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Impressions of California

From South Africa to Southern California

by Anita Ballantyne, UC Santa Barbara / University of Cape Town, South Africa

Upon leaving South Africa for my adventure in the USA, I was incredibly excited. Nothing could ever have prepared me for the experience that lay ahead. I could not believe that what had once been a dream had now materialized into an experience so tangible. I am sure that underneath all my excitement there was a tiny trace of insecurity. For the first time in my life I would be in an unfamiliar environment in which I knew only two people from my home university. Having never been to the United States before I also had no idea what the American culture or way of life had in store for me.

Having spent hours surfing the UCSB website I thought I had a pretty good impression of what to expect and I found that being a little familiar with the literature on the academics, residences and services helped me a great deal. I arrived equipped with enough information that allowed for informed decision making and transition.

Social Aspects
Meeting new people started the moment I arrived. During the international orientation I was allocated a sharing room with another international student. By the end of our first night I had already met a dozen or so students from around the globe. The international orientation went on for three days and involved mostly informational presentations and talks on everything from health insurance to how to react to an earthquake! Most of the information was relevant to me but some was more geared towards those students embarking on a four year academic career at UCSB and some talks were for graduate students. The late afternoons were left free for us to walk around and acquaint ourselves with the beautiful campus and beaches. There were organized social events in the evenings at which we were able to mingle with both UCSB and international students. I found that it was great having some UCSB students there to chat to and find out all the ins and outs of the campus and how things work. This was when I learned things like how and where to purchase a bicycle, where to grab a good lunch and how to catch the bus downtown. This information was invaluable in gearing up for the start of term. It was also useful to receive a checklist of things to do before the start of term the following week, like how and where to open a bank account, a trip to the housing office to get our room allocations, how to register online for classes and how to get access to classes that were already full.

On the third day we met some UCSB students who were to become our ‘buddies’ or ‘mentors’ for the quarter. My buddy, Katherine, was a senior student who had spent her junior year on a study abroad program in Glasgow, Scotland. She was the best resource I could ever have asked for and she took me to buy a bicycle, linen and other necessities for the start of the quarter.

On the Saturday, a van arrived to ferry us to our residences for the quarter ahead. I was allocated a double room within an eight person suite at San Rafael, a mostly junior/senior, transfer and international residence. The weekend was spent meeting my suite mates and bunking our beds and unpacking. This was a real bonding time, getting to know the people I would be living with.

My suite mates were all Californian but of different cultural heritages - Asian, Irish, Chicano and Hispanic. I did not realize that California had such diverse people. Throughout the quarter I learned all about the different origins of the American people and celebrated Chinese, Jewish, Irish, American, Hispanic and Chicano festivals. My cultural capital expanded enormously.

Eating in the dining commons was an experience in itself. It was here that I was truly exposed to American culture and social behavior. I was amazed to see that complete strangers would just come and join you at the table and start chatting away very comfortably. I experienced the warmth and genuine hospitality of the Californian people. The dining and recreation experiences were definitely the medium through which I met most people and I continued to meet and make friends there throughout the quarter.

During ‘Welcome Week’ events were organized within and between residences just like at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I tried to go to as many as possible including beach frisbee and soccer games, bike tours through the student town of Isla Vista, trips downtown to Santa Barbara, ice-cream socials, pizza and video nights, a tour of the marine science laboratories, kayaking, stand-up comedy nights and campus tours. In one week I had met and made contacts with a few dozen people and had been exposed to the many aspects of American culture. What I experienced was all so exciting and new, I had so much energy! I tried to be as open to new experiences as possible and took part in almost every event I could attend.

As well as recognizing the academic opportunities open to me, I was also aware of all the other aspects of campus life available to me and so I made every effort to get involved in as much as possible without compromising my academic responsibilities. I joined the Ultimate Frisbee sports team, which allowed me to learn a game I had never played before and meet people while I was enjoying it. I also joined the hip-hop dance class with my roommate Valerie, which played an important role in developing our relationship while doing something together. I then decided that since I had been involved in leadership roles at UCT, it would be interesting to see what it would be like in an American University. My Residence Advisor had already informed me about the opportunities within the housing governance structure and encouraged me to apply for a position. I spoke to my Residence Director about me only being at UCSB for one quarter and she said I should still apply anyway. I decided to apply for the position of Programming Vice President for my residence. The application process was an experience in itself, involving making posters to advertise yourself and publicizing what experience you had, promoting yourself by chatting to people in the dining room and within your residence and submitting a formal application form complete with one’s details and proposal.

