- by Jenna Kirby
When I first arrived at the University of Connecticut, I felt completely overwhelmed. An eight hour flight from London Heathrow to JFK, followed by a dizzyingly exciting evening spent at a hotel just around the corner from Times Square, then an early morning Megabus journey to Storrs had completely exhausted me. The good news is that I ended up sitting next to fellow exchange students on the bus who I still count as some of my closest friends here.
The first week flew by in a haze of jet lag, meeting new people and orientation. The weather was gorgeous (the first difference that hit me!) so we spent a huge amount of time sunbathing by the lake on campus. The UConn campus is beautiful, but totally different to Birmingham’s red-brick-and-green-grass appearance. It is a ‘proper’ American college with all teaching and most residential buildings on campus, as well as all the dining halls, the student union, all the sports facilities, and a performing arts centre. Each student gets free unlimited access to the gym, swimming pool, and all fitness classes, as well as opportunities for discounted tickets for acts performing at the Jorgensen centre – recently, Regina Spektor played on campus. SUBOG – the Student Union Board of Governors – also organize trips for decent prices, such as to Broadway shows in NYC, Knicks basketball games, and to theme parks.
The UConn sports teams are of a pretty high standard. Although basketball season hasn’t started yet, I’m excited to see the team that I’ve heard so much about play. The women’s team has been unbeaten in 80-ish games, and the basketball team at the London Olympics was pretty much made up of UConn players. American Football games are also an experience, like something straight out of a movie! Thousands of students are taken to the stadium at Rentschler field in yellow school buses and the effort with which Americans tailgate is pretty impressive; fields of beer and BBQs stretch out all around the stadium. The spectacle within the stadium is also incredible; cheerleaders, dance teams, marching bands, fireworks, and chants that the entire stadium joins in with.
The social life at UConn is very different to any UK university I’ve been to. There are three bars on campus, but the heart of the American college experience is in frat and house parties. Trust me, people do actually drink out of red cups and do keg stands in real life!
In terms of college work, it rings true for pretty much all American universities that there is more work to do throughout the semester, but it of a much less difficult standard than at home. There are usually readings, quizzes, midterms and finals for each class, but as long as you attend classes and make an effort to keep up its fine. Participation in class also makes up a percentage of your grade here, which at first was a pretty intimidating thought, but American students are so happy voicing their opinions that it soon feels natural to join in. The range of classes here is also really impressive, and because the education system is so different there is a lot more freedom in choosing classes and there will be people in your classes who do a variety of different majors. The American people themselves are a huge part of what has made this experience so different. American people are generous and – contrary to popular opinion – polite. They will wait two minutes for you to catch up so they can hold the door open for you; five people will jump in at once to bless you if you sneeze in class. They are so friendly and outspoken, and think nothing of stopping you in the street with: ‘Oh myyy God, do you have an accent!?’. Being British here truly makes you feel like a celebrity!
A huge majority of students at UConn live on campus in dorms, with roommates. These will usually be set out on floors where there are communal bathrooms and communal living areas. The rooms are basically furnished with a bed, a wardrobe, a set of drawers, a desk and a chair, yet these can all be moved around to make the room more homely. I was terrified at the prospect of having a roommate before I came out here, yet I was surprised about how quickly I got used to it. Almost all college students in the US have roommates so it’s completely normal, and it’s a great way to make a really close friend. Almost everyone I know here is happy living with their roommate,and those that weren’t were able to move rooms easily within the first couple of weeks.
Living in dorms on campus also includes a meal plan, which gives students unlimited access to the nine dining halls around campus. I was completely shocked by my first dining hall experience – there was so much food! No wonder everyone was talking about the ‘freshman fifteen’. However, there is a huge variety of food – both healthy and not so healthy – and mealtimes each day are a really nice time to socialize with everyone.
Connecticut is in a really good location in the United States, making it really easy to travel around the country. Buses leave directly from campus for New York City twice a day, for as little as $10 if you book in advance. There are also buses that go to Boston regularly. From here, you can travel across the country – I’ve got trips booked to Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C, and plan to see as much of the country as I can before I leave.
Unfortunately, I’ve also had the opportunity to try out the American health care system since being here. I broke my ankle at a football game and while I could go on about the good quality care, the clean facilities, and the lack of queues in the waiting room, I still wouldn’t recommend it! Although I found the whole health insurance process confusing – having never even had to consider it before – the International Office at UConn were really helpful and I managed to claim back all of my expenses. It turns out that hobbling around campus with a cast was another great talking point!
I waited until arriving on campus to organize my phone contract and bank account. AT&T is one of the most widely used cell phone providers in the US and they have a branch on campus. I was able to get a monthly contract including 250 US minutes and unlimited texts for $25 per month. There is also a People’s United Bank on campus and I set up an account with them with ease. I’d recommend loading a travel card with some money for the few days after arrival, to tide you over before setting up an account. I have some friends who have been happy using the Caxton FX card, a prepaid currency card that is easy to use and has no charges.
If the universities that you are interested in provide the opportunity of becoming a U21 Ambassador – I think they include Connecticut, the University of Virginia and the McGill – it’s definitely worth applying for. If your application is successful after a written application and interview, you are given a £1000 grant to represent the University of Birmingham whilst you are abroad – so it’s great for the CV too.
Most students are paying upwards of $20,000 a year to attend this school, so getting the opportunity to come to UConn – or any American university – for half the price of normal UK tuition fees is pretty incredible! It is likely that you’ll never get such an opportunity again and I can’t recommend it highly enough. This time a year ago, when I was in your position, I was full of questions and anxieties about the year abroad. But now, the best piece of advice I can give you is not to worry so much. As long as you make an effort to get everything organized in a timely manner, your year abroad will be one of the best experiences of your life.
Jenna is living and Studying in Connecticut for her year abroad.