I truly believe USC was the best school I could have chosen in the States. Yes, its campus is beautiful, its academics are excellent and the exchange staff are super helpful… but I think what really makes it the best, is its student culture. As with many of the southern schools, the Greek life (fraternities and sororities) is huge (about 30% of girls at USC are members). Unfortunately exchange students only staying a semester can’t join, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still attend their events and get to feel a part of it too. I specifically chose to go on exchange in the fall semester as I wanted to experience Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas in America and because I knew how crazy Americans are about their football. Even though I never cared a bit about sports, I wanted to witness their football season. I really could not prepare for how much I would love that aspect of the school. Even though the team did badly, USC’s strong school pride never wavered. Rain or shine, the atmosphere on campus and even throughout the city would change leading up to a game day. Everyone got very dressed up, wore the colours and no matter what time the game started everyone would be up early (often 8am or earlier) celebrating and tailgating; which would then often continue right through midnight. Halloween, as I think can be expected across America, was also insane, at USC it lasts a week. Students went out almost every night in a different costume. Again, just the student’s energy, spirit and comradery was so contagious and uplifting. For students who are going in the spring semester don’t worry about missing out on all the above though. USC students have this enthusiasm for all events, and there are plenty in spring (which I wish I could have experienced) like the Carolina Cup, river tubing, and Baseball.
I was very fortunate to find great groups of friends early on (although I don’t think this is too hard at USC, given all the societies you can join and the exchange student events the school organises in your first weeks). This meant the hardest thing I had to adjust to was having so much free time (not having a job, a commute to uni, or family to spend time with). However, I never struggled to find things to do in this free time. Before I left, and throughout my trip, I was asked a lot if I would get very homesick being alone. Honestly though, I didn’t really. With technology, it was easy to keep up emotional contact with my family and friends and yes, you may miss out on events, but for me anyway, everything stayed much the same at home. When I came home, it was like I had never left. However, what I did not expect or prepare for at all was the anxiety I would feel about the experience ending. What I found really helped with this was making plans with friends to travel around the country after semester ended. It worked as a great distracter and transition back into home life.
Finances were one thing I did struggle with however. I budgeted the recommended $10, 000, and I would have been able to survive on this simply staying the semester. However, I went to Florida, Atlanta, Charleston and Myrtle Beach during semester and then travelled for 2 months afterwards. This meant I went well over my original plan. Travelling around the country did however really show me how lucky I was living in the South. The cost of living is much cheaper than here with meals under $10 and drinks at a bar often being as low as a dollar. I found being at school was the easiest part of my trip to budget for, as I went on a USC meal plan, and you have to pay for accommodation upfront. For my whole trip I just used my Commonwealth travel money card and never had a problem with it. That being said, I used cash a large amount of the time, as places often require it.
-Bring a sheet & towel. It takes the pressure of needing to go shopping straight away, it will give you a little more space in your suitcase at the end of your trip, and makes you feel at home straight away.
-Also bring something to decorate your room e.g. photos,
-Do as much as possible in the first weeks. The stalls, sign up events and even students exuberance of wanting to meet people and make friends dies off as classes get settled in.
-Go to class. It’s actually fun and social if you put yourself out there.
-The majority of US students who live in dorms are freshman and sophomore (17-19). Older students live off campus.
-Say yes to every opportunity but also go out of your way to make the most of it –approach people, don’t wait for them to invite you out etc.
-Budget more than you think you need… and then a little more than that again. So you can make the most of being there and say yes to any opportunity that comes up – like flying to Vegas with friends for their graduation celebration.
For me, being on exchange, particularly in America, made me much more outgoing and so confident. Not only with meeting and socialising with new people, but with all kinds of things, being on my own, adjusting to new situations, thinking on my feet and being confident in who I am as a person, my abilities and my independence. My favourite take away however, would have to be the life long bonds I made and that fact that I now feel like I will always have a home away from home in the US.
I would recommend the Student Exchange Program for these exact reasons. It really is a once in a lifetime experience, where you grow and learn so much so fast. It is perhaps the one time in your life where you are completely independent and free to be who you want to be and do what you want to do (within a protected and fun environment). And, there is definitely no other time in your life where you can get the true American college experience.