Voting was soon underway and to my surprise I was elected as one of the four-person board of San Rafael Residence. As the programming Vice President I had the responsibility of organizing social events within and between residences and promoting friendship and involvement in the residence community. This responsibility served to enhance my experience even more, allowing me to meet and interact with even more people while having fun organizing events such as pumpkin carving competitions on Halloween and coffee and cookie breaks during study week. All these activities were aimed to promote interaction between students. Although this role demanded a lot of work, I am so glad I took up the challenge and got involved as the learning experiences and exposure were invaluable.

I was also able to give something back to the EAP program by assisting them in their advisory sessions for UCSB students who were interested in studying in South Africa. I also advised students who were set to depart for South Africa this February as part of the EAP program. I offered them an insight as to what to expect, the exciting things they would encounter and practical advice regarding traveling, weather and packing.

I found that most of the friends I made were either from the International Orientation or from my residence, San Rafael. Socializing and recreation happened mainly in the late afternoons, or later in the evenings after dinner and homework. There was always something going on. We went to watch basketball games at the Thunderdome, played beach soccer, went to work out at the gym, met for coffee in Isla Vista, watched a DVD or just relaxed and chatted in our apartments. Holidays, like Halloween and Thanksgiving were really festive and everyone in the residence would go all out in decorating and dressing up for the occasion.

During the quarter I went away with friends for weekend trips to a forest camp called San Marcos, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I spent the Thanksgiving holidays with my friend, Caroline and her family in Long Beach. I was very fortunate to spend Christmas with my sister in San Francisco and the New Year in the snow at Lake Tahoe.

Academics
As for the academic side of my exchange I must say that the homework load was much greater than I had experienced at UCT, the content was much broader and quite challenging. I found the grading to be very fair. There was abundant scope for expressing ones’ own opinions in essays and students were encouraged to do their own independent or alternative reading and research and were credited for this in essays.

I found the lecturers and Teaching Assistants very accessible and helpful. I felt like the academic staff was always on the same level as the student and ready to help and serve the customer, the student. There is much respect in the professor/student relationship. Students at UCSB are on a friendly and equal level with their professors. After most lectures the professor would spend time answering individual questions and chatting to students, finding out how readings or the workload was going, suggesting alternative readings and extra credit projects. During class there is much interaction between the students, and the lecturer acts more as a facilitator of discussions. We also did many in-class group exercises.

The lecturer and teaching assistant are always ready to give you as much individual attention and assistance as you require. I took full advantage of this and found that these individual and small revision sessions with my teaching assistants were excellent preparation for examinations.  There are so many opportunities to excel and to get the most out of a course. I found the actual lectures and discussion groups most professional, taking full advantage of the advanced media facilities to enhance learning.

Their system of tests, mid-terms and then finals serve to encourage constant study throughout the semester. By the time finals come around you are very familiar with the material.

In fact I found every student and staff member on campus so helpful and welcoming. They were always ready with a smile and some friendly advice. I never once felt helpless or lost.

I feel that these past few months at UCSB will forever influence my future plans, experiences and perspectives. I grew so much, in so many ways. I now have a much wider perspective of the world and all it has to offer. Meeting people from all over the globe served to emphasize just how much more I would love to explore and learn about other people and cultures.

I was captivated by your sunny Californian hospitality, the friendships I made for life, the new academic material I encountered and the sheer enjoyment this opportunity offered me.

I wish I could express the full extent of my gratitude to the people behind the EAP program who made this experience possible.

My sincere appreciation will forever be present in my new zest and enthusiasm to travel and study further.

The spirit of UCSB and all I experienced there will glow in me forever.

Thank you.