Tag Archives: College

That Time I Saw Bill Clinton In A Parking Garage

In the last post in this series I wrote about the kinds of opportunities on offer at an American campus. When I studied at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire my semester coincided with the 2012 presidential election. It was awesome to have Vice President Joe Biden come to campus and to attend his campaign speech for free. As the semester went on, the weather got more and more bitter and so too did the election.

On October 31st Bill Clinton was visiting Eau Claire to campaign for Barack Obama. How could I turn down the opportunity to see such an iconic figure? It was a Wednesday, and on every Wednesday I had my senior class- a 3 hour creative writing workshop. It was my favorite class with my favorite professor. As I walked down the hill to lower campus, I started to wonder if I could really be arsed to see Clinton. Back then I was extremely anxious about going to places and trying things without someone to do it with me, which sounds crazy when I had already come all the way to another country by myself and was doing just fine. Not only was I anxious, but I was a lazy son-of-a-gun to boot. I wondered if I would be able to motivate myself to walk downtown and see this speech all on my own. I didn’t like the idea that laziness and anxiety would get in the way of a chance to see a former President, and I continued this warring dialogue in my head as I approached Hibbard. It would be so easy to just say “ah, heck with it” and walk back to the warmth and comfort of the dorms, and resume binging Breaking Bad and eating pizza with Aaron. I wished he were here so we could go together.

I got into class, sat myself down, and a thought occurred to me. In my Making More Friends in the USA post I introduced my friend Calvin, who sat near me in that creative writing class. Only two days prior, he had asked if I wanted to get coffee on my birthday. I was busy chillin’ with Aaron, Zeke and Jimmy in Towers North at the time, but had promised him we would hang out. Calvin had a friend, a girl that sat with us, called…let’s call her Briony. As we unpacked our notepads and pens, she said, “Hey, isn’t Bill Clinton in town today?”

Class commenced as per usual, and when it ended it was late in the afternoon. Calvin looked at me and said, “So, how about that coffee? You busy?”

I said I was interested in going to see Clinton, and perhaps we could go together. He smiled and looked back at Briony and asked if she was interested. Swell!

We left the campus and headed toward Briony’s house where we planned to leave our bags. I remember being interested to see what a given student house looked like. We walked through big sylvan streets with little traffic. The houses all had large lawns. They were often made of white-painted wood and all had spacious porches which contained locked bicycles, inflated donuts for tubing the Chippewa River, hookah pipes, and the evidence of many a party; beer bottles and red solo cups strewn about the front steps and lining the porch railing. There were also dogs and families in some of the houses. A thick canopy covered every street, and everything was shadowed and sleepy. The front yards were adorned with whirligigs, flower patches, American flags, abandoned couches, empty lawn chairs, tricycles, and discarded stacks of cardboard.

We arrived at the house where Briony lived and it fascinated me. Briony and her roommate rented the upper half of the house, and so there was a stairway on the exterior of the building that took them up to their front door. I remember Briony apologizing for how messy her apartment was and it struck me as representing the carefree existence of student living. We found her roommate sitting cross-legged on the floor and the girl smiled up at us and said hi, promising to look after our bags.

“Just throw them on the floor anywhere you like,” she said, as Briony went into another room to fetch her jacket.

We started then towards downtown Eau Claire and the light was starting to leave the sky. It was at that point in the day when the streetlights are coming on and glow faintly amber against a sky the dullest shade of white. The speech was taking place at the Ramada Convention Center. By the time we arrived, the line was so big that it stretched around the whole block. We instantly grew apprehensive about whether we would make it.

I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes and one thing I’m not good at is simply standing still. I’ve always hated waiting in line, especially at airports and the like. As the day grew later and the line (“queue” in British English) trudged forward at the pace of a spilt flow of porridge, I began to realize just how naïve I was to the weather in Wisconsin. I’ve always had this tendency to put on less layers than I need out of a fear of being too hot. I hate being out and about with too many layers on and feeling sweaty, and back then I figured it was better to be too cold rather than too hot. Almost as soon as we got in line, I started complaining I was cold. I knew right away I had made a grave error. I was dressed in a thin, white vintage cabana shirt with black, office pants. I looked like I ought to be drinking Cubanitos in Havana or smoking outside a café in Sidi Bou Said. Aside from being about forty years out of date, I attracted all kinds of bemused stares at my lack of preparedness. With the kind of shirt I was wearing I was practically topless for all the protection it offered. To quote Joey from Friends: my nipples could cut glass.

