Finding ‘American confidence’ as a Briton studying abroad

Graphic by Ugen Norbu Yonten

Before starting my year abroad, I had never been to the United States. All my knowledge of American life came from a limited number of reputable sources, namely Disney Channel, “Mean Girls” and “The Real Housewives.” I was prepared for cheerleaders, preppy students and cliques ranging from jocks to nerds.

This was going to be “High School Musical 5,” and I would be the new, shiny character from the United Kingdom.

Having already spent two years at the University of Birmingham, I felt prepared for college life. Located in the second largest city in the U.K., the University of Birmingham is home to more than 25,000 students, and it has become my home. To be uprooted from a place where I had built a community and a stronger sense of self was nerve-wracking.

I kept this slight fear suppressed for a while, but after some reassuring words from friends and family, I was excited about where this new study abroad journey would take me.

As I stepped off the plane at LAX, words from a wise woman rang in my ears. The optimism of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” was apparent in that moment for me. Exiting the plane and heading to meet the Pitzer College representatives turned all my anxiety into full blown excitement — I was in the U.S.

People told me before I came to the U.S. that people would be intrigued by me as a black woman with a British accent. The vain side of me was delighted, because it meant that I would be interesting by default. I expected mesmerized looks when I asked for directions from airport staff, but I soon realized that my British accent elicited no reaction from people who heard different accents every day.

After that humbling realization, I held on to the hope that once I got to Pitzer, my accent would be met with the intrigue that I was promised. After a few weeks at the Claremont Colleges, I came to accept that being black and British did not faze students at all; I was simply one of them.

After accepting that my accent would not boost my grades or make me friends, I embarked on a journey that deconstructed most of my misconceptions about America. First, I learned Americans like to keep conversations short and sweet. Aside from a few interactions with Uber drivers, I soon came to realize that Americans don’t do small talk — they do teeny-weeny talk.

Coming from the land of small talk, this was surprising to me. Americans are often portrayed as being very preppy with a whole lot to say. For Americans, a sweet smile from the distance and a quick hello seems to be enough interaction.

Whether walking through campus with their heads held high or speaking out in class, I have revelled in the beauty of what I like to call the American confidence. I have found American students to be confident, young people who are passionate about learning and committed to curiosity.

Having spent two years surrounded by intelligent students who save their intellect for their essays and prefer not to talk much in class, being surrounded by students wanting to vocalize their ideas and experiences has been refreshing. Questioning the professor, something I initially found shocking, is now something I deeply appreciate, and I see the value in having engaged students committed to producing new knowledge.

As I edge closer to my six-month mark in the U.S., I look back on everything with a smile. Over the past few months, I have visited different parts of California, experienced Thanksgiving, enjoyed new classes and started a podcast. My relationship with the U.S. has been an interesting one, full of highs and lows, but it has been an adventure.

Itunu Abolarinwa is a writer passionate about creating content that challenges thoughts and initiates change. She is currently in her third year of study and is a political science and international relations student at the University of Birmingham, studying abroad at Pitzer College.

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