Hi! I’m Jess, a 24-year-old Neuroscience BSc student at Queen Mary currently studying at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This experience has been incredible and given me some of the best moments of my life, but it’s also had its tough moments that have helped me to grow beyond what I would have thought this time last year. Here’s a small window into what the past year has meant for me here, and why I would encourage anyone and everyone to take the opportunity to study abroad.
Someone recently asked me if studying for a year abroad was worth it, and who can blame them? It’s expensive, puts another year between you and the finish line of undergrad (although this might be comforting to some!), involves an extraordinary amount of paperwork and admin stress, let alone the part where you actually move 5000 miles and 8 hours away from everything you know, everyone you love, and into strange corners of the world. On top of that, having ASD brings its own challenges that are compounded by all of the above – especially the idea of forfeiting any quiet space by sharing a room with not one, but three other people! BUT – and I really hate to admit this – my mum was right when she said I’d fall in love here. Albeit it wasn’t in the romantic way she meant, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I have fallen head-over-heels in love with life here.
UCSB was my first choice – the option to go to California for my course was actually the reason I applied to Queen Mary in the first place (don’t tell my professors that!); I knew I needed to experience life beside the warm, sunny beaches, with days spent surfing, skiing, and surrounded by nature. It also helps that UCSB is consistently rated in the top 3 party colleges in the US… it has it all! The strong academics, the gorgeous surroundings, and the fun nightlife – what more could you want?
This year – and Turing – has provided me with the opportunity to visit Yosemite (which I will always treasure as the place where my friends became family), the beautiful Mojave desert, the Sierra mountains (local snow clubs means $50 ski trips… when else will you have that opportunity?!), LA, San Francisco, New Orleans… even Hawai’i! It has allowed me to brush up on some surfing, camping, and lots of hiking; with state beaches and national parks boasting waterfalls and hotsprings less than 10 minutes away, adventure is always on your doorstep – literally, as the beach being your backyard means you can swim with dolphins and seals every day! Most importantly, however, is that this experience has introduced me to friends that I will hold closely for the rest of my life and memories that I can smile at forever.
Something I didn’t expect is how fun American college life is; the sports games (with giant foam fingers, enormous pretzels, and enough butter popcorn to feed 10 people!), all the little traditions (such as Deltopia at UCSB – the biggest day party in the country, with water slides and 15,000 from all over the world in one street!) or throwing frozen tortillas onto soccer pitches during half-time – although don’t ask me why!, the free massages and puppy therapy, and even just the supportive, community team spirit that rallies each other and makes the hard academics enjoyable. The UCSB motto is work hard, play hard, and that’s really what it is!
Don’t get me wrong – this has been one of the most challenging and emotional journeys of my life. The highs are euphoric, and the lows are terrifying. The homesickness and loneliness at times were quite smothering – having nothing familiar around you and no one that you’re truly close with yet made it really difficult at times. But now I have learnt how to identify and handle breaks in good mental health, how to open up and be vulnerable, and I have come out the other side as a strong and capable woman who is able to turn enormous amounts of fear and stress into productive and positive outlets.
But what this year has taught and given me more than anything is deep, loving, nurturing friendships that in many ways surpass any I’ve had before. The first month or so in particular is tough – you get on with everyone and have fun, but you’re not connected to anyone yet in that way that someone knows what you’re thinking or feeling without you saying anything. I found that the friendships made here come deeply-all-at-once – one moment you’re acquaintances, the next you’re family – especially with those also on exchange. You’re either living together in close quarters, or are each others only taste of home and support in a way that few others around understand. It’s an intense experience, which creates intense (in the best way) friendships. They have made the hard parts worth every second, with our weekly family dinners, bringing each other Trader Joe’s amazing Brookie when we need a pick-me-up, and the daily belly laughs feel like you’re going to break a rib at any moment. Perhaps the hardest part of it all is the idea of coming back home and not seeing them (or the stunning Santa Barbara sunsets) every day.
Overall, a year in California has shown me just how much life has to offer. I cheesy smile, feel the salty waves across my feet, and grow as a person every day. I love the UK, but there is so much to be experienced and learned elsewhere. UK me considered herself an indoors girl, but now you’ll only ever catch me outside. UK me was shy and nervous, but now I’m confident, will try anything, and can talk to anyone. Excuse the cringe, but it’s true: while I loved UK me, I am in love with now me, I am in love with life, and I know I can face anything and everything thrown my way.