Unable to control myself, I started shivering like crazy. Wisconsinites are polite and yet direct. They’re too polite to criticize my choice of clothing but nonetheless direct enough to ask where my jacket was. A woman in front of us couldn’t stand to hear my teeth chattering any longer, and said that while she didn’t have a spare sweater for me, she could offer me these little things that might warm my hands. Out of her handbag she produced these two things that looked like teabags.

“Rub them together in your hands. It’ll warm you up,” she said. “But whatever ya do, don’t open or tear them. That would be painful.”

The line snaked around these two massive buildings and we were stood there for an hour or more, with me cursing my stupidity the whole time. It was nice to hang out with Calvin and Briony some more, but I was starting to think I should have taken them up on their initial suggestion of coffee. I imagined we would have gone to a place in the campus student center Davies called The Cabin. I never actually went to The Cabin during my exchange, but I remember thinking of it as a nest of hipsters in flannel shirts and beanies, discussing Bon Iver over their Caribou Coffee. I was super-paranoid about being associated with hipsters back then. I’m not sure what my fear was exactly, but I avoided them like they were linked to Spanish Flu. But all my insecurities about being a closeted hipster went out the window when I was on the sidewalk that day feeling my crown jewels shrivel up into my body in a desperate attempt to preserve heat. At that moment The Cabin looked like the warmest, coziest place in the world.

This better be worth it, I thought to myself. We were so close to the convention center now. As we edged closer, coming off of the street and under the massive concrete parking garage attached to the side of the building, we began to talk excitedly about the comfy chairs and central heating ahead of us. It was fully dark by now. The stars were out and the hardy Wisconsinites breathed clouds of condensed water vapor. Then all of a sudden the line came to a stop and didn’t start moving again. A crowd began to form outside the hotel and a woman came along and announced that the seats were all full and that she was very sorry but could we kindly piss off.

An audible groan rang out and the crowd didn’t move. A barricade was erected to keep us from getting any closer and to make room for Clinton’s motorcade. We waited for the shiny black cars to arrive so that we might catch a glimpse of him. At worst we could brag at having seen one of his secret service agents. The only thing I remember from this part of the story is a crushing sense of disappointment. Finally, however, as if knowing that I had come all this way from Bristol, England, the woman returned and announced to the sizable crowd that Bill Clinton was going to come out and give a mini-speech to us, so that we didn’t go home with nothing. What an amazing fellow, I thought.

Then, sure enough, Bill Clinton’s motorcade turned up and he got out of the car. He looked exactly as he did on TV. His hair was brilliantly white though- whiter and thicker than Biden’s. He had a really distinctive look to him, I thought. Someone handed him a megaphone and he addressed the shivering crowd of Wisconsinites clad in green and yellow coats. It was quite a scene, I thought. Even though we didn’t get to see the actual campaign speech, this little spontaneous moment in the parking garage felt somehow more special. Everyone seemed to be wearing some form of Green Bay Packer attire, and we all felt touched by Clinton’s coming out to us in the cold.

The fact that I didn’t bring my camera felt like an even bigger mistake than my choice of clothes. Sometimes in today’s world of social media, it feels like if you don’t have a picture to mark an event, then it didn’t happen. So I don’t have a photo of my own to accompany this post. However, I did find this image online of Clinton speaking to us in the parking garage-if you look really hard you can even see half of my face, at the back of the crowd on the right of the image.


Photo credit: Jeff McCabe, click here to see original image

When the speech was over everyone cheered and we hurried back to Briony’s house as quickly as we could. And so ends the memory and today’s blog post. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying this study abroad series, then consider giving me a Like or let me know what you think in the comments. Make sure to subscribe to keep yourself up to date, because I have plenty of stories left from that fall semester in 2012.


