Eastern Illinois University (USA)
Study Abroad Testimonial - Laura
Name: Laura Hamlyn
Program of study at CQUniversity: Bachelor of Professional Communication (Majoring in Journalism)
Host Institution & Country: Eastern Illinois University, United States of America
Period & Year of Exchange: Term 2, 2013 (Australia)/fall Semester, 2013 (USA)
What was your host university like?
Eastern Illinois University (EIU) is a public state university located in Charleston, Illinois. Charleston is a small town in the America mid-west, with around 12,000 of the town's 21,000 residents being EIU students. While the town may be small in size, this doesn't in any way impede the fact that you will have anything short of an amazing, life-changing experience. Being a Professional Communication student, I undertook four journalism classes at EIU. These classes were Introduction to Copy Editing, Introduction to Multimedia Journalism, Advanced Research & Reporting, and Journalism & Democracy. I chose these classes because I felt they each encompassed different aspects of journalism and all could relate back to my studies I'd undertaken at CQUni. Perhaps the biggest shock to the system was just how much work was required of classes. Homework was assigned at the end of every class; there were several quizzes and assessment pieces scheduled throughout the term, and attendance was mandatory. Despite being considered a small university, there were always plenty of official university activities happening and things to do on campus. You can catch up with friends for a bite to eat at the Union, study in Booth Library, work out at the gym, write for The Daily Eastern News, or even watch a football game. Students have the opportunity to further extend their college experience by joining a sorority/fraternity or a student organisation. In hindsight, I wish I had of joined a sorority so I could have made even more of my experience at EIU, but unfortunately I was off campus the weekend of recruitment. The biggest difference between EIU and CQUniversity would have to be the student life. No matter what time of day it was, there was always something happening or someone around. In saying this though, the fact that most EIU students live on campus makes having an active student life understandable. Another difference was the workload expected of students. Not only did you have to complete assignments and exams, but compulsory homework was set at the end of almost every class.
What motivated you to want to participate in an Outbound Mobility Program?
I knew from the very first day I commenced my university degree that I was going to spend a semester studying abroad. It was something that I had always wanted to do. Being young and relatively free of commitments, I knew that studying abroad would provide me with the opportunity to travel the world and immerse myself in another culture all while completing a portion of my university degree. To me it seemed like the ultimate win/win.
Why did you choose this particular host institution?
When it came to choosing my host institution, there were two things that I considered: the academics and the reputation. The more important of these two was obviously the academics. I wanted to find a university that had a strong journalism program. After all, that was what I was there to do. The fact that EIU had its own student-run newspaper and had comprehensive information about journalism program on its website made my research (and subsequent decision) relatively easy. I also had a friend from CQUniversity who participated in the Outbound Mobility Program at EIU, so this also contributed to my decision.
What interested you about studying in this particular country?
Having worked full time while studying, I'd never had the 'real' university experience that seemed to be a rite of passage for someone my age. Since I couldn't have this experience at home, why not America? The movies certainly made it seem look like fun (and it certainly was!). Not only this, but I had wanted to travel to America for the longest time. Studying abroad seemed like the ideal way to get the best of both worlds.
What kind of accommodation options were on offer?
A majority of EIU's student body live on-campus, either in residence halls, Greek Court, or university apartments. Depending on the meal plan you selected, living on campus for one semester can cost anywhere between $4,000 and $5,000. Private off-campus accommodation is also available, but this is not the most popular option. I wouldn't recommend living off-campus while you're on exchange though as it would more than likely impede your socialisation with other students.
What type of accommodation did you choose?
I chose to live in Stevenson Hall. This residence hall is specifically for upperclassmen – either those who were 21 or older and/or had more than a specific amount of credit points. Stevenson has apartment style dormitories, with each having a living room, bathroom, and three bedrooms. While I didn't have a roommate in my bedroom, I did have three other girls sharing the room with.
Was your accommodation catered or did you make your own meals?
