Culture shock in Washington DC

indepth1The one thing that no one ever tells you about a non-EU exchange is that getting here is not exactly the most exciting thing in the world. There will be paperwork, and then more paperwork. And probably some more paperwork on top of that. These steps are also laced with fees at every corner, as well as abbreviations that are designed to confuse you. (I still don’t know what a SEVIS is or why I had to pay for it.)

But there’s a reason why people never focus on this aspect, and that’s because six weeks into my exchange at Georgetown University, I have already had some of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate degree thus far. Stereotypical? Yes. Cringey? Most definitely.

But it’s also true. While I love Trinity and I love the many amazing friends I have made there the past two years, it does become a bubble.  You become fine-tuned to a certain type of rhythm to the point where your imagination suffers and you can’t think beyond the walls of Trinity. Taking the leap to study abroad is as nerve-wrecking as it is exciting. While I am fortunate to have another student from Trinity with me, it’s easy to forget that you have to start from scratch and to anticipate the feeling of being a fresher again. On the first day it was odd being thrown out like shark bait into a sea of unknown faces and expected to gel immediately with the other exchange students.

That being said, the orientation we received was an excellent base for all new students to find their feet. I was also lucky to be paired with an amazing American roommate who has introduced me to as many people and brought me to as many parties as possible.

Culture shock

But no matter how smooth the socialisation process is, you will always find some culture shocks. Finding out in our health insurance overview that a broken arm could cost you $20,000 (without insurance) in the American health system was undoubtedly one. Certain ‘Americanisms’ were also surprising. Part of our orientation had second year international students act out scenarios they found confusing when they first arrived in the U.S.

A recurring issue was the favourite phrase of ‘Let’s get lunch sometime!’ and its translation. To the rest of the world it means: ‘Let’s get lunch sometime!’ In America it means:  I really just meant hello, might see you at some point in the future, possibly when we both are eating.’’

Furthermore, as any Irish on a J1 can tell you, the under 21 drinking law is a lot to get used to. The alcohol-laced events from Trinity’s glorious Freshers’ Week were instead replaced with ‘ice cream socials’, to the laughs of my friends at home. Not even being able to attend bars at night, even without consuming alcohol, is another shock.  But the main difference is simply getting accustomed to a new system. Most university parties are house parties, and when the hosts typically supply the alcohol for their guests there’s little to complain about.

The academic side to a US exchange is also vastly different, but it’s been an entirely positive experience so far. Georgetown is internationally renowned for politics, and having the opportunity to study my chosen subject here has given my original interest in the subject a new depth. On a whole, the dedication to academics here is astounding. Professors emphasise their open door policy, and in the past five weeks I’ve spoken to some of my professors here more often than I had with some of my professors over two years in Trinity.


In addition to this, there’s more of a hands-on approach to teaching. Lecture sizes are quite small and classes are continuous assessment. After spending most of my academic life with a focus on one large exam, it’s difficult to imagine how we did not see that cramming for one test is a bad idea. The grading system in general is more imaginative. For one of my classes, I am examined partially through Twitter. 20% of my grade is based on how frequently I tweet about guest lectures and events related to the subject. We are also encouraged to explore outside events related to the subject for extra credit, which broadens not only the learning experience but also develops your interest in the subject.

A lot of these teaching practices can be adopted in any university setting without many resources. However it must be recognised that a lot of these advantages are dependent on the fact that, as a private university in the US, Georgetown students pay roughly $40,000 for tuition annually. The prices of tuition here mean that listening to conversations about strategies of how to best pay off student loans in the short term has become common for me. It’s also at these points that I try to refrain from mentioning that I receive a comparably excellent education for less than a tenth of their tuition price.

On the social side of Georgetown’s activities, I have felt welcomed almost immediately to various clubs and societies. Georgetown is a very international campus, and for the most part students are excited to see things from a different point of view. As a whole I’ve found Georgetown clubs to be much more professionally focused than those in Trinity.

For one of my classes I am examined partially through Twitter. 20% of my grade is based on how frequently I tweet about guest lectures and events related to the subject.

Fraternities and sororities

Georgetown’s fraternities and sororities are also like this, with many of them describing themselves as ‘professional’ organizations. Intrigued, one of my first weeks here I attended a sorority mixer, hoping to come away with some ridiculous story to share with my friends at home. Instead, I mainly felt bored and was freaked out about how they referred to each other as ‘sisters’.

In addition, clubs and societies aren’t afraid to venture outside of the university’s walls to get their voices heard. While there are some fantastic Trinity societies, such as VDP that do great work in Dublin communities, almost all campus clubs here have some sort of community service mantra in their description, whether through tutoring or fundraising for charity.

Similarly, they aren’t afraid to see themselves as organizations that can go a step beyond or even compete with their usual university services by offering career networking events or CV clinics. In some cases the clubs even clash directly with the university’s ethos to provide for a student need.

The most obvious example of this is Georgetown’s pro-choice society, H*yas for Choice (so called ‘H*yas’ as they are not officially recognised by the university, meaning they can neither receive university funding nor use the official name ‘Hoyas’, the nickname for Georgetown students).

H*yas provide students with ‘condom envelopes’, a plain brown envelope that you stick on the outside of your dorm room door and fill with condoms that you can get for free at their student-manned table. This way, if anyone on your dorm floor has a midnight emergency (or midday emergency, depending on what you are in to) they can discreetly run to someone’s door and pick a condom from the envelope.

This service arose because Georgetown, as a Catholic Jesuit university, does not permit the selling of contraception on its campus. Think of it as the campus community coming together to carry the burden of distributing the Trinity SU Welfare Officer’s condom supply.  While this was never a way I thought I’d get involved in college life in Georgetown, it’s certainly been one of the more interesting aspects of my time here.

Before I left for my year abroad, a lot of people brought up the topic of homesickness with me, wondering if I was worried about it. I had a tendency to laugh it off, saying that after my relatively quiet summer I was looking forward to the adventure. In a Skype conversation with my parents a few days after I arrived, they asked if I was feeling homesick. After a slightly-too-cheerful “Nope, I’m doing great!” my mum replied, “Well you could have at least been polite and said you were feeling slightly homesick!”

But I’ve since realised homesickness can be easily be triggered. It’s understandable to feel like you have been left out of certain events if you’re not within a two-hour radius. With Ireland’s pattern and history of emigration, it’s a theme not uncommon to our youth.  But for those worried about this before taking the jump to study abroad, don’t let this influence you in making your decision to apply. It’s common among the exchange and international students here to talk about things they miss from home.  You are never alone in the way you feel and there’s always people to talk to if you need some extra help.

Four years is a long time to stay at the same institution. Trinity has some fantastic exchange opportunities, with many more destinations in the pipeline. By taking a year (or even a semester) to sample what else is on offer truly enriches both the social and academic aspect of the college experience.