That Time I Saw Joe Biden Speak On Campus

During my student exchange at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire it seemed to me that an American campus offered no end of opportunities. Everything was more. We had more food (free food!) than we could possibly eat, we had more recreational facilities than we could possibly know what to do with, and every week there was an event of some kind going on. I could only imagine what opportunities were on offer at institutions such as John Hopkins or NYU. UW-Eau Claire is a small college in a small city, but like everything else in America it’s rich with possibilities. I wish I had done more, but two things that stand out as being especially memorable are the campaign trail speeches I got to see. I’m going to detail the first one in this post today.

In my Making More Friends in the USA post I highlighted three friends I made during my semester abroad and in my Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election post I described the atmosphere of the campus during the 2012 presidential election. It is in this post that we bring those two pieces together, now that the appropriate context has been established.

I got to see Vice President Joe Biden on September 13th, 2012. The campaign was just starting to heat up at this point, with the vote about 2 months away. Even though I didn’t know Biden that well, I knew I couldn’t turn down the chance to see a sitting Vice President. I went with Jimmy and Zeke and I remember standing in line for ages outside the Zorn Arena. It was a bright day, and although the punishing Midwestern summer heat had dropped off quite suddenly, there was a residual, pleasant kind of warmth that ushered in the Indian Summer of fall. Jimmy and Zeke, being freshmen, shared the same sense of excitement that I did as an exchange student. We were similarly new to the campus and in awe of the fresh sights and sounds before us. We were hungry for experiences. As we waited in line we joked around and pointed out the Secret Service agents taking up various positions around the perimeter of the arena.

“Look, a sniper!” we said, pointing at a guy in shades standing on the roof.


As we got closer to the entrance I got my first glimpse of the UW-Eau Claire marching band, who paraded down the street in a phalanx of blue and gold. They were very impressive and I enjoyed the booming music of drums and brass instruments.

The marching band’s reputation preceded them and I was glad to see them in action. One girl told me “The marching band are legit awesome. It’s like, super-nerdy, but they’re so good.”


The running joke on campus was that the marching band was better than the Blugold football team it supported, and that people attended the games as much to see them as they did the sports.

When we got in we were seated in this gallery overlooking the main stage. People were still flooding into the arena, and our attention focused on the secret service agent guarding the exit near to where we sat. The guy was built like a vending machine but had this serene look to his face that reminded me of a teaching assistant or music tutor with unlimited patience. Zeke said that he was going to go shake the agent’s hand, and asked if I could take a photo of him to prove he did it. I was swept up in the adventure of the moment and as he left our row of seats, Jimmy laughed and said “Dude, he’s legit going to do it.”

Unfortunately my camera at the time was not very good. I did my best to get the highest quality picture I could for him, and the result was pretty blurry. However it was not so blurry that you couldn’t tell what was going on. You can see the handshake, but the agent’s got two heads, so it looks like his spirit is leaving his physical body and watching the event over his shoulder. At the time I was worried that not getting a good photo was a missed chance to improve my new friendship with Zeke, but really it just serves as an example of how I used to fret over every little thing back then, that the slightest imperfection in my social endeavors would have far-reaching consequences. But as I have stated, Wisconsinites are a super-friendly bunch, and throughout the semester both Jimmy and Zeke were absolutely wonderful towards me. I apologized to Zeke but he just laughed and said “Good enough. Thanks man, this is badass.”

The event started with a bunch of guest speakers I can’t remember. A quartet of blonde German-American girls gave a lovely rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and my friends reminded me to put my hand over my heart and face the flag. I wasn’t sure what to do, as a foreigner, but I decided to go along with it. It was a strange sensation and a thought came over me at the time: “So this is my life now. How the hell did I get here? Here I am in the USA doing the pledge of allegiance I’ve seen so many times in the movies…”

It was a far cry from the life I’d known just a few short months ago, hiding in my room getting all my knowledge of the outside world through media instead of direct exposure. It was weird. For so long I’d felt that I was somehow “outside life”, existing only as an observer of the stories of others. Now I felt like I was living. I was in the stories I read and the movies I watched. This was a recurring emotion during my student exchange, one in which my perception of reality was changing. This might sound completely insane, but it was like all of a sudden I felt real.

