Currently, I live in Tawney Tower, a large tower made of dark brick on the north side of the University of Essex’s campus. The flat I’m on is made up of international students so there’s always something interesting cooking in the kitchen. I’d consider campus itself to be the “neighborhood,” as it’s a mile or so outside of town. There’s always events happening in one of the five squares (courtyards) that make up the center of the university. A typical day involves going to class in the morning and then walking around the lake next to the library (the campus is built partially on Wivenhoe Park, a very nice green area) back to the flat for some food. When I need to go shopping I’ll walk about 15 minutes to the Tesco Superstore near us (which I’d compare to a QFC or Fred Meyer) and grab some food. It still takes me a second to figure out which direction cars should be coming from, as they drive on the left in the UK and sometimes that just doesn’t click in my brain for a moment (always look several times because drivers here seem less likely to stop than in the US – more manual cars here perhaps? Or just how they drive?). Most evenings some of my friends and I will got to the SU (Student Union) Bar in Square 3 and watch a soccer/football match. I’d been watching the Sounders pretty much exclusively since the World Cup last summer, so it’s been fun to get back into the Premier League. The bar also has lots of fun things happening like a karaoke night every Monday, pub quizzes, pool tables, etc., so it’s always a good place to go for an evening.
The lake is a really nice location and it’s right on campus, but as fall has become winter it’s gotten colder and isn’t as pleasant to sit by the lake. So far the temperatures here have been similar to Seattle or Bellingham, but with less rain (in fact, Essex is one of the driest parts of the UK! -Good news for my Norwegian flatmate who told us that he came to the UK “for better weather,” which he seems to be enjoying). There’s also a nice park about 20 minutes south of the university in the little town of Wivenhoe that makes for a nice walk by the River Colne which runs through the area.
I think what has surprised me the most was the international aspect of studying abroad. I was expecting to be living with and interacting primarily with British students, but (at least at this uni) I’m living and hanging out mostly with international students. As I said in my last post that’s not a bad thing; it’s just different from what I was expecting. The other thing that I’ve been thinking about is that it feels very similar to the US most days. There’s generally no language barrier or different stores and landmarks or huge cultural aspects that feel incredibly different. Perhaps that’s just my perspective and if someone else studied here they would have a totally different experience, but for me there are times that I could easily forget I’m not in the US. This will probably be different when I start uni in Lille, France next month however, as I’ll be practicing my French and doing more traveling while on the continent.
In terms of the amount of travel I’ve been able to do I’m pretty happy. At the beginning of the term I felt like I wasn’t doing much and that I was “wasting my time” just sitting around, which is what it felt like sometimes. I definitely felt a sort of pressure to always be doing something because I’m abroad and I need to be making the most of my time, but I know that I also have to balance those feelings with the reality of being here. I do still have classes to attend and homework and a budget. The UK is expensive due to a high exchange rate (though not unaffordable), and I know that I’ll be able to travel and see more when I’m living in Lille next semester on the continent (TRAINS!!). That being said I still managed to see Cambridge, York, London, and Edinburgh, which all made for incredible trips.
In terms of meeting new people I’m having a great time. I’m getting to know people that I like from all over the world and learning so much about different cultures and lifestyles. In my flat, my classes, in hostels, all over.. . There’s so many people to talk to and learn from and about and I’m really excited to get to go somewhere new for 6 months and meet even more people!
At the university in particular, joining clubs and trying new things is the best way to get involved. This school is similar to WWU in that there tons of societies and clubs and sports teams that allow you to get engaged and meet new people. There’s even a day of the week (Wednesday) designed for clubs to have parties and socialize. This is something that can be really hard though. It’s usually stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying new things (ex. I went to the fire jugging club meeting at one point and didn’t end up staying for the fire part, but learned to juggle, got taught a new card trick, and met some cool people) plus it can seem hard if you’re only there for a short time, but it’s definitely the best way to get involved. When traveling, hostels have been great for meeting people as well. Striking up a conversation with somebody can make you a new friend to explore a city with (or in my case end up going to a sword store in Edinburgh with an Australian and a Canadian) and provide opportunities for even more connection! Overall: Clubs/try new things at the uni if they’re available, hostels when traveling.
The aspect of larger community/cultural engagement is tough to answer. I think that broadly speaking (because some universities might not have the same club/society system), seeing if there are volunteering opportunities, watch/play local sports (go to the park and ask to join a pickup game!), going to markets, festivals, fairs, etc., talking to people in classes, and generally being present in your host location.