Hello! I’m Emma, and I’m a third-year student from the University of East Anglia. This past September, I embarked on the most intimidating journey I have been on in my life: moving five and a half thousand miles from home for ten months to study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). And as I sit here in the UCLA Botanical Garden – a place that has quickly gone from quaint novelty to my writer’s haven – observing this bizarre juxtaposition of plants from Californian cacti to English lavender to Chinese palm and beyond, I can’t help but think of how they all seem so simultaneously out of place yet fit together perfectly on this campus. It’s a sensation I’ve become very familiar with recently, and one that I’ve realised is an ingrained and essential part of my time here in California.
Anyone who knew me before this journey started would say that I was the most unlikely person in the world to venture on this path. I was a home bird who had never been so far from the U.K. – the girl who once cried to her friend in an airport at the end of a rare two-week trip because she was so desperate to get home – so the thought of studying abroad never once crossed my mind. I couldn’t possibly afford it, nor would I want to risk getting settled in a place and then having to move on. Travel just wasn’t for me. Then UEA’s American Studies department stepped in. Rescuing me from self-inflicted chaos on results day, the department didn’t just offer me a place on an unexpected course, but they set me on a path to discovering a love for the interdisciplinary study of America, be it politics, history, film or a whole world of cultural studies previously unknown to me. An integral part of that would be stepping out of my comfort zone and facing my fears of flying and distance to experience a year at an American university, a journey which has both challenged and inspired me on my way to making me a better academic, and – I hope – a more informed and adaptable person.
I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t had to face some of my worries in the past few months. One of the big ones that almost stopped me entertaining the thought in the first place was money. It almost goes without saying, but living in California is probably going to cost you more than you’re anticipating! I had to pick my jaw up off the floor the first time I saw how much orange juice costs here! Figuring out the exchange rate and learning more than ever how to tightly budget (all whilst having a world of new and often expensive experiences at your fingertips) forces you to become better at planning, which has never been my forte. So firstly, a very, very important thank you to the Walker family and the 2nd Air Division Memorial Trust: the existence of the Charles L Walker scholarship, which I was so honoured to receive last year, has enabled me to glimpse what America has to offer outside of Los Angeles. It gave me the opportunity to examine the heart of literary and cultural movements which have long fascinated me in San Francisco, and it helped me reunite with old friends in Sacramento and in Boulder, Colorado, for awe-inspiring (and indeed poetry inspiring) mountain-top views and a proper American Thanksgiving I will never forget!
Another fear of mine was struggling to settle in to a new environment. This was partially allayed the moment I stepped onto UCLA’s campus. The sea of aesthetically pleasing red-brick buildings that make up the North campus have a sense of grandeur that makes it seem far older than its years, and also incredibly easy to get lost in when you’re in a hurry. The massive student body – and the wider Californian community – is comprised of so many people who are often happy to jump into random conversation with you in the most unexpected (and occasionally unwelcome) places, in that way that Americans can manage without it becoming an awkward-stranger-on-the-London-Underground experience we are used to. The vibrant sports scene allows you to stand in the student section of the Rose Bowl with a large group of international students to moan together about how long American football lasts, then become obsessed with water polo alongside an equally captivated American friend just 24 hours later. Those stereotypical questions you worry you don’t quite know how to answer – “What does [insert British colloquialism here] mean? What do you think about Trump/American politics/Brexit/British politics? What do you think of my attempt of your accent?” – definitely do rear their head every once in a while, although far more often prefaced with “oh my God, you have an Australian accent!” (Spoiler: I don’t…) And with every single question, I get a little tinge of homesickness, alongside a bucketful of opportunities to learn just as much about the other person as they are able to learn from me.
However, if there is one word to sum up what this experience has given me these past few months and continues to give me on a daily basis even now, it’s self-confidence. It really does take learning in the American college system to appreciate how much it differs from life back at UEA. UCLA has such an incredible range of classes on offer that has opened doors to areas I never thought I would be able to explore: from disability law to Native American languages, there’s a plethora of topics you’d never encounter in our more specialized degrees. And while the breadth of study can be a little bit strange at first, and I’m not sure I’d seek a full undergraduate degree here as opposed to in Britain, it has undoubtedly enticed me into trying my hand at things I had never dared to do. Don’t understand public policy? Give it a go! Never thought about taking education classes? Think about it now! Trying new things and succeeding at them has made the undoable seem do-able and given me so many ideas of where I want to go, academically and beyond. The professors I’ve had the pleasure of working with have been nothing but encouraging, giving me faith in myself to pursue academia further than I thought I could and a sense of accomplishment in my work that I had never reached previously. And with some of the great names associated with UCLA, I’ve even had the opportunity to take writing workshops with a poet whose own work had inspired me to start writing poetry before I even knew I was coming here: that alone has been an experience I will never forget!
So, I suppose the message I’m gradually learning to open my heart to is to welcome the unexpected. Make the most of the opportunities thrown your way, even if they scare you at first. And when you’re sat over five thousand miles from home and your friend says, “do you miss it?” remember that it’s okay for your first response to be yes, and maybe when you’re back in rainy little Norwich and someone asks you the same question of Los Angeles, your response might just be yes then as well.