From London to LA – A student perspective

It’s still amazing for me to think that, sitting here on my sofa, I’ve already finished my first semester at the University of Southern California and am going to board a plane to fly across the Atlantic from London to LA in just two days to complete my second. Going to university across the world from your friends, family and hometown is a huge decision to make, but I can honestly say that I couldn’t be more excited to be going back to USC (it’s definitely a new sensation to look forward to going back to school)! Applying to go to university in America was initially a little overwhelming. I had to take the SAT’s (three times), attend numerous interviews and try to navigate the common app and UC application all while taking my A levels here in England. Still, all the work was totally worth it because the last semester was undoubtedly the best four months of my life and studying in the USA has given me opportunities I could never have imagined.

Hopefully with this blog I can let you know what studying in America as an international student is really like, as well as giving some tips on the application process and cultural adjustment that could be helpful for anyone considering applying to US colleges.

The best way I can think of is to start at the beginning, with my first few days in America. I arrived in LA in mid-August with my parents, nervous to start at USC where I knew absolutely no one, but also excited to finally be fulfilling a dream that I had been talking about since I was about twelve. I flew into LAX with my parents a few days before my international student orientation started, because I had several jobs to do such as setting up and American bank account, getting an American memory card for my phone and buying some dorm room essentials. I do wish I’d left a few more days for the seemingly endless list of tasks we had to complete in just two days because, rather than being a relaxing last few days with my parents it was a completely frantic and pretty stressful experience (especially for my Mum who cried at least twice every day). Just a side note of warning for anyone starting university across the world from your parents: be prepared for them to cry a lot before you leave. Remember, not only do they have to deal with their kid leaving home, but also with the knowledge of an entire ocean between you and the barrier of a different time zone to deal with.

Anyway, by the time move in day came around I’d had two days of orientation, which felt like a slight state of limbo where I was meeting a few new people that would be living in dorms far away from me, were studying different subjects and many of whom didn’t speak much English and I suspected I’d never see again (I was right). I arrived at USC with a car full of what felt like my whole life. Moving in was completely hectic, but so much fun! Everyone was keen to meet each other and was walking up and down the hallways introducing themselves. I told my parents that I’d unpack by myself so it would be easier to meet new people, and not having them there definitely made me more approachable. I wanted to hang some fairy lights but couldn’t reach and so asked the very tall girl across the hall to help. She was so friendly and now is one of my absolute best friends here – I’m so happy I asked to hang lights for me on the first day! Another boy came into my room and just sat on my floor for about thirty minutes, telling me about his home in Kentucky and telling me how much he loved my accent (you’ll get that A LOT). Now he is also one of my best friends. So I definitely recommend meeting as many people as possible when you arrive. People remember that one person who went out of their way to be friendly or helpful, I know I certainly do, and it can lead to really great friendships.

A lot of people had told me that the first two weeks or so at college would be amazing. I’d be too busy making friends and experiencing this crazy new life to miss home, and that it wouldn’t be until I started my classes and got into a routine that all that would wear off and the homesickness would start. However, I didn’t find this to be true at all, and everyone else I’ve talked to had a similar experience to me. I actually found the first week the hardest. My parents hadn’t flown back to England so I had the prospect of saying goodbye hanging over me, and felt torn between spending time with them and meeting new people. Not knowing a single person was quite daunting, and while my English friends were going wild clubbing at fresher’s week I had a week of slightly uncomfortable school organized events. At the end of the first week though, everything became so amazing and hasn’t changed since! Starting classes gave me a routine and lots of new friends. I also was friends with a lot of people in my dorm, making the huge college (18000 undergraduates) seem much smaller. I think that living with people my own age has been one of my favorite parts of college. As an only child I always wanted to be around other kids more, and I’m pretty sociable so it was really the perfect environment for me. Living with other people 24/7 is so much more intense than the time you spend with your peers in high school, and so you create much deeper and more meaningful friendships very quickly. I also loved the independence of living alone, something I was so ready for and is definitely high on the list of perks of going to college. While most Americans have roommates, being English I need my own space sometimes. Luckily USC offered a few single rooms in the freshmen dorms and I managed to get one. Honestly, most of the time I’m in my room my door is open and other people are coming in and out, but I know that if I do need some personal space I have the option to close my door and be completely private. I will be having a roommate next year though, but luckily it’s with one of my best girlfriends (the tall girl who helped me hang the lights on the first day), so that’s definitely not as daunting as living with a complete stranger.

The American structure for college classes is completely different to England. Instead of choosing one subject and only studying that for three years, you can come in as an undecided major or come in with one major but change it as many times as you want for the first two years. The flexibility of the American curriculum was a big draw for me. Although I knew I wanted to major in English, the thought of doing only that for three or four years seemed stifling. What if I found something else I loved? What if I suddenly realized I hated English? I think expecting eighteen year olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives is a bit ridiculous, and luckily I’m able to be in a system that allows for changing interests. The system also lets you take subjects in lots of different areas. For example, last semester I only took one English literature class, and apart from that I took a cinema class, a creative writing class and a philosophy class. The cinema class was so inspiring (USC is the top film school in the world, with Stephen Spielberg coming to lecture regularly alongside George Lucas and James Franco) that it made me decide to minor in screenwriting. Next semester I’m taking a neuroscience class because I really love science, even though I could never see myself majoring in it and I also plan on taking some language classes to learn Russian before I graduate. The flexibility that America offers is really just the tip of the ice berg of all the amazing opportunities that are available to me by being here. Every undergraduate has the opportunity to study abroad from a list of hundreds of locations (I plan on spending a semester in Australia) and I’ve even been able to go to pre-screenings of movies and interview celebrities like Steve Carrell and Jenifer Garner by writing for my school newspaper.

Something very unique about my experience in America has been game days. American football is such a force for school spirit, and the games are just like how you’d imagine based on every movie you’ve ever seen. Everyone dresses up in head to toe USC gear and the campus is transformed into a sea of red and gold for the tailgates – basically a huge day party on campus that gets everyone excited for the game. Seeing the amount of school spirit and pride that people has is really exciting, and makes you feel like you’re part of something so much bigger than just yourself and your own college experience. It’s definitely something we don’t have in England!

I feel like there is so much to say and I could keep writing for pages – after all four months is a lot to summarize! Hopefully though, this has given you a little introduction into what life in an American college is like. I know I’ve said it constantly throughout this post, but I really have had the most incredible, life changing, and insanely fun experience so far and made such incredible friends already! I’ll write another blog post like this in a few months and I’ll try to focus more on specific aspects of the college experience in each one. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the application process or life at an American college, please feel free to email me at [email protected].

Fight On!!

Kirsten xxx