Study abroad blog tips

My bio should read “British journalist (BBC, Guardian, ESPN & others), FWA member, traveler & proud Missouri State alum

by James Howley

In March of last year, I was a sophomore student majoring in Sports Journalism when I was presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity. My university in the UK, The University of Sunderland, operates a student exchange program through the ISEP scheme in which its students can apply for enrollment to foreign institutions in the United States, Asia, Australia or Europe for a semester or full academic year.
Having taken family vacations in the US on several occasions in the past, it had long been an ambition of mine to experience college life the American way. I needed no second invitation. I hastily organized a meeting with my study abroad coordinator and decided to apply for admission to Missouri State University in the relatively small city of Springfield, MO.
Having researched previous study abroad experiences, I felt it was important to become part of a university which had a great sense of community with a large and diverse student body – as well as great academic facilities. After much deliberation, MSU seemed like the perfect match and I decided upon making it my first choice option.
Days and weeks passed in the wake of my enrollment application – did I sell myself enough in my personal statement? Would there be places available in my desired classes? Have I made the right decision? These were all questions I was asking myself in the interim. Having spoken to fellow ISEP students, I soon learned these kind of anxieties were very common amongst those taking the enormous step of studying in a foreign country.
After around two months of waiting for news, I received confirmation of my enrollment via email from Missouri State’s International Services department. I was elated, excited, nervous – every emotion you could think of – and I couldn’t wait to share the news with my family.
In the weeks that followed, I traveled to the United States Embassy in London to collect my student exchange J1 Visa, packed all my belongings from teabags (a British essential!) to six months worth of clothes and promptly booked my flights to Springfield, MO, USA. August 15, 2013 would be the day my truly unforgettable adventure would begin.
After a grueling 18-hour journey – which included two layovers in Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA, I finally arrived at Springfield’s Branson International Airport at around 5:30pm the following day. Shortly after I had touched down, I was greeted by two study abroad coordinators who helped me with baggage claim and gave me a ride to campus.
It was high noon and the late afternoon sun was beaming down. I was weary from the long journey but I was finally on American soil – and it felt fantastic.
Springfield is a small city in comparison to neighboring St. Louis, but has everything you could possibly need from impressive sporting arena’s to fine dining and fantastic nightclubs for party-going students. It did not take me long to settle in and it was to be a month of ‘firsts’ – from my first college football game amongst a 20,000 strong crowd at JQH Arena to my first frat party at Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), which I soon learned was not for the faint hearted!
Every student enrolled at MSU and its proud alumni refer to themselves as ‘Bears’, paying homage to the proud traditions of Missouri State and its mascot. At our initiation, we were referred to as the ‘International Bears’ and it would prove to be a title which would stick. In the opening weeks, as well as forging friendships with native students, myself and my fellow international exchange students became very close and enjoyed days out to Springfield Zoo, trips to St. Louis to watch the St. Louis Rams at Busch Stadium in MLB, intramural sports matches, with many sharing my love for soccer, and countless parties.
Academic opportunities presented themselves, too. Unlike in England – where your degree subject is dominated by one discipline, I had the chance to select a minor subject alongside my journalism major and decided to study American history. I also became a new member of the news team at The Standard, the on-campus newspaper for students and faculty.
I soon learned it was impossible to become even remotely bored at Missouri State. It was an experience different to any other I had ever encountered with something happening everywhere you looked – the school’s incredible sports teams regularly facing off with their rivals, student parties, screenplays, so many different organizations and even live bands performing on campus. It was everything I had thought it would be and so much more.
Six weeks had flown by and fall break was coming up. Classes were going well and I had made so many friends – it was time for me and my fellow international students to really enjoy ourselves. We were off to Las Vegas! There were 10 of us – myself, Sampo, Federico, Mads, Elodie, Matt, Cristiano, Margaux, Alex and Justine – booked on for the trip of a lifetime for 5 days from October 4-9. Being in America already made the trip substantially cheaper than it would ever have been had any of us been in our native countries.
I’ll never forget my excitement the night before we were due to travel. I barely slept a wink in my college dorm. Vegas had always been a fantasy city to me – somewhere you admired on movie screens and talked about with your friends – but not somewhere you would ever be lucky enough to visit. Fortunately for me, I had just turned 21 the June preceding my exchange and was legally allowed to enjoyed everything Vegas had to offer – namely the incredible nightlife and fabled casinos (in moderation of course!) and intended to do so.
