7pm. I’m sitting on a sun bed on a rooftop. A clear blue sky all around. In the distance, city spires tower above a misty blue bay and looking up from my laptop, the Golden Gate Bridge presents an amazingly beautiful view. In fact, from the rooftop of my new home, I can see all out across Berkeley and to the tip of San Francisco. This certainly isn’t Alcuin – where if I’m lucky I can see the early morning swimmers at David Lloyd. No, this certainly isn’t York.
While most incoming freshers will feel a mix of excitement and nerves moving maybe a couple of hours away to York, last Saturday I left Heathrow Airport for San Francisco – a 10 hour flight and 3000 odd miles away. I am on one of the University’s worldwide exchanges . For my second year, I will study abroad at the University of California, Berkeley. Locations for these exchanges are all over the world – New York, Sydney, Hong Kong, Belgium. Prestigious Universities are offered including Columbia University in New York and UPenn in Philadelphia.
Sound exciting? It did to me. I first saw the exchanges advertised in York’s undergraduate prospectus – I’d always wanted to travel, but hadn’t felt brave enough to attempt a gap year abroad, let alone pay for one. Study abroad seemed like a better option; I’d be a year older, I would have already experienced living five hours away from home and I’d get to actually live and study abroad, rather than just have a holiday or a few months travelling. If I’m totally honest, it’s the pictures of beaches, famous sights and regal campus architecture that first grabbed me.
This is as far as it gets for most people. A quick glimpse at the pictures, an “oh that looks cool, I might check that out” and then, BANG, Freshers’ week hits and all thoughts of attending an extra meetings are lost as you’re handed your first tequila shot. Having attended fire talks, college talks, YUSU talks and being bombarded with pamphlets at the Freshers’ Fair, would you voluntarily go to another meeting?
However, if you really got caught by that initial thrill of looking through photos, you will attend that meeting. You might have heard applying is tedious, stressful and time consuming. However, it really isn’t as complicated as some people think – just think of the the reward! A year or term abroad. Attending lectures by some of the world’s best professors (Berkeley actually has car parking spaces for Nobel laureates). A bigger choice of classes than you ever imagined. Peace and Conflict Studies, Celtic Studies or History of Prostitution anyone? I live in a house with a hot tub where you get to paint your own room. It also has not one, but two rooftop views of San Francisco Bay (have I mentioned that?). Spending Spring Break in Hawaii or Palm Springs. Spending the weekends hiking up into the hills. Eating frozen yoghurt with pick and mix on the top with new friends from as close as Abergavenny (Wales) to as far away as New Zealand. Attending an American movie-style house party! Eating Mexican one day, and Persian the next.
Still interested (hell yeah!)? There’s an introductory lecture in Freshers week. Here, the International Office will offer you a brief introduction on how the exchange works, where you can go, how much it costs etc. The exchange will normally replace your second year at York or your third if you are doing a four year course. There are two types of exchanges: Erasmus and worldwide.
Erasmus exchanges take place in Europe and are probably overall the cheaper option. For starers, you won’t pay any tuition fees for your year abroad in Europe. You will in most cases, however, have to speak the language of the country you’re going to. Don’t worry about this though. Even if have barely any language skills, York offer intensive language courses to ensure you’ll be able to enjoy studying abroad. Whilst learning in a foreign language may sound scary or maybe exciting to you, spending a year abroad studying in a foreign language is one of the great benefits of a European exchange. Being fluent in another language is a huge selling point to employers. Saying that you’ve lived abroad in a completely foreign country shows independence, commitment, and enthusiasm to take on something rather challenging (but is also incredibly exciting and rewarding).
Worldwide exchanges take place outside of Europe – across the USA, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore – and courses are taught in English. If you attend one of these, you will pay half fees. These exchanges will have different application procedures, and I will explain below how the worldwide one worked for me.
The next step if you feel doing an exchange is something that appeals to you is to start researching where you want to go. The study abroad website is an obvious start. There is also a file of exchange reports in the key texts section of the library which compiles past students feelings, tips, and general advice regarding their host University. Reading through past students’ adventures, I felt excited and inspired to the desperate point where I couldn’t imagine not studying abroad. Their experiences so engaged me that reading through the whole file (at least the California section) became a bit of a mission and took precedence over a couple of weeks of History reading!
The most vital meeting to attend for the worldwide exchanges is one that will occur on the 4th November and will be an open evening by the Study Abroad staff where past exchange-students will do presentations on each exchange and will be available to answer any questions you have. The next steps of the application will also be explained and, very importantly, this is the event for you to both speak to students who’ve been through the exchange process and to pick up the forms needed to apply.
