Travel is something everyone is dying to get out and do, but we all make 1,000 excuses of why we specifically can't go anywhere. Travel is not just for an elite, untouchable bunch. It's for you, and it's for me. It's for anyone with the passion and drive to JUST GO!
I'm going to introduce you to a number of ladies in this series, not so different from you and I, who took the leap and are living out the most amazing lives abroad.
They aren't just dreaming it, they made it happen, and we hope to show you that you can too!
Life Abroad; Sophie in Mississippi, USA
- Essex girl Sophie always seemed to have a love for America, and took American Studies in her undergraduate degree. To really live the full American experience, she took off on a year abroad to the deep South, in Mississippi, USA. She loved her time abroad so much, she hatched a plan to go back to grad school, and that's exactly where she is today!
"Traveling is one of the best experiences and I think it really does change who you are for the better. Moving abroad forced me to become way more confident and independent. "
Hey Sophie. Greatly appreciate you speaking with me today about your study abroad time! Tell me, where were you located, and how did you end up there?!
I’m originally from a small town in Essex but after my A-Level exams, I decided to move away to study at the University of Birmingham. At 18 I was hungry for independence and thought that the three hour distance between home and Birmingham was HUGE! Little did I know then that I’d end up living in Oxford, Mississippi, almost 5000 miles away from my little hometown! My degree required me to spend a year in the States and so I studied at the University of Mississippi as an exchange student in 2012-2013. Now I’m back at Ole Miss completing my Master’s!
And what attracted you to the South over all your other study abroad options?
I always knew I wanted to spend time in the US but pictured myself racing around New York or lounging on a beach in California. The possibility of living in the South never crossed my mind until some of the older students at Birmingham returned from their exchange years and shared their study-abroad experiences.
The students returning from the South gushed about Southern hospitality, small-town charm, beautiful campuses, great weather, delicious food, incomparable tailgating and huge frat parties. To me, this seemed like the quintessential American college experience and I wanted to experience it!
The South seemed unlike any other region I’d ever visited, in the US or in Europe, and I figured a year experiencing something completely different would be a valuable opportunity – I definitely wasn’t disappointed! The South turned out to be all that and way more. It’s a really complex and intriguing region. Its history fascinated me and drew me back to Ole Miss to focus on Southern race relations in graduate school.
Leaving the comfort of home is hard! What was it that really made you take the leap into going abroad?
Honestly, I was probably a little naïve. I definitely didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to start a new life so far away from my friends and family! But before leaving, I wasn’t worried about making that leap. I knew that studying in the US would be a worthwhile experience and I knew that, even if I hated it, I could survive for one school year. It helped that I knew someone from my university who was also spending a year at Ole Miss – even though we didn’t spend a whole lot of time together, it was reassuring knowing he was around.
What were the days like leading up to leaving? Any small panic attacks, or were you just excited to go?
Hectic! I’d been working long shifts at the London Olympics in the weeks before leaving so I really wasn’t organized at all. Thankfully, I’d been able to say all my goodbyes to everybody the week before I left – my mum threw me an American themed going away party complete with red solo cups and a life-size cardboard cut-out of President Obama.
The day before I left the UK I spent hours sat on my bedroom floor surrounded by clothes, agonizing over which items would make the cut and which items I would have to leave behind. And, of course, then when I’d finally packed there was the inevitable trauma of realizing my suitcases were way over the weight allowance.
I was repacking those bloody suitcases well into the early hours of the morning!
I want to hear more about the South! Now you're the expert from having lived there for some time, the next chance my readers and I plan a trip, we want the insider details! What are the best, most authentic events, locations and sites to hit? What are those cant-miss locations?
The South is seriously under-rated. It doesn’t generally attract that many international tourists but I think that’s what makes it kind of special – everywhere just feels unique and authentic.
I would definitely recommend visiting Gulf Shores, Alabama. A group of us stayed at my friend’s beach house there over Thanksgiving Break – we spent our days sunbathing (yes, in November!) and our evenings watching dolphins swim by as the sun set. It was amazing.
