May 8, 2019

Coming to America

If you are still reading from my first blog post – thanks!! If you are a new reader then welcome!

It has been a wee while now since my last blog post… I’m not sure if any of you can relate but when you have a chronic condition you find yourself readjusting all the time. I was in a wee bubble there where work was busy but I was still winding down at the appropriate time and remembering to drink enough water and take my meds and do yoga and all that nice stuff. Then it got a wee bit busier and sure I was starting to forget the water and not do yoga and that is the EXACT TIME you should be doing these things! It’s just a wee reminder to me that I always need to make sure I am making time to keep myself on the wagon! You are no use to anyone anyway if you are bringing out the worst of your condition by neglecting the things that keep it under control. Anyway on to the main bit…(can you tell I’m easily distracted and go off on tangents..)

I was listening to Sarah Knight on the CTRL ALT DELETE podcast (author of ‘The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck’ and other wonderful titles) and she said that she likes to summarise what her book is about in the first few pages. As this is a blog I will pro rata that amount and give yous a small para instead.

The Study USA programme was a huge year in my life and changed me as a person forever (and I don’t say that lightly). The following quote from Terry Pratchett is so true:

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

— Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky”

That year changed and informed my perspective in so many ways and this blog is a short insight into that year and the rollercoaster of emotions I experienced. Hopefully it will resonate with those of you who have or are living away from home, those of you who have had to experience a chronic condition in an alien environment or even just those of you who feel like they think and feel differently to everyone around them. As Jeffree Star always says CANT RELATE.

First up, Study USA is a programme ran by the British Council and is available to third level education students in Northern Ireland in their penultimate year of study (between 2nd year and 3rd year of uni or equivalent). The application is relatively simple and as long as you are in good academic standing (2:1 or above or equivalent) you are eligible to apply. For anyone reading this who would be interested in applying for the programme, the main thing is being enthusiastic and also show that you have the ability to cope. There is a huge amount of money invested in you comprising of college fees, flights there and back, accommodation, book allowance and catering. The programme emerged out of peace process with the intention of sending students to the US in the hope that they would 1) learn business in the US 2) make some connections in the US via an internship or organically 3) come back to NI and apply these skills here and use any connections you have made to attract business. Before the tragic news of the death of Lyra McKee, a journalist from Belfast, I had written that it seems too good to be true that this programme is still being funded as we aren’t the trouble children anymore. It’s a tragic reminder that we cannot take peace for granted, we must work to educate others and maintain our precious peace process. I won’t say anymore on the topic as I could write a whole blog post but I will leave the link to Lyra’s Ted talk here… may she Rest In Peace https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ymU-5Y3rkY&t=79s

Coming to America

I was given the news that I was placed at the University of Evansville, Indiana. I knew absolutely nothing about it save that Evansville was deemed to be one of the fattest cities in America by a Channel 4 show. My old housemates seen this on the telly and shouted for me to come out of room, ‘They are literally gonna eat you!’. I could never have anticipated the experiences I had.  It definitely wasn’t the place it was portrayed in that documentary and fun fact Rami Malek who was Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody went to the college I was placed in!  Here’s a wee picture of it…it was a beautiful campus with just 1200 students so everyone knew everyone:

So many things happened in that year so I have structured this blog post into five sleepy stories and the main things that I learned about America and myself. I should also say that this is limited to Indiana and the Southern Hospitality, I obviously can’t speak for a whole continent!