Joe Biden sauntered onto the stage with his trademark swagger and ear-to-ear grin. He was old, thin, with a head of hair so white as to shame a Stranger Things antagonist. He looked like the American “good ol’ boy” archetype and I could imagine him playing a sheriff or saloonkeeper in an old-school Hollywood Western. His natural charisma and quintessential “American-ness” reminded me of Harrison Ford. Despite his age and his thinness, he was a man fit to bursting with excited energy. He seemed so vibrant and lively. He strutted about the stage shaking hands, slapping shoulders and snapping his fingers. His reputation as such a colorful personality turned out to be true, and it made for an entertaining speech. Biden resonated with the youth and knew how to galvanize them. He joked around, he was goofy, and he had this innocent, trustworthy twinkle in his eyes like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. He spoke about foreign policy and then went on to paint a picture of the America he and Obama envisioned; a place of diversity, tolerance and progressivism.

I wasn’t too big on politics at the time, but I remember enjoying his speech and leaving Zorn with a sense of hope and optimism. There were people in power working to make the world a better place.

Living on an American Campus During the 2012 Election

One of the things I haven’t covered yet- a detail that made my semester abroad that much more colorful- was that I was in the USA during election year. Tensions were high and the campus was highly politicized. Both the Dems and the GOP had official organizations at the grass-roots level- veritable legions of fired-up, partisan students that scoured the campus for recruits during the day and drank toasts to the bloody demise of their counterparts come night. There was a real sense of vitriol between the two sides. It was as though every four years the country braced itself for a civil war, which is an apt choice of words because the ideological divisions in this country can be traced right back to the fricking Gatling Gun. I’ve always thought that America is really two countries- like two warring spirits vying for control of a host body. One thing I picked up on as soon as I arrived was the tangible sense of dread people had towards the 2012 general election. Now I’m not saying people back in the Old World of Yurrup enjoy elections, but I’ve certainly never seen the same sense of fear. In the UK some people go about hardly noticing there’s an election at all. But in the US- boy do you know it’s game time.

The US is about as polarized as a nation can get. When I was making my road trip across the country before moving into the dorms, I met up with my assigned roommate Brad and a bunch of his high school chums in the parking lot of a Best Western hotel in Madison, WI. After grudgingly obliging their demands I say “bloody hell” several times in my normal voice, I was able to pick up a few pointers on the Do’s and Don’ts of living in the Land of the Free.

“Whatever you do, do NOT mention politics, religion, or race,” one girl told me.

There was this sense that to do so was to light a cigarette in a room already doused with gasoline. Any moment things could explode. It was an interesting climate to witness, and any American will tell you that when things kick off, it’s ugly as all hell. And it’s true; in the UK there simply isn’t the same level of hatred that exists between both factions. People just kind of get on with it, and few folks can really be bothered to make a scene.

The memory of that semester that sticks out most to me was the time my bestest of mates Aaron got back from casting his vote.

“Shit’s hit the fan,” he said, lying back on the rug across from where I sat. Aaron told me how an argument about abortion exploded on lower campus outside the voting booths. I’m not sure who started it, but basically what happened is two girls got into a screaming match and one of them called the other a “cunt”. You know the hatred is genuine when Americans use that word. In the USA it definitely carries more weight than anywhere else. Over there it’s strictly a gender-specific word. It’s a word used against women to demean women. In the UK, it’s still bad, but it’s applied more or less equally to both genders (think of it as an upgrade of “jerk”). And in Australia, I hear it’s actually a term of endearment. But no, in the US whenever that word is used it’s like all air is sucked out of the room. Back home, if I were to say it I’d get a slap on the wrist for being vulgar, but if I were to utter it in the USA, there would be a sense of “Did you really just do that?”