EIU has a number of dining choices for students living on campus. There were two dining areas in my residence hall – Stevenson Deli and Stevenson Grill. Stevenson Deli served sandwiches and salads, while Stevenson Grill had full breakfast and dinner menus, including waffles, burgers, omelettes, steak, and quesadillas. Menus were updated online weekly so you could plan your meals accordingly. The meal plan selected determined the number of meals you were able to have during the week. Bonus meals and dining dollars were also provided. I also kept some snacks in my dormitory in the event that I didn't want to use a meal swipe or wasn't hungry enough for a full meal.
Was it expensive to eat out?
In the event of going out to eat, there are countless affordable options to choose from. Fast food restaurants (McDonald's, Taco Bell, Subway, Jimmy John's, Arby's, and KFC) are located only a short walk from campus. An adequate sized meal from any of these fast food restaurants rarely exceeded $10. In addition to fast food, there were quite a few restaurants in Charleston and the neighbouring town of Mattoon. Compared to Australia, eating out in America is very affordable (especially considering how big the portion sizes are).
How did you go about budgeting in preparation for and during the program?
Several months before leaving to go overseas, I opened a high interest bank account (not connected to any debit cards) that I could transfer money into with the specific purpose of saving for my trip. By consciously keeping that money aside, I found myself being motivated to save as I watched the amount grow. While I didn't really stick to a budget while overseas, I did regularly check my bank account to make sure that I wasn't going overboard on my spending.
How did you use your grant and/or scholarship money?
The scholarship money awarded to me by CQUniversity went to very, very good use. The entire $5,000 went directly toward paying for my board, meals, and other school requirements. Having this scholarship gave me peace of mind that all of my expenses at EIU would be covered.
Was it more or less expensive than you expected?
On the whole, America is a relatively cheap country to live in. With the exception of perhaps Vegemite and Ugg Boots, everything will be cheaper than it is in Australia. There are a few things to remember though: posting anything home to Australia will be expensive (I was charged $140 to send a 10kg box), the currency exchange varies daily, and you will be charged bank fees plus ATM fees to withdraw money at an international ATM.
What budget recommendations do you have to other students?
I cannot stress how important it is to effectively budget before you travel overseas. The amount you believe you'll need to take with you? Double it. Triple it, even. Make sure you do your research about the room and board expenses of the school, remember that you'll probably have to spend money weekly on food or school supplies, and you will most definitely incur expected expenses. Don't cut yourself short.
Life outside of classes
Did you travel to other places on your time off?
I was adamant that I was going to travel as much as possible during my time in America. Overall, I managed to see a lot outside of Charleston during my four months in America, travelling to other cities in Illinois and to Minnesota, California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and New York.
Was public transport effective and easy to use?
On the whole, America's public transport system isn't the best. It is infrequent, underfunded, and relatively unpopular. While Charleston doesn't have a direct link to Chicago via public transport, Mattoon has an Amtrak station where you could catch the train to the city. A return ticket to Chicago cost around $50 depending on the time and day you are travelling.
What was your preferred way to get around?
Since Charleston doesn't have a public transport system, EIU operates a free bus service called the 'Panther Shuttle.' The shuttle does pick-ups and drop-offs at various points around the university campus and popular places in town, such as Walmart, Town Square, and County Market. It runs until 12am on weekdays and 2am on weekends, making it the easiest and quickest way to get around town.
What did you do on your weekends?
It is important to remember that it is called study abroad for a reason. Often weekends would be filled with homework, exam revision, and textbook reading. When I wasn't doing schoolwork, I'd spend time with my friends, watch movies on Netflix, work out at the gym, or (sometimes!) go to the bar or a fraternity party. There is no excuse to say that you were bored!
Did you feel safe whilst travelling?
Charleston is a very safe town. I wouldn't go walking around on my own at night – nor would I pretty much anywhere – but there was never a time where I felt uncomfortable or like I could be putting my safety in jeopardy. In terms of America on the whole, if you use common sense and stay away from dodgy areas, you'll be fine.
What was the social life like?
With such an active student life on campus, there was always something going on and someone around. My friends and I mainly spent our time going to university-run events, eating at local restaurants, having drinks at the bars, or working out at the gym. Americans are very social people, so they were always willing to do get together and do something.
