Having been a student for two years at the University of Edinburgh I thought that I had pretty much seen all that University life had to offer me. I took up an offer made by the international office to spend one year studying at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champagne. I was not daunted at all by the prospect. Having travelled to the United States several times on vacation and having lived abroad in three different countries I considered myself to be well travelled and versatile, and to a certain extent I was. I wouldn’t loose my nerve on the twenty minute connecting flight that shook and rattled its way to my new home, nor did I loose my enthusiasm when I realised that I would be housed off campus in an enormous housing complex surrounded only by cornfields.
What did throw this big city girl however was the unnerving appearance of uniformly dressed crowds of girls walking in unison around campus. Luckily I quickly learned that that these were sorority girls and only one of the many differences from European Universities that I was to encounter.
Life in Urbana Champagne was different from life in Edinburgh, in an awkwardly subtle way. I was able to find all the coffee shops and fast food brands I knew so well from home, but wasn’t able to find a decent cup of tea on or off campus. I spoke the same language as my classmates, but not always to the same effect, declaring that you have a full fanny pack has a startlingly different impact in Britain than it clearly does in the US, try it some day and see what I mean.
A trip to the ‘grocery’ store, or supermarket as I would call it often ended the same way confused by an overwhelming variety of brands and packaged foods. I would often cut the cooking plan and head to the nearest takeaway restaurant for a well priced, fast paced slice of goodness in a grilled cheese sandwich and then be somewhat alarmed to read a sign boasting “contains real cheese”. What on earth had I eaten at that last place?
American University life proved tougher than I had anticipated. I learned pretty quickly that not only was attendance required, but participation was also on the agenda. European Universities operate on a sort of if you feel like it basis, and being eighteen years old and living away from home, in the past I quite often had not felt like it. Consequently when I had come to study for my final exams at the end of my second year, I had to make do with a grand total of four sets of class notes out of a possible 31. Eleven months of idle occupation in Edinburgh were commonly followed by one month of frantic swapping of notes and photocopying from source books. Miraculously, we had all learned that it was possible to scrape by with this desperate flurry of activity and had given ourselves very little incentive to operate differently next year.
Attending 15 hours a week of classes therefore struck me as vaguely inhumane, and that was before I realised that at an American University, work set on a Monday can be due on a Tuesday, in Edinburgh we are given at least two months warning of any impending deadlines, which gives any enterprising student ample opportunity to think of a good reason why they should be entitled to a month long extension.