The first application you will make is an internal one to York. You will be able to apply to only one University’s exchange programme, although if you are offered an interview they will ask you if you’d accept a place on a different exchange if there’s a spare space. You will need to have produced a 2 page essay, a CV, a reference from your supervisor, a provisional list of modules you want to take, and a list of modules you are taking in your first year at York. The deadline for applying for a worldwide exchange is either the first or second week of the Spring term depending on the University you apply to. Interviews take place in late January/early February. Before and over the Christmas holidays it’s also best to discuss with your family how you will finance a potential exchange and begin collating financial material (bank statements, letters, loan offers, etc).
This all seems like a lot of hassle and stress, but doing it bit by bit it’s not too bad – it will just feel like everything has to done really quickly.
When preparing my application for the University of California (UC), I and most other people I spoke to didn’t know where to start for the essay. There’s no golden rule. Write about why you want to study there (the campus, the University, the city, the state, etc) and what opportunities that particular place would offer you that York wouldn’t. I tried to select courses York didn’t offer and wrote about why they interested me. I also looked at the societies each of the UC campuses had to offer. As a fresher, you’ll soon learn that York students like to ‘get involved’ so maybe write about what hobbies you have, what societies you are in, what skills you have learnt from them. It’s also important to express that you’d be able to live independently abroad for a year. Think UCAS personal statement (but not as horrible!).
If you’re lucky, you’ll get an interview. Be aware though that these exchanges are very popular – schemes at places such as Columbia University only offer one space so are a lot more competitive than other choices that offer more spaces. Many promising candidates may not get an interview (but then how do you know unless you apply). Interviews last about fifteen minutes, and will be carried out by a panel of about three University staff. From here, you may be made an offer and if you get one, the form filling really begins. External applications, financial forms, visa applications, housing and course choices all have to be completed.
By the time you apply you will have experienced your first term at York. If you do an exchange, you’ll have to start all over – some people will frankly think you’re crazy for wanting to do this, leave York. Hopefully, by Christmas it will seem like home. Certainly, by the end of my first year, it was – I was thinking do I really want to miss out on my second year at York? You may not want to – that’s fine. You may not be sure – that’s also fine. However, if you think it’s worth taking the risk, then apply.
I know this is a lot to take in but I’ve only been abroad five days and I can already tell you it’s worth it! If you do make the final cut, what can you expect? Well, the short answer to this is I’m not really sure. Each exchange is different and an individual experience, and I’ve only just started mine. Like everyone, I’ve got a set of expectations. Top of the list when I arrived were my course choices, accommodation and making friends (sound familiar freshers?).
Term hasn’t officially started yet so I have no idea what my modules will be like – I’m hoping they’ll be really interesting and professors and students will offer a different perspective on historical events. However, I am really nervous about the workload – I have a 15 week term to look forward to with midterm and final exams. I was sent the reading list for one of my three history modules the other day and I have to read 150+ pages a week. It should be okay, in fact I’m really hoping it will help me develop a good work ethic for when I return in my third year. However, the big bonus of studying abroad is that you do get to take courses from other departments. This semester, I’m hoping to take a Basketball class and a student-run course about TV broadcasting.
With my accommodation – so far I love it. I’m staying in a co-operatively owned house with about 120 other people and it just keeps surprising me. We have a pet tortoise! All the walls have crazy murals on them. Nearly all the Americans I’ve met smoke marijuana! There’s a hot tub and a pole dancing podium that doubles up as a breakfast table. It’s just crazy. I was worried the room would be really small, but even the doubles and triples are of a generous size. The only thing I’m really worried about is how noisy it’s going to get. I’m actually excited about having a roommate! Everyone seems so lovely. Making friends so far hasn’t been too big of a problem – there’s a bunch of international students I’ve been going out for meals with and attending orientation with. Most the US students haven’t moved in yet but the ones I’ve met so far are all enthusiastic to chat to you and play drinking games!
So far, my expectations about campus and beyond have been met and exceeded – the campus is beautiful, there are so many facilities (FOUR POOLS!). There are at least three huge libraries (with no construction noise) and so many activities available. Gym membership is only $10 a term and I’ve already considered going on an adventure weekend where you’re taught a water sport or climbing. I’m planning on visiting San Francisco with friends in a few days, and I’m planning on exploring further afield in California when I get the time!
Finally, I’m expecting there to be bad times and to sometimes find my surroundings and course load too challenging. I’m expecting to get stressed and miss home. I’m in the honeymoon period right now – everything is new and exciting but I’m expecting both ups and downs. It wouldn’t be university otherwise!
However, I’ll leave you with one final note. I’m so excited (if you haven’t already guessed)! Applying for an exchange will seem extremely daunting to you right now – I never thought I’d get on one let alone actually arrive here! Whilst I’m scared as hell about what the future will bring I’m equally thrilled about the unknown. At the end of the day, I will be home in a year. I will see York again. The ducks will still be there. The friends I already miss will mostly still be there. But I may never get another chance to study abroad – so take it while you can.