An experience of a lifetime

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Every year, Lancaster welcomes more than 300 undergraduate exchange students on the Study Abroad and Exchange Programme. The programme was established more than 40 years ago in partnership with universities from across the world. More than 35 courses are available which last from three months to a year. That is not all the university has to offer. Two exchange students shared stories about their time in Lancaster.

Alissa Petrelli travelled more than 5,000 miles across the Atlantic to be in Lancaster. The Oregon State University (OSU), where she studies Zoology, has links with a number of British universities but she finally chose Lancaster based on her advisor’s recommendations.

“Lancaster gave the most information. I think I would have enjoyed the year at any British university, but I have no regrets about choosing Lancaster. The most appealing factor for me was the huge international student community,” said the 19-year-old from Bakersfield, California.

For Marina Tomic, who considered going to Australia for her year abroad but got put off immediately by the difficulty in obtaining a visa and the cost of living Down Under, the UK seemed like a reasonable alternative and she had dreamed of experiencing life in a modern British city.

“My first choice was the MMU [Manchester Metropolitan University] in Manchester because I wanted to experience living in a bigger city. My second choice was London just because I love it but the negative side was that it was only for one semester.”

Despite being her third choice, Lancaster did not disappoint her and she has no regret coming here all the way from Graz, Austria.

She said, “The first two universities rejected me and I was accepted at Lancaster. Now I’m really happy about this decision and I wouldn’t want to go to the other universities.

“I heard it was a good university and I wanted to try something different from London and generally big-city life. With the Lake District, Liverpool, Manchester and other great places, the region seemed very appealing to me. Having lived here for the past eight months, I can confirm that I love this part of the UK a lot. It’s very beautiful and has a lot to offer,” she added.

One of the unique features of British university education is its diverse academic system. One university may have a very different style to another. Even more so for these exchange students.

Petrelli considers the American system to be “very fast-paced and structured, whereas the British system is far more relaxed and independent.”

“At OSU we have the quarter system, so we take about five classes for the 10-week term, with three terms in a year. During the term we have regular lectures as well as at least two exams, some coursework and a paper or two. The final exams all take place in the last week of the term. Then there’s a break and a new quarter begins,” she explained.

Tomic, a student of English and American Studies, agreed and found the coursework and assessment were done differently, too. She also deems the quality of education to be better but claimed that studying in Lancaster is “not much more difficult” than at her home university. However, the first thing that is noticeably different for Tomic was the idea of a campus university, which as she said, “we don’t have at all in Austria.”

In her home country, “most students still live with their parents or have flats with other students and we don’t have university accommodation that is so close to the university.” But which one is better? “I prefer this campus system and I really enjoy living on campus,” Tomic assured.

When asked to describe their time in Lancaster, both Tomic and Petrelli were almost singing in a harmony of excitement, “the best time of my life!”

“I love Lancaster and England. It’s going to be really hard to return to the States this summer,” Petrelli said.

“The best part of my experience has been the people I have met. I love being part of such a diverse international community, the underlying bond between exchange students makes friendships come so easily. I really hope to keep the friendships I’ve made for years to come.”

When asked if it was hard to make new friends, Tomic said: “No, absolutely not.”

“After I joined the Erasmus and Photography Society, it was very easy to make lots of friends. I also made friends with my flatmates quite quickly and they also introduced me to some other British people. So I met most of my friends at the Photography and Erasmus societies and I love it that they come from all over the world,” said the Pendle girl.

The two best friends both agreed that joining clubs and societies is the best way for exchange students to make new friends.

“The clubs and societies are one of the strongest assets of Lancaster’s student union. I can’t imagine what my year here would have been without these societies,” Petrelli opined.

She was also involved in the successful Theatre Group production of Animal Farm in Michaelmas Term.

Sharing her experiences in the societies, Petrelli said: “I’ve met so many awesome people through the Photography Society, Erasmus, and the Backpackers [Association]. I would definitely count the storm-ridden weekend trip to Snowdonia in Wales with the Backpackers as one of the most memorable adventures of my life. And I will always remember all of the socials and weekly gatherings of the greatest group of camera-crazy photographers.”

