Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Reflections on a year abroad in California

Around about now, anyone considering a year abroad is probably thinking about whether to proceed with going away for such a long time and, depending on the destination, quite far away too. I studied abroad at the University of California, Berkeley. I always knew I wanted to spend time away from the Warwick bubble, however even now, I think there is a general stereotype surrounding taking a year abroad.

A quick disclaimer: I know many people who had a fantastic year abroad. Some ended up on journeys of self-discovery they didn’t even know they were on, whilst others took each day as it came before realising it was time to leave again. Nevertheless, what I describe here are experiences of how the concept of a year abroad is marketed versus how it can actually manifest somewhere such as the San Francisco Bay Area.

having a roommate was not just a Hollywood projection in college-themed American films

Finding housing was perhaps the first sign of difficulty for me. UC Berkeley primarily prioritises first years for on-campus accommodation, before incoming exchange students and American transfer students. Moreover, chances of actually finding campus housing are based on a random ballot system between thousands of students. It therefore seemed impossible to find a reasonably priced, single room on the university’s housing portal. As it turns out, having a roommate was not just a Hollywood projection in college-themed American films. If I wanted to find a decent and even remotely affordable place to live, I would have to find myself one. My main worry here was that I did not know the individual beforehand, as opposed to actually having to share a room.

This segues into the next point about the general raised cost of living in the Bay Area. With the exception of athletes on full scholarships and the minority who could afford their own single room or studio flat, it became incredibly apparent that almost every other student had to share with anywhere between 1 to 3 people because it was the most affordable option. The area itself is suffering a housing crisis, due to Silicon Valley employees living in the Bay Area and commuting to work.

One running joke at Berkeley between students is how appalling everyone’s mental health is

Besides the obvious effects of this on local residents and students, what I didn’t expect was to be completely unsupported by the university in finding somewhere to stay. I have heard that other exchange students in Spain and France faced very similar issues. I wish I could have anticipated this more beforehand, not because it would have dissuaded me from studying abroad, but because it perhaps would have allowed me to budget properly. I didn’t get to travel around the area nearly as much as I would have liked, as I found that most of my money went towards books, rent, groceries and health insurance.

Between this and dealing with a difficult accommodation situation, the long seventeen-week school semester rendered everybody tired by the fifth week. One running joke at Berkeley between students is how appalling everyone’s mental health is. This is probably best exemplified by the university’s meme page (UC Berkeley memes for edgy teens), which though hilarious, is also pretty accurate in portraying how downtrodden students can feel.

this happiness comes from you making the best out of the situation

I do not regret my year abroad. I mention these difficulties because they can objectively be the unavoidable realities during a year in California. But it is still entirely possible to be happy and leave feeling fulfilled. Usually a year abroad is marketed as making you happy by default. I believe that instead this happiness comes from you making the best out of the situation, and finding several different ways to shape your experience.

I struggled with a difficult roommate in my first semester. This really affected my mood both at my residence and university, and at first I found it hard to find my feet socially, financially and academically. But by making an effort to meet more people, I left my initial accommodation for a different apartment. I still had a roommate, but this time this was someone I already knew and got on with well. Rather than having to spend additional money on travels around the country, I ended up being invited to stay with American friends. As time went on, even the workload started to become more manageable. Your experience may not always come naturally. Sometimes it just needs to be a little more actively developed.

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