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Opinion: My experience at Willamette as an international student

Jimmy Simpson

Staff Writer

I’m an international exchange student from the UK and I’ve been studying at Willamette University for over a month now. During my short time here I’ve experienced plenty of culture shocks and have had time to reflect on the many peculiarities of life in the U.S. From education to recreation, I’ve encountered several differences between here and home.

Coming to an English-speaking country I expected the number of cultural barriers to be minimal. Since an early age I’ve been heavily exposed to American culture through lots of different media, from late-night television shows like Saturday Night Live to some of my favorite music artists, and so I arrived in this country believing that I was already familiar with its people and conventions. However I quickly came to realize that the U.S. is unique in so many ways.

I’ll start with some of the differences between Willamette and my home university, the University of Birmingham. The teaching model here at Willamette is more rigorous than that practiced in the British higher education system. While back home the onus is very much on the student to conduct their own independent study and research, the learning here is much more closely assessed and guided by the professor. Here we are marked on attendance and participation in classes. Assessment also takes a variety of forms, from presentations to summaries of the key reading. Moreover the workload definitely feels more intense. As someone who is accustomed to no more than an hour or two of preparation for every class per week, the weekly homework assignments and large quantities of reading are at times challenging. For all its demands, the academic experience here is nonetheless rewarding. I’ve found myself engaged and participating in class content to a much greater degree. I’ve learned so much in just the first few weeks of semester, and I am constantly challenged by my professors, but in a way that feels healthy and stimulating.

There are other aspects of American campus life that I’ve found intriguing and at times even jarring. The emphasis on extracurricular activities, particularly the culture of sport promoted here at Willamette, differs a fair bit from British campus life. In the UK most students (at least from my own personal experience) come to school first and foremost to pursue their degree. Extracurricular commitments are often secondary, while here almost everyone I’ve met has their own project or side hustle(s). Most people play or have played for a sports team (or several) from elementary school onward. Many of the male students I have met at Willamette in particular have told me that their primary reason for coming to university is to advance their sporting careers. Undergraduate life at Willamette extends far beyond just academics. The university is just as much a community as it is an institution of higher education; it promotes physical, spiritual and emotional development just as much as it does good grades and employability. The emphasis on extracurriculars certainly makes for a more well-rounded undergraduate experience.

Life beyond Willamette has presented even more surprises (as well as the occasional challenge). It’s difficult to understate just how much bigger everything is here in the U.S. Be it the portion sizes, cars, houses, billboards, you name it: Americans don’t shy away from making everything and anything jumbo size. Recently I found myself in a Starbucks in Seattle and what I expected to be a small macchiato turned out to be comparable to a grande back home. This is clearly an expression of the much broader consumer culture practiced here in the U.S. Yes, we have all the big brand names in the UK, but American consumer habits are pretty distinct. Everyone (well, almost everyone) has the newest iPhone, the newest Nikes, the biggest and flashiest car. I may be exaggerating, but it all amounts to a status symbol in a way that it just doesn’t for us Brits. I’ve talked at length about the peculiarities of U.S. culture with my fellow British exchange students.

A few weeks ago Clemmie Little (‘23), a friend from home who is also here at Willamette, observed how spending money and outward expressions of wealth seem to be “cool” here in the U.S., especially among young people. Among British students this is generally not the case. Buying from thrift stores (or, as we call them, “charity shops”), dressing cheap, embracing tat and “slumming” it are all pretty common features of British university culture. Not so here. There are plenty of other cultural differences, from the obvious (spelling) to the more subtle (certain social conventions and cultural expectations). Of course there are also the less trivial differences, the not-so-pleasant characteristics of the U.S. political system, which, well, I won’t go into here.

I’d briefly like to discuss a recent event that significantly impacted me and brought my foreign status into sharp focus: namely, the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Just several weeks into the fall semester the world was shaken by the news that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch had died at the age of ninety-six. Though I am personally no royalist and staunchly oppose the British monarchy, I cannot deny that experiencing such a monumental historical event so far removed from my home country left me with strange and complicated feelings. Being absent from all the mourning and pageantry surrounding the Queen’s death was certainly an odd experience, and observing my country’s response from afar felt somewhat alienating. Though the event made headline news everywhere, I could sense that it didn’t quite hold the same importance for my American peers. It highlighted the fact that the culture I grew up in, and the one that I call home, is just one of many in the grand scheme of everything.

My time so far living and studying abroad has undoubtedly broadened my perspective of the world in which we live. While at times strange and emotionally taxing, it has made for a humbling and fascinating experience.

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1 Comment

Nicola Moloney
Nicola Moloney
Nov 08, 2022

As a British expat myself, it took me almost 25 years to fully appreciate America and shake off my own ethnocentricity. It is wonderful to read your observations. I will however express that America is a very big and culturally diverse country. It is made up of immigrants from every nation of the world, each having their own experience, and their own additions to what it means to be an American citizen.

Your experience unfortunately is limited by your age and locality. Key for me was learning to refuse to answer..."which country do you like best?". One is always in flux and goes through the ins and outs of culture shock.

May you be generous and open hearted to the…

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