Oran Kennedy (centre) with his friends in Ohio. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
Oran Kennedy, an undergraduate at Queen’s University Belfast, is studying in the US for a year as part of the Study USA programme delivered by the British Council. He reflects on his experience studying at the College of Wooster in the swing state of Ohio during the months leading up to the American presidential election.
As the American people head to the polls today, the College of Wooster is as gripped by election fever as the rest of the country. Indeed, this presidential election has sparked serious discussions (which have occasionally spilled over into heated debates) among students of all ages in this rural Midwestern college. The televised presidential debates attracted enormous crowds eager to watch the two candidates put forward their cases. Tempers flared, jibes were exchanged and important issues were scrutinised – yes, all of these things occurred among the student population during the debates, and it has certainly been a sight to behold.
Excitement levels reached fever-pitch with the unexpected news that Vice President Joe Biden would visit the college in the run-up to the election. Unfortunately, this event had to be cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy, but we raised our spirits once more and ploughed ahead with our daily lives. From a personal standpoint, I cannot think of a better way to introduce a young Irish student to American life than through this presidential election.
As a modern history/politics undergraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast, I was ecstatic to learn that I would be studying in the United States during such an important time. Better yet, to hear that I would be studying in Ohio, one of the most important ‘swing’ states in presidential elections, sent me into a state of shock. How could I be so lucky? While I have visited the US twice before, I have never had the opportunity to live here for an extended period. However, after slightly more than two months here, I feel right at home at the College of Wooster. So, what exactly have I experienced so far?
Let’s begin with the food – there is a lot more of it here. I do not mean to generalize or stereotype, but sincerely speaking I have never been so well-fed in my life. During my brief time here, I have learned that adding pumpkin to nearly every food will make it taste infinitely better. Whether it is pie, donuts or even ice cream, you cannot go wrong.
Life in an American dorm is also a drastic departure for me, but I have fully embraced its benefits. I feel part of a tight-knit community in my residence hall, more so than anywhere else that I have lived. Some of my closest friends live on my floor and we each come from very different backgrounds.
However, the biggest difference is witnessed in the classroom. Quite frankly, the American classroom experience took me completely by surprise. For starters, the students here seem much more enthusiastic about learning and eager to display their own talents. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and presents new challenges. Punctuality, in particular, is noticeably more important for Americans. At no time was this more apparent than when I arrived for my first class at the College of Wooster. It was scheduled for ten o’clock in the morning and so I arrived at ten o’clock on the dot. By this stage, the class had already begun, and I was the last student to arrive.
Furthermore, participation in class is not simply a desired quality in an American student, but rather it seems to be a basic requirement of all students. Continuous assessment also plays a much larger role than at my home university. Tests occur on a near-weekly basis and assignments will be required almost every week. That said, assignments tend to be smaller and individually less intense. Overall, the emphasis on continuous assessment is a rigorous but thoroughly rewarding experience, and has forced me to adopt a new mindset towards my work.
Without a shadow of a doubt, studying abroad has provided me with invaluable experience for the future. The sense of independence gained from living in a different culture is unlike anything that I have experienced up to this point. It is not only a learning experience, but also a fundamental test of character. It asks much of its participants, but the rewards to be gained from this experience are unrivaled. I cannot stress this enough: being able to prove that you are capable of living in a different culture, of adopting a new outlook towards the world, and of adopting new skills and talents will help you immensely in the future.
But if I can offer any advice to other students studying abroad, it is to enjoy your experience while you can, because it will honestly fly by very quickly. You will forge close ties with new friends here, and they will remain with you throughout the rest of your life. There are some very special people here who will help you understand who you can become if you are willing to take the first step. Truly, the best things in life are those that you do not expect to find.