As a foreigner, I was pretty much insulated from it all. Come election-day a girl knocked on my door and asked if I had voted yet. I told her I wasn’t eligible, and for some reason I got a real sense of satisfaction in doing so. But a part of me did feel like I was missing out on the party. I wasn’t politically-inclined at all in those days, but I still felt swept up in all the excitement. There was a real sense of hope that came with Obama’s crushing victory, and the dorm rooms were warmed by the glow of progressivism. No offence to Mitt Romney, but he displayed about as much charisma and political insight as a pilchard. I’ll never forget staying up with Aaron all night to watch the live coverage of the votes being counted, and I have such a vivid memory of Obama’s rousing victory speech in the wind and rain of Chicago. It was probably one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard, and one of the few I’ve really been affected by with a surge of emotion. Our reaction was tantamount to that of seeing Giannis Antetokounmpo performing a slam dunk over someone. “Holy shit,” Aaron said. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you had to give it to Barack Obama; the man is undoubtedly one of the greatest orators in American history.

Making More Friends in the USA

I’ve written in previous episodes of this series how I made friends with an Aaron Rodgers lookalike and his Malaysian roommate, and having finally found a friendship group of my own, latched onto them like a lamprey eel. But that’s not the whole story. It’s true that I spent almost all of my time with them, but I was also blessed with some other friendships during my 2012 student exchange. After years of loneliness in Bristol and Winchester back in the UK- where I’d sit on benches eating alone, staring at a group of friends walking past, telling myself that would never happen for me, that any form of companionship was denied me- the few friends I made in the USA seemed like a lot. For the first few weeks, it seemed as though friends were falling into my lap, and I wasn’t even doing anything proactively social. As I’ve stated before, just being British made me an exotic novelty- no matter how boring and pathetic I thought I was. One of my British friends asked me recently if I thought he could make friends if he went to the USA. And the answer is of course. If I can, any of you can- no matter how low your self-esteem is.

Midwesterners- Wisconsinites and Minnesotans especially- are renowned for their cheerful, kindly demeanor and affability. By and large their culture celebrates openness and politeness. Around the same time I was practically becoming adopted by Akbar and Aaron, I was making friends with two other lads who lived a few doors down the hall from us. For the purposes of this blog we’ll call them Jimmy and Zeke. Both of them were freshmen with a wild thirst for adventures. I met Jimmy first. He took it upon himself to befriend me, approaching me several times during my first week to make me feel welcome. My initial impressions of him were as someone who hung out with jocks but was extremely nice. I thought he looked like what I imagined a baseball player looked like, and I categorized him as someone who hung out with the cool kids in high school, but was universally liked- someone with a sense of schoolyard honor. Jimmy was also from Minnesota, and I feel like my entire impression of The Gopher State was grafted from his personality. Because Jimmy was such an easygoing type, I figured that all Minnesotans are similarly laidback. Whether there’s any truth to that, I’m not sure, but I haven’t had an experience that’s disproven my “chilled-out” image of the Minnesotans.

The first thing Jimmy taught me was that Midwesterners can be forward without seeming rude. Jimmy asked me if he could watch the Vikings’ season opener in my room because he had nowhere else to watch it. I was delighted to host him, although the TV wasn’t really mine. It was my roommate Brad’s, but he was out and hadn’t previously given me any indication I couldn’t use it. Jimmy figured out how to work the TV and we watched the Vikings. It was the first time I had sat down and watched American football. Jimmy explained the rules to me and my initiation into the sport I would soon come to love came from him. For some reason I was nervous about Brad walking in, even though I knew logically that he wouldn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Back then I wasn’t ruled by logic, but baseless fear born out of a lack of social exposure. I had already agreed to meet Aaron on lower campus and got ready to leave. Jimmy seemed cool with this and asked if he could stay in my room and watch. I trusted him and I was eager to please, so I said yes and left. As I walked down the hill to lower campus I kept thinking about what would happen if Brad came back and found some guy sat on the futon watching sports. It was an interesting little moment for me, as I wondered if such a thing would be awkward in the USA. My takeaway was that Americans feared social awkwardness less.

