As shocking as this might sound, California wasn’t my first choice.
In fact, it had been my lifelong dream to go to Australia, so when I found out that my department wasn’t partnered with any universities there, I was deeply disappointed. I begged my study abroad tutor to make an exception and let me go. Alas, when the deadline for the study abroad application knocked on my door, I submitted it half-heartedly, putting down UC California with a heavy sigh. Little did I know it was one of the best decisions I had ever taken in my life.
When I started looking into the different UC campuses in order to decide which were my top three campus choices, I felt the pressure of putting down UC Berkeley and UCLA, and respectively the anxiety surrounding the prospect of not getting them. It was a well-known fact that everyone wanted to go there. After reading through every forum, blog post and YouTube channel I could find on the UC experience, I realised they weren’t the places for me at all. I felt much more attracted to UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside. As someone who has always lived in big cities, I wanted to dip my toes in a quieter, campus-based, nature-full environment. So if you’re considering going to California, my first tip would be: focus on your needs as an individual, rather than adopting a pre-packaged stock-image of what the “California experience” should be, feel or look like. And do your research!
The painful process of the California administration prep is, well, painful. Or at least it was for me, because I was not on top of it at all. Every time I started looking into housing, flights and visas, I got so stressed and overwhelmed that I just kept putting it off until the last minute. Ten days before I had to fly out, I still didn’t have a place to live. Thus, my second tip would be – start the process as soon as possible! Ask around and find a mentor – someone who has gone through the same ordeal – and lean on their support and encouragement. If you’re confused, ask for help! It may feel quite jarring and frightening to invest so much time and energy in a place you have never even visited or you can’t imagine exists outside your head and a google map image, but I promise it does and it’s worth it! Especially when it comes to SB!
The best admin tip I could give you is to do with finding housing. My stressful experience taught me a lot. UCSB advises students to take a spot at Tropicana Gardens, a private halls of residence that gives out short-term leases for a quarter or semester rather than a whole year. It is catered, close to campus, and full of international students. I know a lot of people who lived there and it was the perfect place for them, but somehow I knew it was not for me. During my housing search I was in my second year of uni at Kings and really enjoying life outside dorms. I wanted a similar experience in California, but I felt like that wasn’t an option, because I had no knowledge about renting in Santa Barbara and no one to rent with. At the height of my panic someone told me about Facebook groups where students offer subleasing and look to fill out a vacant space in their house-share, as they or their flatmates were also going abroad for a semester or taking time off of college. I immediately started messaging people, arranging skype-meetings, virtual house-tours, etc. Most people lived in Isla Vista – a small town right next to campus and the hub of the notoriously wild social scene in UCSB. I made it my mission to find a house that would take me in. It was a difficult and tenacious process. A lot of girls would promise me a deal and then back out at the last minute or even blatantly stop responding in the middle of the negotiation. As cheesy as it sounds, I developed vital life skills during this pursuit for a roof. I got over my skyping anxiety, I learned how to set boundaries and trust my intuition. I also learned that in the US one has to provide their own furniture – bed, desk, and everything – when subleasing. Thus, it became vital to find someone who would leave me their bed or secure one for me. In the end I was torn between two places and decided to go with my gut despite it being slightly more expensive, and it paid off. If you decide to follow in my footsteps, do skype beforehand, make them give you an online tour of the house and don’t sign anything before you are absolutely sure you can trust them! Alternatively, check out the UCSB Co-ops and private students housing establishments around Isla Vista. Once again, do your research and ask around. If you want the “halls” experience, by all means, go for it and always do what’s best for you, but I am encouraging you to consider all your options regardless of what you end up deciding on.
I was slightly worried about living with local full-time students as a complete foreigner, especially because I was coming in the middle of the year. My housemates turned out to be the most welcoming, warm and inviting people. On my first day they took me grocery shopping and introduced me to their close circle of friends. I had my birthday ten days later and they threw me a grand birthday party so that I can make my social debut. They showed me around, taught me the in-and-outs of the academic system, and most importantly, had a car. Having a friend with a car is vital in Santa Barbara (and California in general), especially if you have to provide your own groceries. Driving to Los Angelis or San Francisco on the weekends was a favourite activity I was thrilled to partake in and explore California; especially through the lens of the Americans themselves.
My only regret is not making enough international and study abroad friends. Being surrounded solely by full time local students, I felt like one. I wanted to jump in on the plans for summer and next year, to relate to future academic and career aspirations, to stay forever. Having to leave felt like an injustice; I was having an adventure with an expiration date. Thus, while I learned a plethora of things during my time in Santa Barbara, the most important lesson I received was in letting things go. I realized that I was so focused on the temporary aspect of the experience and worried about having to leave and re-adjust back to my life in Europe, that I was missing out on actually being there and embracing the moment. So I learned not to obsess over things I have no control over, appreciate the present and accept change. Of course, my re-adjustment was a success and I am really happy and grateful to be back! I’m still in touch with my American friends and they’re going to come and visit me soon.
That being said, I would advise you to maintain a balance between international and local friends, so that you do get a sense of the local experience and culture, but when you do have to go, you don’t feel like you’re the only one. Make the most out of your orientation or intro week and meet other study abroad students. If you’re not living with locals or don’t know how to approach them, join a society or sports team, and find things in common. Be open!
Whatever fears or apprehension you have, give it a chance, it might surprise you! I cannot believe how reluctant I was to go and will be forever grateful I didn’t pass out on this opportunity!