Fun in the winter sun: A semester abroad at University of Miami

Student life at what Playboy once called the best party school in the USA is a far cry from rainy old Blighty

21-degree heat, palm trees everywhere and legendary South Beach a short drive away – no it’s not a holiday resort in July, it’s my university campus, University of Miami (or better known as The U) where I’m currently studying for the semester as an exchange student. Did I mention it’s December?

The chance to studying abroad was definitely one of the main reasons I considered attending university, but studying History, I always believed that the options would be limited to Europe. Fast forward a year later, after countless forms and an interview with the US embassy, I am currently taking advantage of a state-of-the-art gym, a brand new Student Activities Centre with picturesque views and a pool on campus where you can relax in between classes with brand-new friends. Sometimes it can be a little hard to remember I’m here for university when the campus looks more like a five-star private beach.

Football, football, football

The transition wasn’t difficult as I had expected but the first major difference I encountered between my home university and my exchange university was how much emphasis is placed on sport in the US. As the University of Miami football team, the Miami Hurricanes (referred to as "Canes"), is ranked one of the best football teams in the nation, it is little wonder that so much attention is geared towards UM football players, who are deemed demi-gods. Football season begins during the Fall semester and game day is usually every Friday or Saturday at the Sun Life Stadium if they are on home turf.

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Instead of watching a game with socks and soggy chips with an umbrella, college football is an entirely different league and makes varsity appear like a low-level secondary school version. The student body and locals alike adopt in a ritual known as "tailgating" every game day. For those unfamiliar with the tradition, it is a social event where students wearing school colours (green and orange) begin the festivities at fraternity houses usually involving large consumption of alcohol and are taken by buses to the stadium for even more partying in the Miami heat! The game itself is incredibly exciting (albeit overwhelming if you’re new to American football) and it’s incredibly hard not to get swept away in excitement! My most memorable game was when the Canes won against their rivals University of Florida – tailgating began at 6am and we swept to victory in a nail-biting final!

Play hard, work hard

In terms of academics, the University of Miami workload is definitely a lot more intense. Despite taking the same amount of classes in the UK, extensive reading beyond class is compulsory and homework is given pretty much every class alongside assignments. Even so, I have had the chance to study some classes that would not have been possible in the UK, such as Africa and Cuba and LGBT communities.

The American system features mid-term examinations as well as finals, so it’s not hard to see why the place is reputed among employers seeking for graduates. That’s not to say it’s all been studying though! In terms of the social side of college, the U of M knows how to party and definitely lives by the motto "work hard, play harder". It was even rated number one party school in the US by Playboy in 2009.

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Party town

After structuring my timetable so I had Fridays off, my weekend began on Thursdays, where thousands of students usually flock to the Grove, a street of bars, which is the only night the drinking age is 18. Fridays and Saturdays usually consist of trips to Miami Beach and an endless stream of frat parties, house parties and pool parties. The fraternities host regular parties (think red cups, and drinking games such as beer pong and flip cup) but only women are allowed to attend. If you’re over 21, living in Miami offers an endless option of incredible clubs and bars nearby on South Beach and a thriving music underground scene in Wynwood. I can safely say I have never been bored in the city!

However, the major difference I found between my home university and University of Miami was the student body. At $60,000 a year to attend (with regular fees for UK exchange students), Miami does not come cheap and attracts wealthy students from the North East. There’s no worrying about a gas bill to pay or how to budget – instead, my average stroll to class entails witnessing fellow students cruising around in brand new Porsches and BMWs.

Going Greek

Additionally, Miami, similar to many universities in the US, has a thriving Greek life (the fraternity and sorority community on campus) - yes they really do exist outside American movies. The terms "fraternity" and "sorority" describe groups of men and women who join together to offer friendship, academic support, participation in campus activities and service to the community and university. They are referred to as "Greek chapters" because they are named according to the ancient Greek alphabet. A major negative of this system is that because these groups have their own ready-made friendship group, members were not particularly willing to making new friends at all. The Greek system also alienated the majority international or exchange students who could not participate in their events.

Thanks to the US system having regular breaks, travelling has also featured heavily in my experience; I have had the invaluable experiences of travelling to different parts of the United States which would not have been necessarily possible as a student in the UK. I was also incredibly fortunate to take advantage of Miami’s sea port which offered a cruise to the Bahamas in just two and a half hours - I spent Fall Break in the Bahamas, soaking up scorching temperatures instead of shivering in a poorly heated student house in windy old Britain. Americans also place a lot of emphasis on traditional holidays including Homecoming, Halloween and Thanksgiving. I spent my first Thanksgiving at my Cuban friend's place in Miami.

To anyone considering a studying abroad placement, I would encourage you to take the opportunity with both hands. Studying abroad in Miami has been an unforgettable experience and my only regret is that I wish I was able to finance it so I could stay for another semester. Now, let’s only hope as I get ready to return to my final semester, I can adjust to UK weather…

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