I first met Zeke a few days later when Jimmy and I grabbed lunch at Hilltop. Zeke was different to Jimmy, but the two of them made an interesting pair as roommates. I clicked with both of them instantly. Zeke was harder to categorize into a stereotype like everyone else. Jimmy was the kid in the movie that offered help to the bullied runt, teaching him how to throw a ball and swing a bat. Aaron was the guy that got the girl in the end and took her to prom. I even categorized myself- think of me as the Neville Longbottom type. But as for Zeke, I wasn’t sure where I had seen his face before. Out of everyone I met he had the most fervent zeal for collegiate adventures. He was intellectually-curious and more or less seemed to want to try everything. He grew up in a rural part of Wisconsin in a town of about three houses, that for some reason I always pictured looking like an Amish hamlet, complete with a working gristmill. As we ate lunch that day he eagerly engaged me on my religious and philosophical views. I wasn’t offended by the interest, but I felt I had to choose my words carefully. These fellas were still new to me, and I didn’t want to alienate potential friends by making myself look like the Antichrist. I just said I wasn’t sure about all that stuff, and they said that “most campuses are pretty liberal”. From that moment forward we became comfortable exchanging ideas throughout the semester, and both seemed very interested in what I had to say. They made my thoughts feel legitimate and they made me feel like I was not only smart, but interesting.

The last significant interaction I want to discuss is a friend I made in my Creative Writing Workshop class. We’ll go ahead and call him Calvin. My friendship with him follows the pattern of people finding me intriguing and going out of their way to make friends with me. Calvin had blonde hair and looked kind of like a young, Scandinavian Stephen King. He was a senior, and a fellow writer, so that made him different to the other friends I made. I remember him sitting near me, and seeing that I was shy, going out of his way to include me. Just like Zeke and Jimmy, he made me feel interesting. He often encouraged me to share my work and complimented my writing on several occasions. We agreed to meet up to see a visiting writer give a talk on campus one evening. That writer was actually Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar (See American Dervish & Disgraced). After watching Akhtar speak about the writing process and Sufism for an hour, we exchanged numbers. Later, when my 20th birthday came around, Calvin gave me a call and asked if he could treat me to a coffee or something. Unfortunately I was busy at the time, but I promised him we could hang out in the near future. The interaction is significant because it’s another example of how forward Americans can be, and how the experience of having people proactively seek out my friendship contributed to my development as a person and my overall impression of the Midwest. It was little moments like these that really made my exchange.

My idea behind this post was not only to highlight what my behavior therapist roommate would call “social initiations”, but to establish these three personalities for further posts going forward. In many ways, this piece is a necessary foundation for the next few posts in my student exchange series that I have planned. Be sure to catch the next episode tomorrow! Thanks for reading.

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.

Studying in the USA vs Studying in the UK Episode 3: Classes

Since I started this memoir series way back in June, I’ve only really covered the social aspects of my student exchange. Today I’d like to discuss the academic differences between studying in the USA and the UK, of which there are many. It’s super-interesting and I’ve been meaning to do a post on this for a while, so let’s begin!


