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College culture shock: crossing the pond to new experiences

Zoe Rogers, ‘Doah Staff Writer
March 19, 2014

For students outside of the U.S., spring break is an American rite of passage that has been glorified in movies and T.V. shows. The holiday was just one of the many expectations I had in mind when I left Northern Ireland (N.I.) to study in the US for a year. Yet, spring break is just one of many things that are unique to American college life. Here’s a rundown of some college culture shocks I’ve had to navigate since arriving at S.U.

The concept of a college campus looks very different in the U.S. than it does in N.I. Most universities in N.I. are based in cities or towns with campus buildings and residential halls relatively scattered unlike American colleges like S.U. where residential halls, classrooms and student centers are on one plot of land that make up a centralized campus. When I was a freshman at Queen’s University, Belfast, I faced a 20-minute walk to class every morning from my residence halls. Try that in the freezing rain of an Irish winter and you’ll understand why the five-minute walk to class here at S.U. feels like a luxury.

The location of a U.S. campus is not the only thing that differentiates it from its Northern Irish counterpart. Shared dorm-rooms and campus cafeterias are less common in N.I. universities where students are more likely to live in a self-catered student apartment block with ten or eleven flatmates. The benefit of a single en-suite room is healthily balanced with the downsides of having to clean a shared kitchen after student parties!

Whilst Residential Assistants exist in both the U.S. and N.I., their roles may look a little different. In the U.S., RAs have a much more revered title and greater responsibility of looking after the welfare of students and enforcing college rules. In comparison, RAs in N.I. certainly look out for the welfare of their students but are more frequently found to be organizing the parties and pub-crawls that American RAs are trained to steer young freshmen away from.

This brings me to another, major, culture shock between the two college experiences. In N.I., the legal drinking age is 18. Students can be found socializing in cafes, bars and clubs on weeknights, and then disappearing home on the weekends. In comparison, my experience of American college is that students live for the weekends and for the day they turn 21.

For the sake of our discussion, I’ll venture into an area of which I have next to no knowledge– sports. American colleges place much greater importance on team sports, and school spirit is infectious. Greater ceremony and pride surrounds college sports in the U.S., whilst University leagues in Northern Irish sports are much more of a low-key affair. Moreover, whilst football, baseball and lacrosse are popular here, they are less common in N.I. where rugby, soccer and hockey (field-hockey) reign supreme.

Away from the sports field, life in an American classroom looks different to the lecture halls I’m used to in N.I. Whilst the largest class I have experienced here in S.U. reached around 30 people, at Queen’s University I am usually one of at least 100 students attending a lecture. As a result, students in American colleges like S.U. benefit from a closer relationship with professors who provide help and guidance. In N.I., independent study is heavily emphasized whilst sheer number of students renders it impossible for professors to pay the same attention to students as American professors do.

One major difference between U.S. and N.I. college experience is their affordability. Whilst American students are often subjected to debts of over $100,000 just to receive an undergraduate education, all Northern Irish students are offered low-interest loans to cover school fees which never amount to more than $7,000 a year for N.I. universities. Furthermore, students from low-income households are given grants and bursaries from both government and University, that don’t need to be repaid, to fund their studies therefore making a higher education even more accessible for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

So, while American colleges have spring break, Northern Irish universities have a similar holiday around Easter time. Except, our holiday lasts for three weeks not one. Despite feeling a little short-changed by spring break, I’ll keep embracing the many more cultural differences between S.U. and my home university. There is one phrase I’ve come to trust whilst studying abroad, “It’s not better or worse, just different.”

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