June 22, 2018 // posted by Jordan Kelly, exchange student
As a student studying history and international studies, an international exchange has been an ambition I have been eager to fulfil. Studying abroad and learning from a different perspective provides invaluable experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Determined to study abroad in my second year, I applied for both the Erasmus and American Exchange programmes. I felt privileged to be accepted to study in any of the universities available through the Queens Exchange. I was accepted to the University Of Texas at San Antonio, which is in the seventh largest city in the U.S. and in South Texas. The criterion for being selected is based upon your application and overall academic performance. Texas is not a state many people within the UK and Ireland travel to - it took me three flights! The destination of San Antonio made my exchange extremely exciting, as I’ve always wanted to visit Texas and hadn’t met anyone who had ever been before.
My experience in San Antonio was life-changing, eye opening and simply amazing. From the day I arrived, I soon realised ‘southern hospitability’ is a stereotype the people of San Antonio pride themselves on. Everyone is extremely welcoming and cannot do enough to help you! I received excellent support from the outset from my exchange advisor Mariela Cadena, and former Queens Professor Catherine Clinton, now the Denman Chair in American History at UTSA.
The UTSA campus is beautiful and due to the frequent sunny weather in Texas, promotes outside studying in various spaces. The ‘Sombrilla’ area centred the campus; an outside seating area facing the school fountain, where many UTSA events are based.
I found the learning environment at UTSA different from my experience at Queens. Each of my classes reflected a tutorial style, as opposed to large lectures. The smaller nature of my classes encouraged a lot of open discussion. This style of class really worked for me and made it much easier to get to know people in my classes. The smaller classes aided my studies as I felt more comfortable interacting and contributing, which can be slightly nerve-racking as a new student.
Learning at UTSA, for me, was learning from a whole new perspective. The format of testing greatly contrasts to Queens, as there is more continuous assessment, through the structure of ‘pop quizzes’. This is paired with research papers, alongside mid-term and final exams. At the beginning, this was overwhelming; however, in the end this structure highly benefited me academically.
The exchange allowed me to explore topics in greater depth, such as a course focusing on American intelligence. This course caught my interest, and at UTSA, I was taught by retired Major General Shaffer, who led the U.S. Air Force Intelligence during the Clinton and Bush administrations. This course gave an excellent insight into security and terrorism issues within the U.S., and was made more interesting with personal stories from a man who was on the front line.
I also took a course focusing on European governments; this enabled me to learn about the politics of European countries from an American perspective. Northern Ireland was a case study in this class representing a divided society. This became a learning experience for both my peers and I, they were eager to hear my insight on living in Northern Ireland and I was equally interested in their opinions on the political situation here in Northern Ireland.
In terms of cultural experience, living in Texas was not what I expected. Yes, most people drive pick-up trucks and cowboy boots are considered normal attire. However, I wasn’t expecting the huge Hispanic influence, particularly evident in San Antonio. This mesh of cultures became apparent on a day-to-day basis. Most people I met were bilingual (English and Spanish) and the Mexican influence on food is one of the main things I miss about San Antonio. We only think we have tacos here...the cuisine was like nothing I’ve ever tasted, and having salsa with my breakfast now feels normal.
The American ideal of a ‘melting pot of identities’ adequately describes San Antonio, as it is just a short drive from Mexico. I found myself continuously learning about many different cultures, but particularly those present within Mexico, as I made many friends who shared this heritage. A particular highlight was celebrating ‘fiesta’, a festival influenced by (Mexican) culture, which generated celebrations in San Antonio. I cannot speak for the whole of Texas, as it is a vast state; to put this into perspective, the landmass of Texas can stretch from Dublin to Moscow. However, the area I resided in was welcoming of diversity and this allowed me to explore various cultural identities through the people I met.
Studying abroad taught me to adapt to a different learning environment whilst being thrust into a new culture. These skills are invaluable in developing independence and I would now not hesitate to jump on all travel opportunities that come my way.
San Antonio is a beautiful city with an excellent buzz and equally interesting history. Home to the Alamo, Downtown San Antonio attracts countless tourists through its commemoration of the ‘Battle of the Alamo’ and the iconic River Walk.
Being in San Antonio provided an excellent base for further travel. Within Texas, I made it to the capitol city, Austin. Austin is a city extremely popular with students, due to its progressive nature and common slogan ‘keep Austin weird’. I utilised my spring break holidays to take an eleven hour road trip with friends to New Orleans, Louisiana. This was the perfect destination for spring break due to the famous nightlife scene on Bourbon Street. The city is a must-visit due to its unique beauty and history, reflecting its French, African and American cultures.
Towards the end of my time in Texas, I travelled with my fellow Queens Exchange student, Anna, to Los Angeles, California. We visited all the typical tourist destinations; the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills, and Rodeo Drive. The highlight, was our day trip to Santa Monica and Venice Beach, a must do for anyone in L.A.
Taking part in the American exchange has brought countless benefits to my degree and general personal experiences, I highly recommend anyone who is interested to go for it! Studying in Texas provided me with great experiences, which I would not have found elsewhere. I went country dancing in cowboy boots and learned how to two-step. I attended a rodeo and saw firsthand the dangerous sport of bull riding. These are things that not everyone can say they’ve done and I’m proud to have taken this amazing opportunity.
To sum up my experience, I will definitely be back in San Antonio. I had an amazing time living in a new city and learning from a different perspective. Throughout my time, I made lifelong friends and connections academically that will certainly see me back to San Antonio. I urge anyone who is interested in this exchange to apply. The skills I’ve gained from studying abroad are invaluable to both my degree and employability. These gains are alongside the rewards of living in and exploring a new city, which in my opinion is priceless life experience.