutes south of Portland by car, Oregon State University (OSU) is located on the Willamette River. It was here I was spending my Study Abroad year. Oregon is blessed with two mountain ranges and coniferous tree cover, which ooze a beautiful smell in the summer. Volcanoes string the Cascade Mountain range that runs from California through Oregon and on to Washington.

The coastal range lies west of the university creating a large valley that was flooded 13,000 years ago by the Missoula floods. The flood influenced the soil type tremendously and makes the Willamette Valley excellent land for agriculture and timber. So, rivers, fertile soils, beautiful pine trees, volcanoes and the ocean: I can think of worst places to live for a year!

The campus itself is not as glamorous as its natural surroundings. Red flat roofed buildings litter the uneventful skyline, but they do provide enough vertical rise to trigger vertigo for those interested in climbing them. Rumour has it that there are a series of underground tunnels below campus, along with a nuclear reactor. I was never fortunate enough to see either.

The American academic system

The academic system at OSU is built around three terms, students taking modules equating to 12 credits minimum in each one. Having achieved a first at Lancaster in my first year and now living the American dream, my room mate (also a Lancaster student) and I had a less than desirable attitude to our studies in the first term.

The work was relatively unchallenging and partying with new found friends was all too tempting. This could be classed as a mistake. Mid term and final exams crept up on us: I scraped two B's (both 89%!!!!) and a C-: we're not talking about that.  I adapted for the remaining two terms, checking in 7 A's and a B.

I found a number of great things about the American system. The shorter classes and single teacher allows high autonomy and helps a relationship develop between student and teacher.

I found American students to be organised, enthusiastic and confident.  My English friends moaned at the quantity of stupid remarks made by students in class. Students are rarely shot down and the teacher can waste class time answering or allowing a student to speak for long periods. This could be a good thing in that it encourages all students to believe in presenting an argument but a bad thing because many go barking up the wrong tree.

I learnt a number of practical skills from gardening to public speaking. I also gained a very critical approach (encouraged at Lancaster) from seeing what happens when things are not critiqued and one-sided arguments are presented. Classes lacked essay writing and hard scientific peer reviewed work.

Sunshine and friendships

I was there to study, but also to really get an insight into how the most powerful and influential country on earth works.

From the perspective of a Brit, life in America is fantastic. The weather is nicer and people appreciate the accent: most cannot differentiate between my northern mother tongue and the Queen's finest. I found that if you had good intentions, were appreciative and had a sense of humour, the Americans will take you to heart, and their generosity will leave you speechless at times.

I made a fantastic number of friends, had many memorable conversations and adventures. I found myself representing Malaysia at a model UN conference in Seattle and being a special guest on the local radio show. Life is generally cheaper so we partied and travelled immensely, taking in over 30 states by the end of the year.

The American dream - deep and shallow

The American "dream" isn't all happiness and joy. At times it can feel quite shallow, and deep at the same time. Their great qualities are also their worst. Contented, happy, accepting, generous, but also fanatical, hyper thoughtful, dreamy and vain.

The West coast has a hippie vibe, especially in Oregon. Anti government, anti just about everything but they preach peace and love. I have never talked so deep as I have with Americans and I think it can have its merits. But extremes of any type are dangerous. At times I craved English humour and the self regulation it brings, but there was little time to think about home.

All in all, America is a beautiful country both physically and socially. A priceless life experience packed to the brim with unforgettable memories and great moments.

To get another perspective on studying in America, read my friend Laurence's blog about his year studying in Boulder, Colorado. You can also find out more about Lancaster University’s Study Abroad opportunities.


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