In August last year I departed for a semester on exchange at California State University in a small town called Chico - an experience that would be much more transformative than I had ever anticipated. Here I will share some of the highs, lows, twists and turns these past six months have taken me through, and all that a student exchange can offer.
Arriving in the States I had little idea of what to expect from this place I was to call home for the next six months. As I asked those I came across if they knew of ‘Chico’, my perception of this small town quickly shifted, with chuckling responses warning me that I had better be prepared to party. As it turned out, little Chico was one of the biggest party schools in California – complete with testosterone-fuelled frat houses, upside-down keg stands, questionable amounts of clothing and impressive stamina demonstrated by the students. What I didn’t expect, however, was the beauty this charming spot had to offer; vast golden grasslands, enchanting parks, waterholes bustling in the summertime and quaint roads hugged by maple trees to cycle through.
Life here, of course, was exceedingly different to New Zealand; traditions, ways of communicating, campus life and countless subtleties took some time to get accustomed to. Yet the people were beyond friendly and always went above and beyond to make Chico feel like our home. I couldn’t help but love their ‘all-in’ attitude, whether that involved decorating their homes top to bottom in Halloween decorations complete with metre high spiders, or truly being passionate about the university with some seriously intense school spirit. Playing for Chico State’s soccer team allowed me to really experience this spirit by travelling together across California with a slightly berserk group of girls. Aside from the locals, the other exchange students and fellow Kiwis formed a tight-knit family. Although we had all come to one country, we were able to experience and learn so many different cultures amongst ourselves, as well as creating friendships and connections across the globe.
I would really recommend Chico as it was great in terms of being a springboard to so many diverse locations - whether it be city life in San Francisco, snowboarding in Tahoe, hiking through the giant Sequoias or visiting one of the countless national parks that are speckled throughout Northern California. Yosemite National Park was certainly a front-runner. There was a moment sitting atop an outcrop looking out at this vast valley where everything fell into place; serving as a reminder to continue to chase these immense highs and continuously expand. I was also lucky enough to venture into a handful of other diverse American states as well as spending time consuming too many tacos in Mexico and having my very first white Christmas in Canada. Now, my travels were certainly not all smooth sailing and I had countless experiences where I just had to laugh to get through; from falling in the bus aisle laden with backpacks front and back – as well as in both hands – and lying there like a tortoise stuck on its back. Or perhaps driving our soccer mom rental car (nicknamed Boujee Bess) through the whirlwind of cyclists, pedestrians and temperamental drivers of San Francisco on the opposite side of the road. There were also plenty of interesting reactions to my New Zealand origins, with disillusioned Uber drivers remarking on my luck to have Europe on our doorstep or how great my English was!
Of course, studying is a significant part of time on exchange. Studying within a different structure was challenging at first, however it offered invaluable learning through being surrounded by different design aesthetics and perspectives, being challenged to take new ideas on board, and working in collaboration with people from different cultures. Outside of university, countless sources of inspiration from renowned art museums to emotive street art were ever present to immerse yourself in.
Needless to say, I had quickly become very attached to my new home in Chico. I will never forget the morning I woke up to a completely dark day with the sky smudged by greys, blacks and reds - smoke from what would become the most fatal wildfire in California. Harrowed with uncertainty and fear, most of us evacuated. While the fires didn’t come into our city, Paradise, a smaller town just twenty minutes outside of Chico, was almost completely burnt to the ground. What quickly became evident was that, despite Chico’s small size, this community knew how to go big when it mattered. Everybody rallied around those from Paradise, supporting each other in any way possible. This is something I felt immensely proud to be a part of and it revealed the true nature of the place.
Plans, more often than not, tended to go astray. This taught me a level of patience and acceptance to flow along a path that was perhaps not considered. Often times, I found myself in some unforeseen or simply bizarre situations. Through navigating these, I came away with an awakened sense of self-confidence and a sense of ease with only having myself for company. I took away that home extends much further than the four walls where you grew up; it can be made anywhere if you approach new places without expectation and an open mind. The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone considering an exchange is simply to dive in headfirst. No matter where you choose to go, you will find your perspectives forged by new experiences and new people. While the preparation can be time-consuming and frustrating at times, the chance to immerse yourself in another place, to learn from different minds and to challenge your own boundaries is one that cannot be missed.