Arriving at midnight in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco after an 11-hour flight and checking into a seedy hostel did not fulfil my romantic expectations of putting flowers in my hair and listening to the Grateful Dead. Neither did waking up and realising I had to find a place to live, despite sending 160 e-mails to potential landlords. Yet, the next year would prove to be the most enriching and eye-opening time of my life.
It comes as no surprise that San Francisco is an expensive city to live in. It boasts one of the most competitive rental markets coupled with eye-watering prices. Nevertheless, my girlfriend and I secured a studio apartment in the Sunset district, a comparatively inexpensive and quiet neighbourhood nestled in-between Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach. Like many other neighbourhoods, there were great food markets, restaurants and various oddities. The task of finding housing taught me to be vigilant about the terms of contracts, landlord/tenant obligations, and not to rush into anything for the sake of ease. Although bank statements and references will affirm your status as a responsible citizen to prospective landlords, I underestimated the sway of the English accent.
Academically, San Francisco State University was a different world. The university is attended by approximately 30,000 students arriving from all parts of the Bay Area and California more widely. As a result, I encountered a much more diverse and larger group of people than I would have done at UEA. Although class options included Yoga and Kayaking, and the grades did not count, I was always conscious of the bigger picture: the dissertation. Desperate to find a dissertation topic, I took classes ranging from Africana Studies to Women Studies, which broadened my academic horizons and helped me hone my topic. Researching the dissertation encouraged me to be resourceful and make the most of my professors, university departments, and local university libraries. Plus, conducting research at the University of California Berkeley campus and Stanford University was much more entertaining than at the concrete sprawl of UEA. While I may not have found my inner Zen, spending the time thinking about the dissertation made the transition back to UEA much easier.
The last thing one may consider on their year abroad is their career. However, aware of the comparative ease of securing an internship in America, I decided to gain some work experience. Subsequently, I interned with Bay Area Legal Aid for six months, a pro bono firm that offers legal advice to citizens who face barriers to healthcare access. Moreover, I volunteered for the on-campus Legal Resource Center, referring students to legal resources and providing information on their rights when confronted with legal troubles. Both opportunities allowed me to meet a wide cross section of people of all nationalities and exposed me to many challenges of which I was responsible for handling. Regarding both placements, I feel proud to have made a real impact on a not-so-local community.
A more informal way of interacting with the local community is getting involved in the international organisation at your university. While you may fall into the trap of solely socialising with Europeans, going out of your comfort zone can act as a catalyst for gaining the confidence to speak to Americans in your classes. For instance, I met a friend in class from Berkeley who wanted me to play drums for his band. As a result, I was able to play shows around California, and meet a great range of locals. We still keep in regular contact. Thus, I learned the importance of confidence and making the most of every opportunity. Moreover, establishing connections helped when it came to travelling opportunities.
In this vein, I was amazed by how road trips could be done on a shoestring budget. My girlfriend and I travelled predominantly via Amtrak, which was a great way of seeing America ‘off road’ and for considerably less than renting a car. When we travelled with others, splitting the cost of a room and a car by four or five times made it very feasible to travel long distance. Moreover, we stayed in hostels that equated to approximately £20 a night or used services such as Couchsurfing and Airbnb. Even with a limited budget, I had the opportunity to visit Santa Cruz, Monterey, Big Sur, Sequoia and Yosemite National Park, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, Glenwood Springs, Chicago, New Orleans and Austin. However, don’t just capitalise on the weak dollar; expand your horizons and challenge yourself. Also, if you find yourself in San Francisco, forget putting flowers in your hair: eat burritos!