It took around three hours to fly from Springfield to McCarran International airport in Las Vegas, NV. Cristiano, the chief organizer amongst us, was an Italian native who had visited Vegas the year before and knew all the sights.
We were staying at the world famous Flamingo Hotel and had booked our tickets for two of Vegas’ most exclusive nightclubs – XS and Hakkasan – in advance online. After landing we flagged down cab transfers to our hotel which was right in the heart of the Las Vegas strip. As our cab approached its destination, the bright lights and sea of people truly hit home – it was everything I had ever imagined it would be. Our fall break was really about to begin.
Dressed head to toe in all our finery – as is compulsory for entry to Vegas’ most popular nightclubs (suited and booted for the gentlemen, frocks and heels for the ladies) – we headed for Hakkasan club not two hours after landing on Nevada soil. Live music from Laidback Luke, neon lights as far as the eye could see, celebrities throwing $100 bills around and champagne being sipped like water – I loved Vegas more than life itself that night.
We danced, drank and sang until the small hours and I could scarcely believe where I was. Throughout it all, I knew without grasping the chance to study abroad I would never have been afforded the opportunity to experience this breathtaking city and I was truly thankful. The whirlwind that was the next four days consisted of XS club – an exclusive and mammoth nightclub with surrounding pool and another world-famous DJ on the decks in Eric Prydz, poker at the MGM Grand, dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s steak restaurant, shopping at Caesars Palace and watching the sun come up over New York, New York – Las Vegas style!
After a draining but truly unforgettable five days, it was time to head back to MSU – and back to our studies. I was more determined than ever to give my best in the time I had left on my student exchange, both academically and in forging memories and friendships.
Having become a staff writer at The Standard, I was tasked with coming up with original stories and feature ideas. November was fast approaching – and with it the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, TX. To mark the occasion, I pitched a feature story paying tribute to his life and work, providing lesser-known facts and insight about the legendary former president. It was a huge task but I was confident in my ability.
I made for the Kennedy Library in Boston, MA on the weekend of November 11-13 to begin my research. As someone with a long-standing interest in American history, it was a true labor of love. To have the opportunity to research one of the most important figures in recent American history was a privelege and the height of my journalistic career so far. I was marrying my love for journalism and history and creating something to be proud of.
I stayed in the wonderful city of Boston for four days altogether – taking in as many sights as possible, including a Red Sox game at Fenway Park before heading back to Springfield. My article was a huge success and gained a Missouri College Media Association (MCMA) award for Political Story of the Year, as well as city-publication in the Springfield News-Leader.
I was so proud that I could come to a foreign continent and still excel academically. Through hard work, I finished up with a 3.80 GPA to take back to England with me – and I guess that is the essence of the study abroad experience – to study hard, perhaps harder than ever, but to enjoy truly unforgettable and once in a lifetime experiences along the way.
When starting out on your study abroad journey, it is undoubtedly important to be outgoing, friendly and understanding of the differing cultures you are about to experience. After all, it is those you meet that will shape your time abroad. I had the great good fortune to make friends with people from all corners of the world including Morocco, China, Spain, France, Italy, Finland, Mexico and Denmark – many of whom I maintain contact with and will now remain friends for life. We are even planning a reunion in the summer of 2015!
It was almost time for me to head home, but not before I fulfilled another dream of mine – Christmas in New York! A friend I had met at MSU, Yacine, had family in Queens, NY, and he kindly invited me to spend the holiday season with him and his family in the Big Apple.
Having said many emotional goodbyes to those at MSU, we headed for JFK on December 17 to spend 10 days in New York – taking in everything from Rockefeller Center’s world famous Christmas tree to the tourists heaven that is Times Square and so much more. On our final night, we watched the sun set and the snow fall from Top of the Rock – overlooking everything that makes New York truly special.
It was the perfect way to end my study abroad experience.
I packed my case for home and it was notably larger than when I had first arrived on US soil back in August – crammed with mementos from each city I had visited and from New York shopping sprees. As I gathered my things and made for the airport, though, I reflected that it was the intangibles which had made this experience so unique – the memories I had made, the feelings I had experienced and most importantly of all – the people.
MSU had given me so much – self-fulfilment, a sense of belonging, the opportunity to visit some of the greatest places in the world and the priceless gift of friendships that will last forever. Missouri State’s school motto is “Follow your passion, find your place” – I can truly say I found my place during my study abroad period. Go and find yours – and be sure to cherish every second of this once in a lifetime experience.

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