  1. In the U.K most arts degrees have a set length of 3 years. You either make it in those years, or you don’t. I think if you fall short of a passing grade they give you some work to do over the summer, but that’s about it- you don’t retake the assignment.
  2. In the U.S, an average degree typically runs 4 years, but really there’s no set length. In the U.K each year is different, as we progress through a predetermined program of tasks and content. You can’t jump ahead to third year stuff; you have to reach that level. There’s an order to things. In the U.S however, everything is measured in classes and the credits they give you. Every degree has its own criteria about what is required to graduate, and so you can stay for 5 or 6 years if you want. Finishing in less than 4 is rare, but my genius roommate Anne-Marie finished hers in 3 and a half years, which was considered exemplary.
  3. In the U.S they have classes, and in the U.K they have modules. There’s a difference. A class is its own self-contained subject that might be filled up with all sorts of people at different stages of their study, all pursuing different degrees. In the U.K, we had modules, which were each necessary components needed to pass the year and in which we were all on the same journey at the same stage.
  4. In the UK, your degree has a singular, very specialized focus. I studied Creative Writing, which meant that every seminar, lecture and workshop I attended worked toward that goal, and what I needed to achieve that goal was laid out strictly from the start. This meant a deeper exploration of the given subject. Within Creative Writing we had modules that explored different subcategories, of which we had some limited choice, depending on if we wanted to become, say, a screenwriter or a poet. We had classes devoted to science fiction, children’s books, songwriting, modern poetry and scriptwriting for TV.
  5. In the U.S on the other hand, there’s an altogether different approach. Students have an emphasis, known as a “major”, but they are free to take whatever class they like, whether it builds towards their major or not. You can major in women’s studies but take classes in Portuguese and Limnology if you so choose.
  6. A lot of American students go to college without even knowing what degree they want to get from it. These kids are known as “undeclared” and can decide later what major they want. They are free to try out what classes work for them. In that way, college in the U.S seems like an extension of school, and in America people even refer to college as “school”.
  7. In the U.K you have to make your decision at the age of 17 and hope you’ll be happy with it. I know people who have done a year of one degree, hated it, and started a new one, accruing themselves a fine debt.
  8. In the U.S, this wouldn’t happen. You can change majors along the way, and I know people who have studied for 2 years towards one major and decided they would rather switch to something else, and it doesn’t affect their time spent there or their debt. Some people discover in their third year or fourth year that they are close to graduating in an altogether different subject, based on the classes they took, and will jump ship.
  9. Another option Americans have is collecting majors like the skulls of slain enemies. My close friend Elizabeth realized in her third year that she was close to graduating with an archeology degree, and ended up finishing her fourth year as a triple-major!
  10. In the U.S everything counts towards your grade. Every exam, essay, even the weekly quizzes.
  11. Homework is taken seriously in the U.S. Yeah, homework counts towards your grade too. In the U.K we would sometimes get given homework, but it was more prep for the next seminar. It was embarrassing when you turned up and hadn’t done it, but it wouldn’t cost you. One time I flat out told the professor I hadn’t bothered to do the reading, and she gave me this icy expression before ignoring me for the rest of class. I felt bad, because I liked her a lot. In the U.S, it’s in your interest to get that extra work done.
  12. Participation ALSO counts towards your grade in the U.S. In the U.K I mostly hid at the back of the classroom, thinking about sleep. In the U.S I was on my toes, because your public speaking forms a part of your grade.
  13. In the U.K the only thing you have to worry about are the assignments at the end of semester. We never had exams in Creative Writing, so each semester followed the pattern of having two assignments which made up your entire score. Usually a short story and a reflective essay. The classes were basically there to help you gain the knowledge to get a good grade, but nothing really mattered if you did well on those two assignments.
  14. The biggest difference I noted was that in the U.S there was a greater volume of work, whereas in the U.K I felt that the work was a little harder. I was getting pretty good grades in the U.S, but I was let down by the sheer amount of it. In the U.S the diligent, hard-working and organized student reigns supreme. I’m a lazy sonuvabitch, so I found it hard to complete every assignment to the best of my ability. There was literally a deadline for every day of the week for the whole semester.
  15. In the U.S they grade things as A, B, C etc, and for the most part it’s mathematical. It’s most often made by numbers, although I had one professor that told me she graded us on how she “felt” our work deserved to be graded. In the U.K, the grades have strange names like “Distinction” and “First” and “Second”.


What I’ve listed here are what I believe to be the fundamental differences between the education system in the USA and the U.K. This will serve as our groundwork moving forward. I’m going to follow this up with a post tomorrow in which I discuss how I reacted to these changes and how I feel about them. Be sure to Subscribe so you don’t miss out! Thank you once again for reading.

Studying in the USA vs Studying in the UK Episode 2: Roommates

Today’s post is all about Roommates. This is one of the biggest and most important differences in collegiate life between the USA and the U.K. In the USA you are assigned a roommate and it’s such a profound difference because the experience of sharing a room with someone will inevitably shape your time at college and perhaps your life thereafter. At Winchester I had a spacious room where I played games, wrote my stories, read books, and it was a completely private existence in which I sheltered from the campus around me. It was a place of solitude where I allowed myself to be as messy as I liked.