Was it difficult to adjust to another way of life?
To be completely honest, the homesickness I experienced the first couple of weeks was horrendous. Moving to a country where you know absolutely no one is a massive task to undertake. Thankfully I could talk to my family regularly, who assured me that I was doing the right thing. It took a couple of weeks, but I eventually adapted and felt more at home at EIU.
What were the main cultural differences that you found?
Fortunately, America and Australia are very similar in culture so it didn't take much for me to adapt to the American way of life. There were definitely some noticeable differences in the portion sizes of food though. As a journalism student, however, it took me some time to get used to spelling with US English (e.g. 'color' instead of 'colour', 'analyze' instead of 'analyse', 'theater' instead of 'theatre'). Fortunately my teachers were very understanding of this and discreetly let me know when I'd used the wrong spelling.
Did your host university run any events?
There were numerous events held at EIU during my time there. Some of these include watching movies outdoors in the quad for Parents Weekend (even though I didn't have my parents there), attending a talent show aimed at raising awareness of AIDs, covering a Black Student Union event for The Daily Eastern News, and attending home football games. The most exciting event I got to experience, however, was Homecoming. Homecoming week was filled with events of campus, a parade through the local streets, and culminated a massive football game – over 10,000 people were there!
How did you meet new people?
With a majority of students living on campus, there was always someone around and this made it easy to meet new people. Being in small classes also meant that you could really get to know the people in your major. If all else fails, having an Australian accent definitely makes you a popular person to talk to!
When considering everything I undertook, learned, and achieved during my time at EIU, the highlight would most definitely have to be my time working for the school newspaper, The Daily Eastern News. Having the opportunity to not only work for a media outlet, but to do it in another country proved to be an absolutely invaluable experience. I got to cover a number of events happening on campus and in the Charleston area, providing me with a unique perspective of college and America. Everyone at The Daily Eastern News welcomed me with open arms (despite the fact that I was only going to be there for a semester) and was genuinely interested in what I had learned as student journalist in Australia. I consider myself very lucky to have had such a fantastic opportunity to hone my journalism skills. It's difficult to pick just one highlight in terms of my travels around America. I got to see the New Years Eve ball drop in New York City, walked from one end of the Las Vegas strip to the other, fulfilled my childhood dream of going to Disney World, saw the Hollywood sign, watched the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall, walked along the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles… there are just too many fantastic moments to name.
Tip of the trade
There are two things regarding money that are significantly different to Australia – taxes and tipping. Taxes are set on a state-by-state basis, rather than federally like Australia, meaning that the price displayed for an item is not the price it will be when you pay. Depending on the state you're in, sales tax can range anywhere up to 8.5%. Another cost to consider in America is tipping. Tips are given as recognition of good service, usually to waiters/waitresses and taxi drivers. The standard rate for tipping is 18%, however 10%, 15%, or 20% are expected depending on the quality of service provided. Watch out as some restaurants automatically include a tip into their bill. Don't be afraid to change this amount if you feel a greater or lesser amount is deserved.
Football is arguably the most important aspect of EIU for many students. Coming from Australia, it was amazing to see just how much money goes into the football program, how seriously it is taken, and the celebrity like status the players are given within the school and local community. This photo was taken at the first football game of the year. Of course I had to dress in a school sweater and carry around a giant foam finger to show my support for the Panthers.
How have you changed
I think the biggest thing I have gained from participating in the Outbound Mobility Program is independence. To move to a country where you know absolutely no one and to travel to foreign cities on your own can be overwhelming, but you've just got to suck it up and do everything you can to make the experience worthwhile. I now feel more confident in my ability to take on challenges, to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances, to make the most of an opportunity, and, most importantly, to do things for myself. Having this experience has made me see the world in a different light – it is not something to be shied away from, but is something that is ready and waiting for me to conquer. Participating in the Outbound Mobility Program is honestly one of the best decisions I've ever made. My time at EIU is something I will remember forever and I'm so appreciative to CQUniversity for helping me get there.