When asked if she ever got homesick, Petrelli shied away from the question saying:
“This whole year I’ve barely been homesick once. With email and Skype, it’s really easy to keep in contact with family and friends. Occasionally, I miss random little things from home, like good Mexican food, but that hardly counts as homesickness.”
She eventually admitted that missing out Thanksgiving dinner with family, which is a major American tradition, was a great deal for her. Staying true to the American spirit, she organised her own Thanksgiving dinner, scaled up.

“I ended up making the classic turkey and gravy dinner for about thirty international students. It was really awesome to share such a big part of my culture with the new friends I had made,” said Petrelli who still considered that epic dinner as one of the highlights of her year.

For Tomic, adapting to different cultures is not an issue at all given the fact that she was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, holds Croatian citizenship and lives in Austria.

“It wasn’t really difficult to adapt here because the culture is very similar to Austrian culture and I didn’t have culture shock or anything. The language was not a problem for me but I did have a bit of trouble in the beginning understanding all the different, sometimes strong British accents. But after a while I got used to them,” said added.

Petrelli also faced similar difficulty with accents. She explained: “I had some trouble with accents early on in the year, but I feel like I can understand people much better now. I’ve learnt lots of new fun words to take home and confuse my friends with. It’s really interesting to completely integrate yourself into a new culture.”

“It’s usually little things that make me smile, street signs or how houses are named or the rarity of seeing a vehicle larger than a small sedan,” she added.

Tomic mentioned what she called “excessive drinking culture in England”. She said: “[It] doesn’t really affect me directly but it’s too much for my taste. Everything else is good here. I can’t even complain about the weather. Most people are friendly and polite, especially older people. Younger people are pretty much the same like in Austria only that they probably drink more.”

“Theobsession with safety here is a bit too exaggerated in my opinion and that is something that annoys me a bit. But I’ve learned that British food is not as bad as its reputation!”

Since they only have one year in the UK, most exchange students make the best use of their time to travel around the country.

When asked where she had been so far, Tomic almost jumped in excitement and said: “My ultimate favourite is London! I’ve been there three times already and every time I go it’s a new, great experience. I love the sights and museums there. I love how big it is and I just like the cosmopolitan flair it has.”

“My second favourite place is Edinburgh. It’s such a beautiful city with the castle and the nice cobbled streets. I feel very welcome there and the people are really friendly. It’s a really great place which I would like to visit more often in the future,” she added.

Big cities. One may have thought that she must hate it here in Lancashire. But Tomic assured, “I love the Lake District and generally the area around Lancaster with its green fields and tons of sheeps and cows.

“The Lake District is really beautiful to go for hikes and to enjoy the gorgeous views of the lakes or to just go there for a walk and a boat ride on one of the beautiful lakes.”

Petrelli refused to choose a favourite amongst all the places she has visited, but summed up her travels saying, “I spent Halloween in Edinburgh, took day trips to York and Glasgow, went to a Christmas Market in Birmingham, visited Oxford and Cambridge, toured London and Liverpool, took two hiking trips to the Lake District, spent a weekend on a friend’s farm in Lincoln, and walked across Morecambe Bay when the tide was out.

“So with the two Backpacking trips in northern Wales and the Yorkshire Dales, I’d say I’ve seen quite a lot. Just recently I even made a trip to Belfast. For me, traveling is right up there with oxygen. I’m already making plans to return to Europe next year,” said the County lass who has just recently returned from a trip across Europe with her sister.

At the end of the interview, the girls were asked how their time in Lancaster have changed them as a person. Tomic responded, “It has changed me quite a bit, I think. Before I came here I had never experienced living independently on my own and taking care of everything alone. I think I’ve become a more independent, responsible person and now, I think I could manage almost anything on my own.

“I’ve also become more self-confident and outgoing and also more open-minded towards other people and cultures. I’ve met many people from all over the world which I believe has made me more tolerant.” She paused, and said with a grin, “I also believe that I have grown academically, I have learned a lot at this university and maybe I even feel a bit smarter now.”

Petrelli felt the same way, and said, “This past year in England has made me so much more independent. I feel like I’m more confident in my own abilities. I’ve managed to adapt to new things really easily and never get homesick, which are both important aspects of traveling and living abroad. This experience has strengthened my desire to live and work abroad for the rest of my life.

“I love the whole idea of being in an unfamiliar place and slowly learning about the little details that make that place unique. There’s really nothing better,” she concluded with a broad satisfied smile.

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