Uni in the UK versus College in the USA

By Niamh Sammonimage1

Having spent almost an entire academic year immersing myself in the world of American College as a Northern Irish student, I thought it would be useful, if not a bit of craic (fun), to reflect and relate my experience here at Ferrum College with that of home.

First and foremost, the amount of homework and assignments you all get here as US students is something I had to get used to. To put it mildly, I’ve lost a fair bit of sleep in the last 9 months. When you compare it to what I’m used to at my home institution of Queen’s University Belfast, which is a few heavy assignments and six exams over the entire year, it appears you pulled the short straw. While I personally think comparing both is a bit difficult, my comparison method of choice is the level of stress each causes. Here, I found that my stress levels were scattered throughout both semesters in fairly manageable amounts: but nonetheless, I was stressed. At home, my stress levels are fairly non-existent until exam season, at which point I turn into a sleep-deprived, over-sensitive and frazzled shell of my former-self whose only habitat is the library and fuel of choice is double-shot espresso coffee. However, I should mention I am a law student in Northern Ireland, so I brought that on myself when I chose the major.

The cause of the extreme stress I feel at my home university is the fear of failure (no exaggeration). The failure of which I speak is that of flunking an exam, repeating it, and flunking again at which point you, the student, are kicked out of university. A common sight during exam season is students literally camping out in the library to reserve their seats in order to avoid such earth-shattering consequences. Yes, really. In fact, this is also the situation throughout the rest of the UK. What I have noticed here, is that such a fear is not felt as deeply among Ferrum students because it is not part of the system of the College itself. That is not to say students here don’t feel stressed about their GPAs (another thing we UK students don’t have) and their classes, but failing one test does not mean you become “the dropout.”

Which brings me onto my next point of comparison. Professors: they know your name and they care about you. I felt that this was one of the truest embodiments of the word “community” here at Ferrum. Professors want you to do well and will give their time and resources to ensure you do just that. While this is not to say that our lecturers in Queen’s don’t care. In fact, they certainly do, but because of the huge numbers of students they deal with daily (for example, there are 300 law students in my class alone), they don’t have the time to do the whole ‘one-on-one’ thing. Your ability to independently learn, understand and research is taken for granted and we don’t have valuable resources like the writing center, math center, or PAL tutors. In other words, as a Queen’s University student, you’re just one tiny fish in a huge pond of about 20,000 other students.

Another interesting thing I noticed was how much time students here spend in the classroom itself. When I first got my timetable, I found myself gasping and widening my eyes when I saw how much I would be in class instead of bed. At home, I was used to having no more than about 6 hours of lecture time per week (I can sense your bitterness already), leaving much more time for socialising. However, this does mean I spend hours on end in the library with my nose in dusty old books, trying to interpret obscure laws and wishing I was back in class just being told what it all means.

Aside from academics, my more personal experiences have also varied. At the age of 18, moving away from home and onto a university campus was scary. The thing that scared me the most was using the washing machine and the kitchen without my precious Mammy to guide me. Having had two years of both experimental cooking and experiments you couldn’t even dignify with the word “cooking,” I believe I’ve become much more independent. At my home university, students can only live in campus accommodation for their first year. So last year, along with some close friends, I hunted and found a flat to live in for the year and learned to cut back on online shopping so I could pay rent, water and electricity every month. It was hard, but now I feel almost like an adult! My time here has been totally different, but nonetheless a growing experience. I’ve learned to manage my money to save for travelling without the pressure of feeding myself every week. In that sense, the caf has been a pretty good deal. I will definitely miss the constant supply of desserts next year when I’m opening my fourth ramen packet of the week.

Finally, the social life. And what a difference there is in this area. Here in the States, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on athletics as part of a rounded college experience, which is certainly to be admired. Unfortunately for some (not me, I’m as athletic as a brick), this is not the case in the UK third level system. There are sports teams to join but there is no divisions system and there aren’t as many regional or national competitions. In addition, UK universities do not tend to offer athletic scholarships for students. In fact, I have known a few students to leave Ireland and come to study here in America to follow that opportunity. The actual social life of UK students is much different to what I have experienced here in the US. Because the legal drinking age in the UK is 18, most students tend to go out clubbing a couple of times a week if not more (not always a good idea though, believe me). Here, there are much more opportunities to socialize without having to shout at your friends over blasting music in a crowded, dark nightclub and realising it wasn’t them after all. Also everyone knows each other here at Ferrum, and it’s nice seeing faces you know and recognise everyday instead of those you don’t.

While I can’t say my experience studying within both systems made me favour one in particular, I can say I will miss Ferrum terribly when I go home in the next couple of months. My experience being part of this community has been a breath of fresh air, much needed after all that dust from those old law books. The friends I have made here are truly lifelong and the privilege of having such wonderful experiences has made me grow in many ways. A simple piece of advice I received before I travelled here in August really stuck with me throughout the year: “It’s not better or worse: it’s just different.” Thank you Ferrum, for being different.


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