Dropping Classes & Playing Hookey: My Semester as an Exchange Student

Yesterday I outlined what I found to be the most jarring differences between studying at college in the USA and the U.K, using The University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire and The University of Winchester as my case studies. When I arrived in the piney U.S state of Wisconsin, I was excited to be studying different subjects again. However I had gotten used to a life without homework and exams, one in which every day was spent focused on improving the same craft: writing. Part of me wondered if I would be too rusty, but the freshman and sophomore level classes were actually very accessible to newcomers. That’s one thing I like about the American system- the sense of freedom and mobility. A lot of Americans discover what they want to do at college, and are free to amend their journey to their changing tastes as they go along.

I didn’t have quite the same freedom of opportunity, however. At the end of the day I was still technically a student of The University of Winchester, and so the higher-ups back in Hampshire kept me on a close leash. The classes I had to take had to have ancillary benefits to my degree back home, so that I wouldn’t lose progress as a writer. I wasn’t allowed to go taking classes in Kinesiology or Nursing. I was also told to take Junior (third year) classes, because that was judged by said higher-ups to be the equivalent of second year standards in the U.K. I was allowed to take just one class that wasn’t Junior level, but I was not under any conditions allowed to take a freshman class, which the British educational gurus considered to be mere pre-university, school-level learning, presumably where they introduced the basic fundamentals of words and numbers.

But hey, leave it to me to try and get one over on the system. I’ve always been immature that way. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had these rebel fantasies that I never really left behind from my school days. When I got to signing up for classes in my first week I learned that I had only gotten 2 out of the 4 that I asked for, and one of the ones I had missed out on was my only Creative Writing class. I had to have at least one or I’d fall behind. The idea of going a few months without writing was not acceptable to me. So I remember running around Schofield (the administration building) on my first day, dropping the backup classes I had been allocated and which I hated after one day, and went through the process of finding new ones. I ended up taking a Senior level Creative Writing workshop, but also another sophomore class, so I wound up with only one Junior level one. I fully expected to get told to change classes again, but I was already a week behind and the experience of walking into a new classroom as the new guy made me terrified. All sorts of crazy thoughts went through my head, like “What if you sit in someone else’s seat?” or “What if you enter the wrong class and are too shy to get up and leave, so you just stay there the whole semester and fail because you have no idea what the hell “quantum” means?”.

Sure enough I got an email in the next few days from Winchester reminding me that I was still theirs. It read only “Exchange Student, please confirm any changes to your classes”. Cripes. I had the Winchester Kill Droids on my case. I decided for some reason that the best course of action was to forget about this whole Winchester business and focus on the hemisphere I was in. I felt a little cheeky and badass about not replying for several weeks, and only then giving vague and ambiguous responses. Just call me James Dean, I thought.

So I ended up with a creative writing workshop, a class in the history of the American family, and two survey classes in American literature. And I enjoyed them all. It was hard to keep up with the sheer volume of the American workload, but what assignments I put effort into often got me an A grade. At first I was nervous about the idea that I would be graded on my participation, but it wasn’t too bad. I was by no means loud, but I forced myself whenever I could to contribute. Every class seemed to encourage the creation of an open and organic dialogue. I loved each one, and when you are interested in a subject, you lose that sense of shyness about putting up your hand and speaking up. Everyone seemed to value my opinion and thank me for it, and after my little contributions were done I’d relax back into my chair with the sweet satisfaction of knowing I had a couple more points in the bag.

Things got difficult as the semester went on. As many of you know, I’m a notoriously slow reader. Agonizingly slow. I’m far behind the national averages for words-per-minute, and I’ve long considered my reading ability to be a serious problem. Back then it was pretty rough. As the semester went on I found I just couldn’t keep up with the required reading for every week. Some classes even had us read entire novels in 3 days. When that happened I was unable to contribute as much, and I failed weekly quizzes, bringing my grades down. And yeah, I was one lazy bastard to boot. I was obsessed with my new friends and spent practically all of my time with them, often staying up all hours of the night and skipping class trying to make up for lost sleep in the morning. I was worried I was having a bad influence on Aaron, these fears epitomized by that one time he said “Fuck it. Let’s go to Walgreens”, resulting in us both skipping an entire day of classes and me giving myself a 5-day weekend.

Overall I liked the American system, and found myself becoming very comfortable on the UWEC campus. I had my friends, my classes that I liked, professors I admired, a beautiful setting, regular competitive soccer, and a string of awesome student events and opportunities. I remember at the time feeling like I had always been there, and the friends I had felt like old, lifelong companions. The semester was, in many ways timeless. I had forgotten completely about Winchester and my life back in the U.K. My entire world was the Eau Claire campus and the people in it. At the time I had a friend, a fellow writer from Winchester, who was studying at the University of Southern Oregon, and we got to talking on Facebook. She told me all about how she hated Hersheys and how beautiful Crater Lake was, but there’s one thing she said that stuck with me. It seemed we had both fallen into the trap of falling in love with America, which all the exchange students had been advised not to do before going. She said she had looked into transferring colleges but that “I’d need to win the bloody Euro-Millions to pull it off”. A shame, I thought. But we both knew how incredibly lucky we were just to be afforded the chance to be American for one semester.

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