11 December 2013

In the first of two blogs about studying abroad, Lancaster geography student Laurence Hawker compares a British and American university education.  

I set off over the pond in mid August for my Study Abroad year, not quite sure what to expect from my first time in North America.

I was collected by my ‘host family’ and orientated in the local area, part of a very good programme run by the university for international students to help us settle in.

The following day they transported me to my home for the next 10 months, the University of Colorado (CU).  As we crested the hill towards Boulder, I caught my first glimpse of arguably one of the most beautiful cities in America. The never-ending plains of the East gave way abruptly to the Front Range, dominated by the jagged sandstone peaks of the Flatirons.

Even in Boulder the altitude reaches 1655 m making physical exercise a little challenging, and once you reached the Rockies 'proper' the altitude quickly ramps up. To put icing on the cake, Colorado is one of the sunniest states, making a very welcome change from Lancaster.

Colorado campus life

The CU campus was as impressive as the surroundings with vivid orange sandstone masonry complimented by luscious green areas. The scale of the campus was somewhat overwhelming at first, even though it is fairly compact by American standards. To commute between lectures, one would often have to cycle or take the free shuttle bus.

The college sports system is incomprehensible to many international students. Crowds are huge, the money involved is considerable, and often CU games were broadcast on national television.  The football stadium - Folsom Field - has a mind boggling capacity of 53,613 (which makes it bigger than Anfield and Hampden Park).

 Academic study

American students take four years of classes, on a wide range of subjects. An engineering friend of mine had to take a number of humanities classes, including creative writing. Many of my American colleagues were shocked that UK students focus on their subject much quicker, despite the minor system here at Lancaster.

In some ways the American system is better as students can become more rounded, but then the specific knowledge of their chosen major suffers. 

CU has two 16 week semesters: I took four classes per semester.  The geography department has a very good reputation, and I took some fulfilling classes in international development, the Geography of China and mountain geography

A different teaching style

The style of teaching was like that of a British further education college, but with the intellect and maturity of a university. We had fairly large lecture halls, but often the classes were smaller and more personal. We frequently worked on exam style desks, creating autonomy, but there was also a high level of engagement both with the lecturer and between students.

In the first few weeks I was shocked by how forward my fellow students were, but then I embraced this and engaged in dialogue in classes (very different from Lancaster, where discussion seems often reserved for only a few plucky individuals). This meant I could form strong relationships with my lecturers without being branded a ' teacher's pet’, which I intend to carry on in my final year at Lancaster.

The American system was far more full on that the British system. There was less independent learning, as much of the work was set. You have to do some sort of reading or task for virtually every lecture and you were tested in class, which would count towards your final grade.

Sure there were fewer 'bigger projects' and the final exams were less daunting as classes have mid term exams. 

Overall, the workload is about the same if you want to do well, and the style suits students who like to work little and often.

Skiing, hiking and making friends

So what about life away from academia? It surpassed even my highest expectations. Boulder has a very outdoor focused mentality so I engaged in all sorts of activities from hiking to biking to skiing.

I found Americans extremely friendly, which led to ski trips and staying for two weeks with someone who I barely knew. I think my accent gave me a certain air of exoticism.

Being an international student, I made strong social connections with fellow international students sparked by events such as a weekly coffee hour and playing football (of the soccer variety). Possibly detrimentally, I intentionally reduced my contact with the Anglo- Australian groups and my fellow Lancastrians to get out of my comfort zone, and experience a diversity of cultures. I certainly got that!

I was very much a 'yes man' which led to a bewildering series of events including seeing Barack Obama twice, being stuck in Washington DC as a result of Hurricane Sandy as I represented Romania at a Model UN conference, and getting an internship at the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder. 

Discovering America

I travelled in any spare moment, which landed me in 13 states and three other countries.  Highlights were the Grand Canyon, Christmas in Vancouver, New Year in New York, San Francisco and a road-trip around the Yucatan peninsula.

I would highly recommend a ' study abroad' experience in the USA. The myths that it is prohibitively expensive (I actually spent only marginally more than at Lancaster, including travel), and that the people are unwelcoming to international students' are simply not true. It has definitely been the craziest and most varied year of my life, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

If you are interested read more at my blogand see my friend James' blog about his year in Oregon which will be published shortly. You can also find out more about Lancaster University’s Study Abroad opportunities.



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