In the US I had a roommate, Brad, and so we had to coordinate on what we wanted the room to be like. It was a little complicated for me, given that I was arriving from a different country and leaving after one semester. So Brad brought a lot of stuff like a TV, a futon, even a fridge. He made the decision to have our beds lofted, which I’m glad he did because it gave us more space. And once the semester started, we both had to get used to the idea of sharing a living space with someone else- he being a freshman and me coming from the land without roommates. It’s a more colorful and vibrant existence in the US, and it seems like something is always going on somewhere, some activity or adventure already underway. It’s not a place of solitude, but I can’t say I missed the solitude. I liked being forced into this social sphere. Of course I was still extremely shy, and Brad would bring over friends old and new who would get quite comfortable in the room. I’m sure some of them knew the room code. This is another thing one has to make peace with quickly, or you’ll endure a year fraught with bitterness and tension.

Brad’s friends were always nice to me, and given that they were freshmen, they had this buzz of enthusiasm about them and the pre-alcohol innocence of high-schoolers. One time I got a knock on the door and opened it to reveal a slim girl with large glasses, clutching a stack of books and folders to her bosom. She let herself in and said she was here to meet Brad for some studying. The girl smiled at me- not the evangelical ear-to-ear, open-mouthed smile you so often find in the Midwest- but a pleasant, closed-lipped grin, rounding softly at the cheeks and which seemed to warn of feisty temperament and an intimidating, witty intellect. She sat on the futon and waited for Brad whilst I resumed my place at my desk, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t pierce the silence with a nervous fart. I remember trying to think of how to look cool and relaxed whilst sitting at my desk, shifting in my chair to try out different positions. Brad came, and she revealed herself to be a very lively character, sitting cross-legged on Brad’s chair and dominating the atmosphere with her fiery humor and loud, unapologetic belches.

As I’ve covered in previous episodes, the Michael that arrived to the USA back then was unbearably shy, and I had about as much confidence in my ability to join a conversation as I did my likelihood of one day marrying Emilia Clarke. So whenever Brad’s friends came over I would sit rigidly at my desk, trying to busy myself with some reading or writing, but constantly on edge. I listened to their every word and sweated in my seat, worried that I might suddenly be prompted to speak and make a fool of myself. The problem I had back then was that my anxiety made me terrified to approach someone and work on a relationship. I reacted to the slightest facet of body language, tone, or eye contact that didn’t overtly court friendship and assumed I was not wanted. I never tried to work on a relationship, and that’s one of the regrets I carry not just towards Brad, but other people I have met in life that I never truly got to know. I was so consumed with my fear of other people that I waited for them to do all the social heavy lifting, not realizing that everyone communicates differently and has their own worries and insecurities. One thing I learned on my exchange was that you can never really know how another person is feeling or what they are thinking; we take a frightened look and fill in the blanks with our preconceptions.

I had a peaceful and amicable semester living in the same room as Brad, and as I’ve mentioned in Making Friends in the USA Part 3, I spent most of my time with Aaron and Akbar in their room. Theirs was a very successful roommate narrative, but during my time at Eau Claire I heard some real horror stories. There was one guy who lived a few doors down from us who entered his room one night to find that his roommate was having drunken sex with this girl he had hooked up with. The girl then screamed at him to “fuck off” and leave them alone, and the poor guy was left wandering the dorms for hours at night, banished from his own room. From what I learned, the roommate never apologized, and it’s just an example of the lottery nature of the roommate system. Whomever you get will have an inevitable impact on your college experience, whether you become buddies or not. And it’s an important aspect of collegiate life for Americans, because it teaches them about the dynamics of coexistence and shared responsibility.

I hope you liked this little post on roommates! If so, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe, and I will endeavor to produce more content if I think people are enjoying it. What are your experiences with roommates? How did it shape your college experience? Let me know in the comments!