New Orleans, Louisiana, is one of the craziest cities I’ve visited and I would definitely urge you to go – Bourbon Street is bizarre and Frenchman Street is great for seeing live jazz. The food in NOLA is the best I’ve ever tasted (Jambalaya is insanely good and alligator bites are also surprisingly tasty) and the cocktails are potent to say the least (get a “Hand Grenade”).
Clarksdale, Mississippi, is another location well worth a visit. This tiny town in the Delta is the birthplace of the blues - music enthusiasts will enjoy Ground Zero (Morgan Freeman’s blues club) and Red’s (a more authentic blues club) where musicians play until the early hours of the morning.
There are still so many places I really want to visit in the South – I’m really looking forward to my trip to Nashville, Tennessee, next week!
What was the highlight of your trip to the USA and why?
I feel really lucky to have spent time in the South, experiencing its endearing culture and meeting some fascinating people.
One of my highlights was definitely meeting James Meredith, Ole Miss’ first African American student who integrated the school in 1962. But just in general, I’m so happy to have met incredibly lovely people here in the South. I had the best roommates during my exchange year who I’m still good friends with today – last semester my ex-roomie invited me to her sister’s wedding in Brandon, MS, so I got to experience the spectacle of a proper Southern wedding!
I also made friends with other exchange students from all over the world– it’s great seeing Facebook and Instagram posts popping up from friends in Colombia, Germany, Australia and other various countries! So yes, I think my highlight was meeting all these wonderful people.
How would you describe the people of the USA? How are they different from people at home?
The USA is such a diverse country so there’s a real variety of people. The majority of Southerners I’ve met have been great and really live up to the Southern hospitality stereotype they are famed for! One big difference is that, generally, Southerners are a lot more conservative than Brits.
It’s also funny how many things we say differently – my Southern friends have a lot of fun making fun of certain words and phrases I say!
I think travel is something everyone wants to do more, but finds a million reasons they cant go. Do you have any wise, experienced words for that bunch?
Traveling is one of the best experiences and I think it really does change who you are for the better. Moving abroad forced me to become way more confident and independent. And meeting people from all over the world is such an eye-opening experience – it’s amazing how much you learn from different people and different cultures.
Studying abroad is also something exciting to add to your resume and employers will pay attention to that. The benefits are endless – you won’t regret traveling.
Money is always a major reason people are afraid to go abroad. How did you manage money while abroad? Was the time abroad a lot more expensive than regular school?
Honestly, I think money is a legitimate concern and I can understand why it deters some people from traveling. Flights can be expensive and certain visas prohibit travelers from getting a job and earning money while abroad. Saying that, it is possible to travel on a budget.
I would recommend trying to save as much money as you can before you go, just so that you can fully make the most of your experience abroad. Shop around for cheap flights (I’ve found that STA usually offer the best rates) and take your time looking for good value accommodation options.
Living in the States isn’t that expensive – student housing is actually a lot cheaper (and way more luxurious) than student housing back home in England. Food tends to be inexpensive too. During my exchange year, I relied on my student loan and personal savings.
I paid half of my regular tuition fees to my home university and didn’t have to pay anything to Ole Miss so, in terms of tuition costs, my year abroad was actually the cheapest.
When I decided to return for grad school, I looked into different funding options – I ended up applying for a scholarship offered by the British Association of American Studies which pays for my tuition and grants me a small stipend for living expenses. It takes some research, but there are definitely funding options out there.
Lastly, any tips you have regarding studying abroad, or getting up and taking the first step towards your travel dreams?
Don’t hesitate to get in touch with people who have studied abroad, even if you don’t really know them. Anyone who has studied abroad LOVES to talk about their experience and they will jump at the chance to talk your ear off about it. Before I arrived in Oxford, I was put in touch with a girl from my home university who was already studying at Ole Miss – I bombarded her with all sorts of questions and she was so, so helpful and gave me really great advice. When I started at Ole Miss the two of us met up for coffee and ended up being friends. So, don’t be shy! Reach out to people.
Thanks so much for telling us all about your time abroad Sophie. Though we've been friends for a while, I honestly didn't know some of these things! You'll have to tell me all about meeting James Meredith soon!
The Quick List
All Sophie's recommendations In one spot!
There are many more Life Abroad posts to come! Follow along to always know when new posts go live!