I think the most common response when other people find out I’m an exchange student after “oh, cool!” is, “why Montana?” I asked myself the same question when I woke up on my first morning in my new dorm, “What the hell am I doing in Montana?”
I’ve come here on an exchange program from my home university in Exeter, UK, where I’ve spent the last two years as an International Relations student. My journey so far has been an interesting one, plenty of ups and downs, culture shocks and far too long drives. It began less smoothly than I imagined. A delayed flight from Heathrow led to a missed connection in Salt Lake City and a mind-numbing six-hour layover in the SLC departure lounge. Instead of my initial 5 p.m. scheduled arrival in Bozeman, I ended up stumbling out of a taxi laden with all my earthly possessions at around 1:30 a.m. with zero clue as to what to do.
The following days were a blur, but what struck me the most was the weather. Everyone back home had told me Montana was cold. That’s about the extent of our knowledge. How wrong we were. When I arrived here to 95 degree heat with my suitcase full of winter clothes and ski gear I was slightly lost as to what to do. I ended up spending the first couple of weeks wandering around in my old rugby shorts and a T-shirt questioning everything I knew about this place. I’d give quite a lot for some of that heat right now, however.
Once I’d unpacked, met some new faces and acclimatized to the unexpected heat, I was faced with a dilemma. Back home, the first week of university before classes start is known as ‘freshers week’ and is a celebration of our favourite English pastime; drinking far too much cheap lager and making a fool of yourself in front of complete strangers. Here, however, not so much. The first couple of days there seemed to be nothing going on, and I found myself getting envious of my friends back home heading out. You can imagine how relieved I was when a German exchange student popped his head round my door and uttered those magic words, “Hey man, you fancy a beer?” Since then there have been some amusing clashes with the RAs as we let our European drinking culture loose on the strictly overseen dorms you have over here.
As things have started to settle down and people got to know each other better, one of the highlights of being here so far has been the opportunity to travel around and explore the outdoors. So far I’ve spent weekends in Yellowstone hiking about and probably getting slightly too stoked on seeing a moose (we just don’t have anything that big at home, they’re huge), days exploring the local countryside, and more recently I made the journey down to Denver for a long weekend. It took us 12 hours to drive there, if you drive for 12 hours straight in England you would just run out of road. The outdoors got all the more interesting when I finally got a glimpse of the Montana winter I’d heard so much about. I’m sure for any Montana locals the recent snowfall was merely a light dusting, but for me it was wild. If it ever happens to snow in England, which is not that often at all, an inch or two is enough to shut the country down. School is cancelled, the roads are chaos, and everyone heads to the supermarket to clear the shelves of bread, milk and canned food. You’d think it was some world ending event, when in reality it just got a bit colder than usual. In stark contrast to this, when I woke up one morning to some seriously negative temperatures, I spotted some maniac walking to class in shorts and a t-shirt as I struggled to keep from shivering in my ski jacket.
I’ve also asked a couple of my fellow Brits what their experience so far has been like. “America is strange,” said Alice Cooke from the University of Bradford, “but a good strange, I’m just very excited to go skiing.” It is a bit strange here, and one of the stranger things I’ve noticed is how nice everyone is. I’m used to the cold and stony demeanour of England, whereas everyone in Bozeman always seems up for a chat, especially when they realize you’re from abroad.
My experience so far has been a good one. It’s not been what I expected, but in hindsight I don’t know what I really expected. All I knew about this place was that it was cold and I could go skiing all of second semester. Since arriving I’ve experienced so much more; adventuring outdoors, sampling Colorado’s local ‘delicacies’, shooting guns out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve expressed my disdain for lite beer countless times and heard ‘Wagon Wheel’ played enough to last me a lifetime. It has taken a while, but I’m settling in and Bozeman is feeling more and more like a second home with each passing day.