Sleepy Stories

  • I fell asleep on a plane to Nashville and my head must have been bopping all over the show, the wee Granda beside me tapped me awake and was like ‘Would you like to sleep on my shoulder dear?’ decide for yourself if that was well intended or not but I was sufficiently weirded out
  • To be fair, the only place where I absolutely did not fall asleep was when I travelled on the Greyhound. For those of you not aware, upon their release from prison, ex-prisoners are given tickets for the Greyhound to start a new life. When I went to the bus depot to go to Nashville these Meth heads were like ‘Awwwww look at her and her pretty little shoeeees’. Sensing my unease at being approached, a kind lady approached me and was like would you like to stand with me and pretend you are travelling with me. She offered me part of her blanket and they stopped talking to me. When I look back it made me think…a human connection makes all the difference between having a positive or negative experience. God knows what would have happened if she hadn’t approached me! This trip was fairly eventful, I also fell asleep waiting on my airport transfer and was kindly awoken by another Study USA student. I flew from Nashville to New Orleans and it was honestly the best St Paddys day I have ever had!
  • I fell asleep on my travels all the time. One time I flew to Pittsburgh to visit my friend who was placed there on the programme. On the plane I fell asleep on top of my Economics books and when I awoke the man next to me said ‘Aw I do not envy you having to study, I don’t miss college one bit’. It was then that I noticed that he was in a military uniform. My random sleeping always seemed to evoke a conversation and he told me that he was on his way back to visit his family as he had some time off before his next assignment. He told me about his family and that his children had been so much younger the last time he had seen them. I got off the plane and when I was collecting my bag at security I could see a woman with the three children as described waiting patiently as they searched the faces coming through. I had my bag but I waited a min longer and honestly that man being reunited with his family still stays with me to this day. He came running towards them and his little boy was like DADDY!! and leaped into his arms. The rest of the family clung to him as if they would never let go. I was nearly crying watching this unfold but walked on before they could see the weird emotional girl observing their family moment. There is nothing more important than your family and friends. He spent so much time away from his family and it reminded me that I often take mine for granted.
  • I fell asleep at the Frat parties ALL THE TIME. Again, shout out to the lovely brothers at SAE who would scoop me up and put me away in a private room away from prying eyes. I worry at the perception I gave of Irish people at that time, I only confirmed the stereotype of being a borderline alcoholic. Ah well sure, it’s great craic..
  • There are so many sleepy stories but another hilarious one is my Bolivian friend who LOVED getting up early. She used to knock on my door on a Saturday at like 8am until eventually one morning I said sleepily ‘If you knock on my door again at this time I will punch you in the face’ LOL poor girl, I am not a violent person in any way so it amuses me that I even said this.

 

Main things I learned about the Americans I encountered:

  • They are super confident

I only thought my classmates at QUB were confident until I met my new American classmates! Show and tell has been a thing for them since elementary school so giving a presentation or speaking up in class isn’t an issue. Obviously I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush, but it was a majority that were like this whereas within Irish people there are the few you encounter who are super duper confident. The first experience of this was the International Student Orientation dance where they literally danced like crazy without a single.drop.of.alcohol. Honestly, as naïve as it sounds now I was astounded by this. I befriended a girl from Bolivia who equally found this shocking and it was the beginning of a great friendship (and lots of drunk memories!)

 

  • They are super positive bunch

I would be walking across campus and someone I didn’t know would be like ‘OMG CUTE OUTFIT GIRLL’ and I would be so taken aback. If a friend achieved something or scored well on a test they would be PYSCHED for them. I suppose it was tied into their confidence as well, they were very positive about themselves and believed that they would achieve whatever their hearts desired. In Ireland people would be like ‘look at your one there, LOVES themselves they do’ or ‘hmm I dunno do you think you would be able to do that?’. This was an aspect of their culture that I missed most when I arrived home.

 

  • They talk about their mental health openly

Within mere minutes of meeting my new roommate – she informed me that ‘these are the pills for my anxiety, these are the pills for my digestive issues’ all in the one breath. It was shocking to me simply because back then it wasn’t the done thing to speak up about your mental health. It was refreshing though. I just felt like the people I encountered knew who they were and weren’t afraid to show it to others. They didn’t try to hide the fact that they had experienced anxiety or depression. Again, its part of their ‘if there’s a problem, let’s solve it’ culture. Not advocating medication alone to solve a mental health problem though but just the attitude that it’s ok to talk about your mental health, it was so normalised it was refreshing.

 

  • The ‘Southern Hospitality’ you hear about is a real thing oh and Sororities and Fraternities..

The welcome I received upon landing in Evansville was honestly the most heart-warming experience. I met the kindest people who would give ye a ride (a lift that is…) anywhere you wanted to and they genuinely looked out for you. Irish people are obviously a good bunch of lads too, it was just the enthusiastic manner in which they welcomed you. I completed an internship when I was there and as I didn’t have a car over there, two friends shared the responsibility of giving me a lift to my internship three days a week. They were so committed to this as well, they never ever let me down. I booked a flight from St Louis to Pittsburgh to visit my friend at Easter and had arranged a lift with my friend from St Louis who was travelling home from campus. It turned out that I had mixed up the flights so that the flight was the NEXT day not the Thursday. She kindly came to my rescue and told me I would stay with her family that night and I have never been so grateful!

