My first time in the states was one which I will never forget. A six month period in which I learned a great deal about myself and my area of study. It is remarkable how much a person can grow in just six months. I know this from my own experiences on the program and from the changes I saw in the other five students that were on the exchange. Six of us travelled together, the largest number to date, consisting of four guys and two girls. We all considered each other friends before the adventure but we inevitably grew much closer over the course of our travels.
West Virginia was not somewhere I was overly familiar with, and in fact I was caught more than once struggling to find it on a map. In case you’re wondering, and to save you the embarrassment, it’s in the Northeast of the United States, west of Virginia, as you may imagine, and south of Pennsylvania. In terms of U.S states it’s rather small, about a half the size of Pennsylvania. It is bounded to the east by the infamous Appalachian Mountains, including the Blue Ridge Mountains. The landscape is one of real natural beauty, vast hilly stretches of deciduous forest and stunning river valleys. The town in which we would live in for the six months was Morgantown. A small American town of about thirty thousand permanent residents set on the Monongahela River in a small river valley.
Being on the East Coast was a major advantage for travel times, but nonetheless, if you’re not used to long haul flights and time zone changes, the travelling can take its toll. This would be my first piece of advice; travel with someone if at all possible. Buddying up can really help with any lay overs or long flights you have to endure. The first thing you’ll notice when the August sun comes up in West Virginia is the humidity. I am a seasoned traveler and the 35°C heat can take some getting used to.
Settling in can be a little unnerving, especially if being away from home is not your forte. But stick close to your friends and get to know your roommates and you’ll find yourself relaxing in no time. Being an international student in Morgantown is like being a celebrity. The enthusiasm for foreign students in West Virginia is bewildering, and you will regularly find yourself befriended by all manner of people. It’s an atmosphere that really helps the transition from foreign exchange student to true West Virginian Mountaineer. Which leads on to what was my favorite thing about the exchange; the football. The buzz and pageantry that surrounds one of the weekly college football games is unavoidably infectious. The games, which are free for students, regularly attract 60,000 fans with tens of thousands more watching around the town. The traditions and hype surrounding the games is unforgettable and is a reason to travel in itself.
The academic side of things in West Virginia is something we all, at some point, struggled with. The intensity of the work schedule proved quite challenging at times and without the support of your friends and lecturers, who will do everything in their power, and more, to help you, it could be rather overwhelming. This is not to say that it is a negative in any way. The challenge is one of the main reasons I would recommend this exchange. If you work hard, knuckle down and keep on top of things, the sense of achievement at the end of the six months makes it all worthwhile. We all came away with above average grades, something that will stand to you down the line but it does require serious commitment and sustained hard work.
Between the football and basketball games, the Fall-Fest concerts, the facilities on campus, the people, travelling on Thanksgiving, the education and the winter snow sports, there is more than a couple of reasons why I would tell anyone considering this exchange to go for it and experience something truly unforgettable.