My name is Ka Mei and I’m currently doing a year exchange at Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania. Before my year abroad I had never been to the USA, in fact, I hadn’t even been to Edinburgh much before I decided to study Business and Finance there. I’m originally from Macau, a special region of China just over the bay from Hong Kong. Even though I live for travelling, it was difficult adjusting to life in the USA during my first semester. I had only just begun to get settled in Edinburgh and now I was off to another foreign country! I have decided to collate a little list of tips for students going on exchange to the USA, so you might know what to expect a little better than I did. Something here is more relevant to those from East Asian cultures or those at UPenn, but generally, you’d be surprised how different America is even if you’re from the UK!
1. Be aware of the vocabulary you use and the way you communicate!
You are probably aware that whatever your cultural background you will encounter a level of culture shock in the USA. One of the most challenging and unexpected differences was the difference in the vocabulary between America and the UK. Of course, English, like any other language, is highly regionalised. I had become accustomed to this in the UK as Scottish people have a distinct cultural and language contrast to English people. Plus, Edinburgh people often sound a lot softer and more anglicised than ‘Glaswegians’.
The USA is much the same, you need to socialise a lot when you get there to figure out the regional lingo. If you have been studied under the British Education System or learnt English from a British teacher/school, you must be careful about the vocabulary that you use. It is common to feel your English is so good, but when you are in the USA you feel nobody fully understands you.
When I first entered the American border, the police asked me where I would stay. I said, ‘Student accommodation.’ He was very confused. Another time, I queued for the toilet at McDonald’s’ and an American young lady just cut the queue. I told her that I was queuing, but she was so confused until I said, ‘I’m lining up.’ Even we use the same language there’s a lot of difference in the choice and meaning of words. I think that to a point the more comfortable and confident you are with your British English, the more difficult it is to understand how to adapt. Imagine if you were constantly having to rephrase and explain yourself in the UK! You should catch up on some American English before you go, especially for students whose first language is not English.
2. Be careful of your academic language as well!
Even more important though, as students, is our academic language. Often my professors in UPenn use informal American English in their lectures and even exam questions. When I am working on a group project or I get feedback on my essays this becomes noticeable. Often, I get corrected on my spelling or my phrasing and choice of words. Don’t take this to heart! Most people are just trying to help you, but at the same time don’t doubt your own understanding of English. It is perfectly valid for academic work and you’re not the only one having trouble.
3. Be active in class!
Being active in class is essential in American University. At Edinburgh, we have lectures and tutorials, most of our assessments are essays and final exams. American unis tend to focus more on short incremental assessment which has some positives and negatives. They also take attendance far more seriously, so you can’t miss class too often. The way to get around this is to be super active in class, participating in the discussions, getting to know your fellow pupils and the teaching staff.
4. Be prepared to work under long periods of stress!
You need to maintain a consistent level of participation and study to get the grades. At Edinburgh, we often build up for a presentation, essay or exam with minimal other assignments. This can lead to cramming, which just isn’t possible over in the states with some many small assessments. In general, you aren’t expected to go into depth as often at American Universities. Aim to be well rounded in your knowledge. The stress is going to be immense, seriously. If you maintain a consistent level of study and you practise self-care, then you will overcome it! Don’t be afraid of asking your new friends for help and do get lots of sleep.
<- Background is the place I spent most of my time in Penn (Fisher Fine Arts Library)
5. Explore and travel as much as you can!
To truly get your most out of the experience you got to get immersed in America. For many of us, we don’t know if circumstances will allow us to see so much of the US and live there again. It might seem like a distraction from the stressful academic pressures, but to excel you need to feel positive and learn about American culture. I’ve had the privilege to travel all over the American East coast, and some places further afield. If you are on a budget, then don’t worry there are cheap travel options. Greyhound and other bus companies will take you all over the east coast for $10-30 and there are plenty of other exchange students to form travel groups with!