I can’t believe I nearly forgot the Fraternities and Sororities. They are a HUGE DEAL and you betcha it’s really like Mean Girls trying to select your lunch table. I went through their recruitment process but decided to stay neutral so I could be friends with everyone. They take that shit seriously though, it even goes on their C.Vs. That said, my social life on campus wouldn’t have been the same without the Frat parties at the weekend.

  • Their approach to business

They love a good schedule even for personal activities. If you asked someone, ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ they would give you the low down of their morning routine to their evening plans. They  also planned their study schedules military style. When it came to business they were similar, organised and an optimism that would unsettle us Irish. We had to write an essay on a difference between business in America and here. I wrote mine on Corporate Social Responsibility and how they were lightyears ahead of us. It even serves a business purpose as a happy community is more likely to invest in your business. Even UE had students who sponsored bricks on their lawn to have their name on them and often donated to the University after leaving. Here we’re like ‘who’s that on the phone, QUB alumni?? feck offffff’. They had a philosophy of instilling a lions heart (I think that was the quote, maybe not though haha) in every student, which basically meant instilling a charitable heart. It was smart because if you make a student care about giving back to society, who’s gonna be first on your benefactor list??? That’s a cynical view of it though, honestly they were some of the most charitable people I have ever met. I spent the equivalent of fresher’s week helping to clean up a youth centre, and the Deane’s wife was there with the gloves on getting stuck in. Can you imagine that in Belfast??? You would struggle to find a sober man or woman to lend ye a hand that week…although caveat..i know QUB RAG do fabulous work. It’s not that there isn’t a charitable spirit here…of course there is…it’s just that it needs to be as mainstream as they are, especially when it comes to businesses. They genuinely care about their community.

I have talked about the things I have learned from other people but I didn’t talk about the things that I learned about myself and they are as follows:

  • I forged a path for myself all on my own and I am extremely proud of that. I went all by myself and survived! Lots of people be like aw no I couldn’t go myself. UH YES YOU CAN. It showed me how strong I can be and that I am not afraid of trying new things and adapting to new surroundings. All you need to be is open to chatting to people and that’s nearly half the battle. Sinead Heg on Insta chats about this too, stop waiting for other people to travel with, go yourself and chat to everyone, you will be grand!
  • You cannot escape your problems by moving to a new place. What I mean by this is that I was an extremely anxious person and I lacked confidence. Did I think by moving to America with all the super confident people I was going to become them??? Hell no…it only exacerbated it in ways but in others I was able to appreciate the benefits of not being like that. If you think your degree isn’t for you or you think that your anxiety is holding you back in life…SORT IT OUT. The answer is not in buying a new car, moving to a new country or whatever it is that you think will solve it. The problem is not external it’s internal.
  • Lacking in confidence means that you can let people in that aren’t good for you. If you don’t value yourself then you can also attract people that don’t value you either. I’m not saying that everybody has to be super confident, I’m just saying in simple terms: know that you are a good person who deserves to have someone be good to you. Again, I could say so much more on this but I decided that my memory of this year won’t be dictated by this person. I won’t lie though, I do wish I had embraced the year more rather than mope about said person!
  • There is beauty in the unknown and I love learning about other cultures and the things that they do that we have yet to embrace. When I came home I think I went through what is known as ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ because I found the negative attitudes hard to adjust to again. Our culture can sometimes focus more on the problems rather than what we can do to change that and that’s a hard pill to swallow if you were getting used to being surrounding with can-do kinda people. Even just the way we view others, it’s more as a threat if they are doing well rather than congratulating them on their success. I’m not saying that American culture is perfect but in those aspects we could do with taking a leaf out of their book.
  • Doing things which aren’t in your comfort zone can lead to so much personal growth…who knew I could be a College Radio DJ? I didn’t but I did it..

This blog post has been way longer than anticipated and covers a range of topics. I hope I gave some insight into my journey. For anyone wondering whether to take the trip TAKE IT.

Next up…returning to complete final year and deciding what to do with my life..

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