There’s nothing quite like booking a one-way flight to the US of A. It was almost exactly three years ago now (almost to the day, I remember booking them during my first year Easter hols) and I remember the moment as if it was last week some time. I’d almost finished my first year at Exe, and that summer, I’d be jetting off to Virginia, where I’d spend a year as an exchange student at the (extremely prestigious, academically rigorous) College of William & Mary.
I am being 100% honest when I say I wasn’t nervous, not one bit. It just didn’t occur to me that I should be nervous, really. It seemed perfectly natural that I’d be spending a year of my life living across the pond and I had never really questioned the fact that I would. So one evening in August 2011, my partner in crime Sophie and I had a last farewell meal with my parents – in the oldest pub in the country, apparently, where we dined on ostrich burgers and too much wine – and then we got ourselves stuck in the lift of a Heathrow hotel, and then the next morning we got up and jumped on a plane to Richmond, Virginia (by way of the hellish airport that is New York JFK).
The first few weeks were a blur. After a week of non-stop orientation activities in Virginian summer humidity, Hurricane Irene descended and we were promptly evacuated to nearby Charlottesville (a gem of a college town in itself and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area!). A week after that, I began the crazy process of rushing a sorority, and two weeks after that, I was a (nearly) fully fledged sister of Kappa Alpha Theta, navigating frat parties, endless games of beer pong and plastic “handles” of cheap vodka like I’d been doing it all my life. Sounding like a made for TV movie yet?
I won’t pretend it was all frat party fun and repeating things in a British accent for the fun of our American pals, though. William & Mary boasts a dreamy, impossibly picturesque campus (complete with free boating lake and free gym usage) and a climate to match, but the workload was heavy. We’d been warned, but there’s no way that the first year of an English degree at a UK university can prepare you for the sheer amount of classtime, assignments and god knows what else that we were thrown into. Luckily we’d formed a little gang of British exchange girls and the four of us would often spend hours locked in the basement of Sophie’s building, moaning and whining and eating terrible/delicious American snacks as we ploughed through hours and hours of work with no end in sight and (the worst) no clubs, no question of going out or predrinking until Friday night (Thursday if we were lucky) hit. Sometimes I’d look at pictures of my beloved friends back home throwing themselves into second year life with abandon and be just desperate to return.
And yet I wouldn’t change it for the world. Even when things looked at their very dullest, there was always a mixer (one frat, one sorority, yet more beer pong) to look forward to, or a sunny day when suddenly shorts were acceptable in February. And there were always the people. Fro-yo dates, beach trips, lunches in the dining hall, a dinner cooked by a middle-aged Scottish expat who hosted two strange British girls for the most wonderful, homely evening. You know what? Turns out southern hospitality is a very real thing. Nothing was ever awkward, nothing was ever too much trouble. Americans make it easy for you to throw themselves into their midst and we embraced it just as much as they did us.
By the end of the school year, I’d written more papers than I care to count but I’d also attended two frat formals (debauchery-filled overnight stays at beachside motels under fake names), developed a new taste for Mexican food and country music, become accustomed to dollar dollar bills, sidewalks and trashcans, and made a whole host of friends that even now, I know I could call upon whenever and wherever I needed them. William and Mary was a bubble that I did not want to burst – but waiting on the other side was a three week trip through the deep American South and a funpacked week in Disney World, the best possible way to end the best possible year abroad and another adventure in itself.
I experienced the reality behind those cheesy American movies and I absolutely loved it.