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Through Others' Eyes

UK Student’s Experience at Santa Cruz

by Jo Anna Tubbs, UC Santa Cruz / The University of Birmingham, United Kingdom

British people often question the need to spend time in the United States. We share a language and our recent histories are inextricably linked. Surely our differences are minimal. We know all about Americans anyway from our steady diet of 'Friends,' 'Dawson's Creek,' and the relentless flow of teen movies. I could not, however, have predicted how much I would learn from a culture supposedly so similar to my own.

My first days and weeks in California were bewildering. The most powerful country in the world was attacked within days of my arrival. The nation and people that is perceived by the rest of the world as confident and exuberant were instead shocked and hurt. Everyone panicked, and I found myself considering how long I would be able to stay.

Fortunately, I soon had to concentrate on the relative trivialities of life at UC Santa Cruz. Regular classes and homework take some getting used to after two years of study at my university in England, where arts students spent only eight hours a week in lectures and seminars. The array of classes available at UC is fantastic. While at home choice is limited, at UCSC it is extraordinary—television of the 1980's, or aquatic toxicology? The history of pop music, or Chicana feminism? Postcolonial visuality, or camp?

Student life, too, is markedly different. Although I heard rumors of a UC campus with a bar, none are to be found at Santa Cruz. Whereas British dorms are frequented by nightclub promoters pushing students towards cheesy pop-playing venues where vodka shots cost cents, in Santa Cruz students are ushered towards craft night, display cookery class, intramural sports, or a knitting circle. On Halloween, everyone dresses up. On Valentine's Day, everyone sends cards and teachers' desks are piled high with gifts.

UC students are encouraged to make the most of every minute at school and are provided with many opportunities to do so. With the help of a volunteering group run by the college I was affiliated with, I was able to help weekly at a local soup kitchen. This program led me to meet some fascinating, wonderful people. Whilst participating in the community beyond campus, I got a more rounded view of American life.

Santa Cruz is not a typical American campus. Founded in the age of equal rights and free love, the university is decidedly left wing in outlook and has retained the alternative values also prominent in the city. The campus and its students are far from that portrayed in college movies. Fraternities and sororities are frowned upon for being too exclusive. You'll have to travel to nearby Stanford for that.

The campus is quite beautiful, located in a redwood forest overlooking the Monterey Bay. Deer, gophers, raccoons, and banana slugs are abundant, whilst mountain lions prove more elusive. It's another world compared with the crowded concrete jungle of my home university.

An exchange to the University of California is not just about school. I learned as much outside the classroom as inside. I learned how a country pulls together in time of crisis. I learned about the American education system, and the social security system. I learned about Thanksgiving, burritos, and that it rains in California. Most importantly, I learned to embrace difference.