Summer School at the University of Mississippi

During the winter holidays Meredith Allen attended the Lott Summer Fellows Institute; here is her story.

Life is short

Do you ever get that feeling that life is passing you by? Being a third year BA Value and Policy Studies student, I was getting that feeling every morning when I woke up. A friend of mine had been talking about Summer Exchange Programs for months, but somehow I just never got my act together.  A week before applications were due, I realised something.  And as cheesy as it is, it really got me thinking—life is what you make of it.

So with this new found revelation and a 1 week challenge I rustled up a CV, application form, begged my faculty advisor for an academic recommendation, wrote a motivational letter and handed all this in 1 minute to deadline.  Now in this moment I was full of energy and optimism, as I dropped off my application in a very non-descript brown cardboard box at the International Office. From here I tried to let fate or whatever you think might guide the random events of life to do her thing.  I went for an interview and a few weeks later I was looking for flights to get to closest to the small town of Oxford, Mississippi, United States of America.

But before I get into the admin of VISAs and packing and plug adaptors, a bit about the courses out there.  The International Office has really great opportunities in various countries with various focuses.  I looked for something different that interested and challenged me.  Check it out—you never know what you may find!

But back to admin and VISAs and packing and plug adaptors.  To be honest, this part is a mission but it is important and necessary and ultimately is what gets you there.  Things I learnt:

1. Be organized and thorough and don’t leave things for the last minute

2. Pack light and pack smart—and leave space for all the things you inevitably buy abroad.

3. Check the voltage requirements—ie. Make sure your GHD straightener is not going to burn out

4. Check for plug adaptors for cellphone, ipod, camera, laptops—no adaptor, no charging.

5. Keep all your important documents with you at all times when travelling (The American Customs are always looking for reasons to question you)

6. Be patient! Be patient! Be patient!

But now skipping ahead to day of departure.  Bags are packed, flights are long and boring and parents are teary. Again, I thought this day would somehow be extra special as I embarked on my first solo trans-Atlantic adventure.  It wasn’t.

Life is unpredictable.

2 days travelling. 1 chatty neighbour. 4 crying babies. 3 airports. 187 songs played on my ipod. 1 cancelled flight. 5 hours sleep.

I arrived in Memphis Airport to meet 15 other International Students looking equally worse for wear, and a chatty University guide (who happened to be originally South African). Another 2 hour bus ride and I had finally arrived.

The University of Mississippi (aka Olemiss) is an unpredictable place.  Set in a small, all-American Southern town of Oxford, it is green grass, and huge majestic trees and winding roads. Basically it looked like it came straight out of the movies. We stayed in the Residential Colleges which are very similar to Stellenbosch, just bigger. In fact, everything in the States is big.  The buildings are big.  The trees are big. The McDonalds burgers are big. And in comparison, I felt very very very small.

From here on in, life just flew by. With classes from 8-12 in the morning and activities and homework in the afternoons, and adventures every night, I barely had time to catch my breath. But too quickly I found myself so comfortable in this new strange life in the middle of the Southern ‘bible belt’ of the USA, far from home and everything I have ever known.

From the minute I arrived I was thrown into a completely new world—one of interesting people and new experiences. Our international group consisted of:

…2 Germans

…2 South Koreans

…1 Irishman

…1 Englishman

…1 Czeck

…1 Columbian

…1 Uruguina

…3 South Africans

…2 Jordanians

…and a bunch of loud and chaotic Australians.

And from Day 2-we were like family. I wish I could share all the amazing experiences and outrageous stories that I have from this trip—but it would just be impossible. But some things I will never forget.

…sitting in a class filled with young, passionate, intelligent people discussing the role of religion in politics, and being inspired to do and know more.

…spending a weekend in New Orleans filled with blues music, street art, amazing food, museums, and more bars than we could count.

…watching 4th July Fireworks on a beautiful summers night

…playing American football in the Olemiss Stadium (yes the same one from the movie, ‘The Blind Side’ )

…walking into town each night looking for fun and new friends

…playing beer pong with real Americans at a real house party with real red cups

…listening to all the Sorority girls talk about Rush and mixers and Greek Week

…sitting in a tattoo palor with the family watching a guy called ‘Doug’ paint a hummingbird with a needle on my friends back.

…saying goodbye and knowing without a doubt that I will see these amazing people again one day.

Life keeps on going

Home sweet home. Coming home was a strange experience. Somehow for me it seemed I had put my life back home on pause, and I expected everyone else to be exactly where I left them. They weren’t. Everyone had carried on living and learning and I was left to catch up.  I think the hardest thing is to keep the memories of the States with the chaos and excitement of being back on South African soil. I will admit, I was so happy to be back to braaing, instead of BBQ’s, smsing instead of texting, and talking without a Southern ‘y’all’ and drawl.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the States. And it definitely will remain one of the most exciting times of my life to date.  It was a time of firsts…

…my first exchange program

…my first trip to the States

…my first encounter with real 100% Americans

…my first solo trip—definitely appreciate the pleasure of my own company more and more

…my first fried oreo (yes—they exist and yes—they are delicious)

…the first time I felt like I had direction and purpose

…and the first time I missed this beautiful country.

International exchange is a unique experience—and I will always be grateful for the opportunity and privilege that I have enjoyed. It’s a fascinating and magical thing when people from across the world meet in once place—all open to learn and live and laugh together.  It was also a time to open myself to new ideas and beliefs, and challenge the many I have held since childhood. The lessons I learnt about economic power and corporations and their role in politics, as well as the many different beliefs and traditions of the religions around the world have built a foundation for a new passion of mine to emerge.

I came back on such a high for life and living and everything in between. I wanted to see more, do more, learn more, give more and share more. But it seemed that catching up on 3 weeks of varsity was getting in my way of this new spirit of adventure within me.  But despite being quickly swept up in 8am lectures and tuts and visits to the bib, I realized that I didn’t need to try and change the world.  I have been changed, and will keep changing and growing and learning and that is enough. Because with enough changed people around, this world will be a changed one too.