As an American going to school in the UK, I believe that the big picture of my university experience isn’t so different from that of my peers in America: we have lectures and classes of varying size, we eat cafeteria food, we consume copious amounts of cheap, questionable alcohol which (let’s face it) more often that not spawn embarrassing experiences.
I also certainly wouldn’t say that I went into this blind. I knew, at least vaguely, what I was getting myself into. I knew that culturally it would be a big difference from what I was used to; I knew that my friends and classmates would come from different backgrounds and childhood experiences, and that they might not be able to comprehend or relate to my own experiences. Finally, I knew that I would probably have some regrets sometimes, some inklings of doubt that I had made the wrong decision, and that I should have stayed in the United States where it was warm and sunny and familiar.
Those things have all turned out to be true; like any ex-patriot, I have missed my home, despite the fact that I would never trade this experience for any other. But some of them were in ways that I hadn’t imagined before coming here, and I am still discovering new differences after 9 months. Because I had never known or thought about it, I wasn’t prepared for the initial shock and following discomfort upon learning that people pay for their own university education. Yes, I know that the UK government ensures that students loans are much more manageable than they are in the US (hello, crippling debt!), but it has been ingrained into the American teenagers minds to fear and avoid student loans as much as possible. That is the reason why American parents, if they can afford it (and I recognize that I am very lucky to have parents who can) will normally pay for their children to go to university. My parents pay for most aspects of my life at university: the tuition, my accommodation, my food in hall. Anything that I buy outside of hall – Tesco runs, clubs, late-night guilty Hassan’s – all come from my own pocket. My parents started saving for my university education almost as soon as they got jobs, and I will probably do the same for my future children. But this cultural difference ended up making me feel guilty about the fact that I am far less financially burdened than my friends. It sometimes felt like I was repenting something whenever I awkwardly explained in the queue the reason why I was buying over-priced fruit in hall rather than going to Tesco where it is cheaper. It is something that I have had to come to terms with over time – that there are explicable reasons for my financial situation at uni, and that it isn’t really anything to be ashamed of.
The drinking culture here (at least as far as I have experienced it) is something that I find vastly better when compared to that at American universities. I know it’s still definitely not healthy, and that alcoholism is a real problem, but I have personally seen how my peers drink in America and can bear witness to the fact that it seems far more dangerous. I have met some people who think that because Americans can’t drink until they’re 21, then they must not drink a lot, if at all. This is far from the truth, at least in many cases: instead of drinking less, people drink just as much as their UK peers, but do it in underground, hidden locations because of the illegality. This leaves more room for rape and unnoticed or untreated alcohol poisoning. Essentially, the taboo increases the fascination, and the secretiveness of it all means that people hesitate to get help when they or their friends need it.
As I said before, I will never regret coming here. My experiences at Oxford, in England, with an ocean between myself and my home, are priceless and have already taught me things that I would never learn at home or even on a year abroad. I am extremely grateful for the experience, and can only imagine that it becomes more eye opening as time goes o