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Going to school in the U.S.: Unexpected Surprises

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Photo collage with flowers, squirrell, strawberries. cows, water and clouds

After studying in the U.S. for almost three years, my life is still full of surprises! As an international student from Asia, trying to get used to another cultural practice is commonplace. In this blog, I will share my experience about my surprises of attending school in the U.S.

Different Habits Surprise Me

Right after I walked out of the airport, I realized the importance of having a car. I practically went to another country before going to Umass Amherst. My bank card was not working on Uber, so I had to spend 10 hours on buses and trains. The trip was really nice since I could watch the beautiful scenery along the road, but being able to drive is definitely more convenient and timesaving. It also reminds me about cars’ significance when doing groceries or going shopping -- the bus ride will take four times longer than a car drive. I did not plan on getting a driving license; I thought I wouldn’t have a car in my undergraduate years and I wouldn’t need to learn how to drive. The city I grew up in has an excellent subway system and I was not considering the transportation in the U.S. I am glad that the necessity of cars pushed my driving license plan forward, and I am looking forward to driving a UHaul or renting cars for trips in the future. Talking about driving and trips, it is inevitable to mention how confused I was with all the distance measurements. I used the metrics system for 18 years, and I am still not used to using inch, foot, and mile. It’s almost a habit for me to convert everything into meters and centimeters, but I am having a better sense for all the U.S. measurement units. 

People in the U.S. value things differently and I appreciate the amount of privacy students get in the U.S. compared to my education experience in China, where there was always competition from other students in my classes. Everything was transparent which means individuals' scores on exams, quizzes and papers are public to everybody. Sometimes the teacher will even announce the rank for a major test. I was never the top student in my classes, and I hated it when my teachers published my results in front of other students. Here in the U.S., privacy and boundaries are so significant that the grades will be posted on the students’ personal academic accounts, and students can only check their own scores through the website.  It is also less stressful for me because the teachers will only announce the average and median scores, which make exams less competitive.        

When I was hanging out with my American friends, I was impressed by their passion for politics. As a finance student, I personally have no interest in or any need of participation with politics in China, and I seldom look into news and videos about any political topics. I remember feeling embarrassed when I listened to my friends discussing politics and the election, but had nothing in mind to talk about and join their discussion.

The merchandise price in markets shocked me. I did my first grocery run when I started living off-campus during my sophomore year. I was shocked by the fact that some common fruits and vegetables are more expensive than chicken and pork, and people are willing to spend much extra money on organic products and cage free eggs. I was also surprised that a vegan salad can cost as much as a beef burger, and one bottle of water costs more than one can of coke. I am also surprised by how much books cost, sometimes a popular book costs as much as a very nice quality sweater. I am happy to find out that secondary markets are so common in the U.S. One of my favorite stores around campus is the Goodwill store. At first I thought the store only sold used clothes, and it surprised me with the variety of the items. I purchased used books, kitchenware, home decorations, and even a couch! Not just because of the unbelievable cheap price and the environmental practise, the exquisite and antique taste of certain things can blow your mind. Another place to purchase nice and inexpensive secondhand products is the marketplace on Facebook, you can look for used textbooks, furniture, apartment subleases, etc.

Sparkles in Campus Life

I love the student benefits UMass provides us.

Before the quarantine, I would go to the Mullins Center with my friends to watch hockey games almost every week, since all the games are free to students. I would also go to some of the football games and hang out with my friends at the tailgate. I enjoyed working out at Rec Center gym, and I used to go there twice a week. All the facilities are very new and advanced, and there were different kinds of fitness classes/sessions for students to take. One of my favorite places on campus is the huge Mullins ice rink. I would go skating every Sunday, and I even had my first date with my boyfriend there. Besides all the sports-related benefits, all the art shows and performances are high quality and are extremely cheap/free to students. It is wonderful to listen to a student concert and relax on a Friday night after a long and exhausting week of school.

SInce high school, I’ve been told UMass has unbeatable campus food, but I am still surprised by the delicious and exquisite food quality every time I go to the dining area. There are all kinds of food options to meet different diets and cultures. I remember being obsessed with the impossible meatless burger in Blue Wall, and being impressed by the crab rangoon offered at the Asian station. In addition to the food variety, all the dining commons will hold ceremonious events on different culture’s holidays. The lobsters and steak on Halloween, the roast ducks and bubble tea on Lunar New Year, and the chocolate fondue and cute snacks on Valentine’s Day made me have no regrets on gaining another 15 pounds.  

Umass Amherst also provides high quality and affordable health insurance available to all UMass students. I understand that medical service is a big expenditure in the U.S, and was thrilled to know that my insurance almost covered all my medical needs, from the vaccines and flu shots, to $400 for glasses or contacts, to all the physical therapy, and even Chinese acupuncture are all covered by the UMass insurance.  

Last but not the least, I was amazed by how many wild animals live in our beautiful campus. Students feed squirrels with peanuts, cars stop for the ducks to cross the street. Hundreds of geese inhabit around the pond, fuzzy little ducklings and goslings playing in the water during spring and summer. I would sit on the bench by the pond and watch all those beautiful creatures all day.    

People Around Me Surprise Me

I feel so relaxed living in such a kind and chill community around UMass.

I appreciate all the cordial and friendly people I’ve met; they encouraged me to speak out and be confident about myself. I was originally very shy and timid about talking to people in English. I was worried about being mocked by my accent and grammar mistakes. To my surprise, people I interacted with were able to understand my broken sentences; if not, they would spend extra time and patiently listen to my explanation. 

After COVID quarantine started, lots of my friends went back home in different states or countries, but we still stay in touch through video calls and chats. I was worried that I would become estranged from my college friends because of the distance, but I was touched when many of my English speaking friends reach out to me despite being split apart from the pandemic. I am also staying in touch with friends who graduated from UMass, and I can always learn from our chats and conversations.

I Surprised Myself

Before I started my college life, I was overwhelmed by the idea of living on my own in a different country. I lived in my parents’ apartment for 18 years, and never bothered to do any grocery shopping or pay any bill. My first year of college was easy since the dorm fee and the dining plan included everything, but in my sophomore year I finally started to live on my own. It took me a while to adapt to living off-campus, with all the bus rides and living expenditures. I made timetables for my routine, and organized my apartment in every possible way. I began to cook for myself as well, and I was proud of myself after realizing my excellent cooking skill a couple months later. 

I am glad that I am discovering my academic interests during my time at UMass, and have even decided to double major in theatre and finance. I came to UMass as a finance major, I chose to minor in theater in my freshman year because I was worried about my ability to take two majors. After participating in a theater production in my second year, I made up my mind and switched my minor to a major, and felt surprised that I am able to handle my academic life with these two completely different majors. I found myself being more self-disciplined for the busy class schedule and project assignments

I also feel that my confidence improved when talking in English. I used to be very shy about interacting with any English speaker, or asking questions during a lecture. As a result, I forced myself to use English as much as possible, asking my native friends for help when learning the English idioms from every conversation. I became much better compared to my first year, but I know my English is still nowhere near the level I want. I am satisfied to see the continued progress I make over time and will keep putting effort in every day.

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