My Adventure Abroad

The Good, The Bad, and The Unusual in Birmingham, England

The Beginning

Science and Travel Writer Alyssa Grace

“The student accommodation is very beautiful. We have lots of trees, plants, and even our own lake.” - Alyssa Grace

Old Joe, the iconic clock tower of the University of Birmingham
Old Joe, the iconic clock tower of the University of Birmingham

Aloha! My name is Alyssa Grace - some of you may know me based on my work for Ke Kalahea this past year. Others may have seen me around campus for various reasons: I teach yoga at the SLC during the summer, I’m a part of the astrophysics club, and I’m a senior with a psychology major, while double-minoring in Biology as well as Astronomy. However, this semester you won’t be seeing me around campus at all. That’s because I am studying abroad in Birmingham, England!

University of Birmingham during sunset

So, instead of the typical “science in the community” articles I usually write, I’ll be reporting to you on my own experiences abroad and featuring many places you will hopefully one day have the opportunity to see for yourself. So let’s see this adventurous semester through, together!

“Why am I here?” I’m often asked this question by Britons when I tell them I’m from Hawai‘i. And my answer is always the same: I am studying neuroscience! UH Hilo has a few neuroscience classes in our psychology and biology departments, but no actual major or minor track. The University of Birmingham (UoB), my host university, is much the same. The main difference is that UoB has neuroscience labs for both their postgraduate students as well as their undergraduate students. And more resources attracts more experts in the field. So, through our own university’s direct exchange program, I came here to study what I love.

First things first: no one here pronounces Hawai‘i correctly, and more often than not I have to repeat where I’m from multiple times. The mispronunciation here is a lot like how most newcomers from the mainland pronounce the i’s at the end of “Hawai‘i” wrong. Kama‘āina know there is an ‘okina between the last two i’s and this is why we pronounce them as a sort of dragged out e.

Good: 90% of the people I meet are very excited to meet someone from Hawai‘i.

Bad: Hardly anyone knows anything about the islands and yet they all want to go there.

Some people are culturally ignorant and rude, don’t be one of them. Keep your stereotypes to yourself, and if you’re curious as to what someone’s home is really like, just politely ask them.

Unusual: When someone knows more than you about even one aspect of your home. (Did you know Hawaiian has its own sign language?)

It took me 23 hours to get here, with short stops in San Francisco and Newark. The time difference from Birmingham to Hilo is 11 hours! Needless to say, it really feels like I’m on the exact opposite side of the world. I got my student visa when I arrived in Birmingham Airport; the line for customs was very long, and it took me an hour to get to the front. For a short-term student visa - which allows you to study for four to six months, unable to work or even volunteer - you show up in your host country with a few very important documents. One is a confirmation letter from your host university; next is proof of finances to support yourself while abroad, and then proof of accommodation. However, these requirements may differ on the type of visa you would like and your host country.

I had no jet lag whatsoever because I slept on all of my flights. On my first nights here in Birmingham, I was up late drinking ciders and beer with a few freshmen, including my flatmates. Eighteen is the legal drinking age in the U.K., and chances are if you apply to accommodation (dorms) late like me, your flatmates will be freshmen. Thankfully, my flatmates and I get along very well. This is probably because we all started talking in a Facebook group chat a month before our move-in dates.

Other students aren’t as lucky. Sometimes it’s hard to have an easy rapport with people who are so different from yourself. But considering most Hawai‘i students are laid-back and (hopefully) flexible, you’ll be ok. But then there’s also the chance your flat (dorm) itself will be a wreck. I was lucky in this instance as well. My flat is small and cute and everything works. But I’ve heard horror stories: The flat below us had a broken shower for a week. The building next to us had a leak on the second floor that led to part of the first floor roof collapsing onto their toilet.

Good: The student accommodation is very beautiful. We have lots of trees, plants, and even our own lake. Also, at UoB - and in most U.K. colleges - none of the dorms have shared rooms. You always have your own room, and at most share a kitchen and bathroom.

Bad: Some international students are older or more shy than I am, and so I have a harder time adjusting to them.

Ugly: Again, some flats really are a wreck.

Suggestion: Apply to accommodation early!

Unusual: Fresher’s Week.

Inside view of flat
Inside of my Flat, desk included

I’m honestly unsure as to whether Fresher’s week is a U.K. thing or a UoB thing. Because here at UoB, it is a very big thing. For the entire week before classes, both freshman or “first years” and international students are encouraged to move in and get adjusted. To help with that adjustment, UoB has a lot of events.

Though geared toward freshman, Fresher’s Week specifically is open to everyone including international students. For a set price, you get wristbands that allow you into events at various venues from multi-floored clubs in the city center, to pubs and concerts on campus. It’s a whole week and more of partying and making new friends.

For international students the Week of Welcome also hosts a slew of events though not as easily accessible. Various different organizations on campus host their own international student events from conversation corners with free hot drinks and biscuits (cookies) or ice breakers with games and food. Every night I was doing something new with students from all over the world.

With most of these events geared toward students meeting other students and a campus population so large [30,000], it’s very easy to meet at least a hundred new people. The problem is, you meet so many people, it’s hard to decide who your real friends will be.

Good: UoB is very welcoming to new students and you’ll never be bored when you first arrive.

Bad: Meeting and being around so many new people from so many new places allows for the spread of tons of bacteria. Lots of people, including myself, are sick with a cold right now.

Suggestion: Don’t share drinks with people you’ve just met.

Unusual: “It’s harder to befriend local U.K. students.”

The above, is a phrase I heard in the welcoming speech of the UoB international student chair. She said that the most popular complaint from previous students was the statement above. And even on my very first day here, a girl I met from Hong Kong also said the same.

Making friends who are actually local to the U.K. can be tricky. U.K. culture is different from our own despite sharing a language. It’s much more like the mainland than Hawai’i. The other day at a tiny on-campus farmer’s market, I was waiting in line for some sausage sandwiches. The guy in front of me briefly looked my way and said “Hi.” Then just as quickly, he apologized for saying anything at all and said he was just excited for the sausages. I told some U.K. friends about this odd event and they said it was totally normal.

In the U.S., we often strike up random conversations in lines or on public transportation. But in the U.K., people feel like they’ve offended you or they’re wasting your time with random conversations - even “Hellos”, apparently.

Good: The national language of the U.K. is English! So everyone who comes here also speaks English. No language barriers for me to worry about.

Bad: Making new friends is not instantaneous.

Unusual: How do you become friends with U.K. locals? One good tip would be to join a club! Or as they are called here, ‘societies.’

Two weeks from now, in the next issue, I’ll write more about the hundreds of societies that exist here, the educational system itself - and hopefully, some wonderful new place that you and I have never heard of before. A Hui Hou!

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.