Even though this year is slowly coming to an end, we’re not finished yet with our ESN travels. This week we’re taking you on another journey to a destination much further away. It’s no other place than Albany, the capital of New York, all the way in the United States. Janna, now 25 years old, did her bachelors in North American studies and went on exchange here. “Since I studied North American studies, the choice for North America was easily made”, she says.
Amazing personal development
The application procedure was pretty straightforward. I wrote a motivation letter to my home university, got selected for SUNY Albany, and then had to arrange various documents for my exchange university. The funny part was these documents all needed to be sent by post instead of by email. The documents that needed to be signed were sent over to the Netherlands and I had to send them right back to Albany. It was a stressful situation because these documents really couldn’t get lost in the mail, as I didn’t have a copy. Luckily, all went fine, and I got accepted. I then had to figure out how to register for classes and sign up for housing, which actually took a little bit of time. There were a lot of regulations on how to register. I also needed to get a visa because you’re not allowed to stay in the US for a semester without one. To arrange this, I needed to go to the American consulate in Amsterdam, which in itself was a whole experience. You’re not allowed to bring in any electronics and you’ll have to wait in a crowded room with others till it’s your turn. Then when it’s your turn, you’re brought to a desk and have to answer a couple questions about what your business will be in the USA. I gave them my passport and a few days later it arrived at my home again together with my visa.
I think going on exchange is a great opportunity to grow as a person and develop yourself. I think that most people stay in the same environment and their own patterns for a long time. This isn’t bad but doesn’t give the opportunity to explore what else might interest you. Going on exchange is also really good for cultural understanding. Even if you go to a country similar to your own, it won’t be, there’ll be cultural differences. Another thing you’ll learn, is to be on your own. You’ll become more independent and able to tend to situations and solve issues on your own.
I was very nervous when I arrived. I had never been away from home that long, let alone that far away, and by myself as well. Luckily, I had been to the US before, so I wasn’t new to everything. There’s definitely a difference between a trip and an exchange. When it comes to the Americans, there’s a clear resemblance between them and the Dutch, but also many differences. The one thing I found difficult to get used to was how overly polite and happy Americans seem to be when you meet them, but even after that.
In Albany, I stayed in a typical American dorm. This meant that I had to share a room for the entire time I was there. I was prepared for this, but you’ll have to get used to it. I was fortunate enough to share a bathroom and a small room for our desks with three others in total. Many other students had to share their bathroom with a lot of others, kind of like a hostel. We didn’t have a kitchen, so every complex of rooms had a so-called dining hall. You had to check in with a card, on which you had a certain amount of meals. When entering the dining hall, one meal was subtracted automatically from your card. Once inside, you could eat as much as you’d want. Very American I would say. There were a few options each day and you’d get a salad, bread, a desert, soda, etc. In the morning there’d also be breakfast. It’s a very different way of living as you can’t decide what to eat that day, but luckily there were multiple options each day.
The biggest obstacle for me was the fact that there were less exchange students than I had hoped, maybe that was because I was there in the second semester. There were fewer international students and many that were there stuck to their home groups and spoke in their mother tongues. Luckily, there were a few exchange students that I met and really got along with from the beginning on. But I also managed to make a couple native friends. There obviously was no language barrier, as the Americans speak English.
Living the American college life
My fondest memory? Just one? Oh, that’s difficult. I think in general it’s the fact how quickly you get to know people when you’re on exchange that I just love. The two international girls and I hung out a lot because we didn’t know anyone else in the beginning. You’ll talk a lot and about things that you normally only talk about with friends. You’ll travel together and that after just knowing each other for a few weeks. Below there’s some pictures from different moments during my exchange. They sum up exactly what I mean. The first one is before going to the club, me with three other internationals and two local students. The second one shows traveling after the semester, this was at Yosemite national park, and then there’s me at the university sign.
As I said, I hung out with both international as local students. I really liked this because I wanted to go on exchange to meet locals. My classes were mixed but consisted mainly of locals. It was relatively easy to connect with other internationals. There were some informative activities organised in the beginning of the semester to get to know the university and meet the others. Most internationals stuck together or didn’t want to speak English, so I connected with those that did want to. Traveling the country is also something I got to do a lot. We had the chance to travel on the weekends, so we definitely took the opportunity. I went to New York, Boston, and Washington DC. There was also a spring break, aka a full week off, and that’s when we went to Miami.
A week in my life would look a little like the following. During the week, I’d have classes and I’d prepare for them. There were also quite some quiz or exam moments throughout the year. Being present in class is incredibly important in the US, it can even be part of your grade. I had to do a lot of reading and the way of taking the exams was very different than I was used to. It was more fact focussed than actually learning theory. During the week I’d study for quite a bit and I’d go to the gym that was very close to my dorm. I’d often have dinner with my friends. During the weekend I did many different things. We’d go travel or watch sports such as lacrosse or basketball, and then go out. We’d do pre-drinks at two American girls’ houses off campus with a group and then go to a bar or club in the city centre. Living in the US is expensive. Having a dorm on campus is not cheap, and the food offered there is also way more than I’d spend here in the Netherlands. However, I was aware of this before going and made sure to save up some money. The benefit is that you’re going to spend a big sum in one go and then don’t have to pay for groceries for weeks. I was pretty prepared as I had two friends that went to the same university before me. But don’t compare your exchange to anyone else’s, do what you want to do, it’s your adventure in the end!
Fell in love twice
If you’re thinking about going on exchange, do it, do it, do it! You’re not going to regret it. If you’re thinking about heading to the US, make sure to travel the country and hang out with locals. There is no language barrier so it’s incredibly easy. Make sure to take courses that will be filled with local students, it’s a great way of meeting them. I fell in love with the US before going there on exchange, because I went on a trip to North America with my parents and because of my interest in the country itself. After my exchange, I loved the country even more. When you get to live there for a while, it’ll open your mind to the country even more. You’ll see it from a completely different perspective. When I had to return to the Netherlands, it came with mixed feelings. I wanted to see my family and friends again, but I also didn’t want to return just yet. I missed my friends a lot, because I hadn’t spoken to them that often due to the time difference. But I also enjoyed having absolutely no obligations and being able to do what I wanted.
I’m still in touch with my friends from exchange and talk to them on a regular basis. I even saw the two international girls in the Netherlands one time. The first memory that pops up when I get asked about the US, is the way of living on campus. The way you share a room and are not able to cook. The way you’re in class in no time cause it’s around the corner, but also about being on exchange there. Being able to travel a lot and experiencing so many amazing things. Being able to feel at home in a foreign country for a few months, it’s incredible.
Thank you, Janna, for providing us with your exchange story on another continent! We could definitely see you have lived the American college life and you made some incredible memories!