By Šárka Panochová
There are new signs on the lawns tonight. As if nobody cared about tomorrow’s midterms anymore, the “Parking $10” signs ruthlessly replaced the names of politicians I had seen flying above the front yards. Tonight they are irrelevant. The usually empty streets of the campus and its surrounding neighborhoods are already packed with cars and yet there is still a long line of headlights desperately looking for empty spots. Tonight, Lawrencians who live within a mile radius around Allen Fieldhouse start making their vacation money on basketball fans by charging them for parking in their driveway. And I heard this was one of the unimportant games…
So how is America?
An ambitious question to which there is an easy but tricky answer: very much. I wish I could give a better answer. I understand why people ask but… First of all, I have only been here for a little over three months. And second, while I love being in Lawrence, I cannot possibly speak about America in general. Not even for all of Kansas. I do not wish to give anybody such an uninformed answer.
Lawrence is special. It is a college town. The University has been an inextricable and in many aspects a shaping part of the community since almost the very founding of the town. The University campus is also a special place. I live on campus, study on campus, eat on campus, and even spend most of my free time on campus. Campus defines the lives of students here. And not only students.
The School Spirit
What’s new for me is the feeling of community. The way people connect with each other, how they engage in events on campus, how the town and the University interact – campus feels like a small community in itself. In the heart of this community is the school and the pride people take in being Jayhawks. My statement that we don’t have a mascot and virtually no school merchandise raised a few eyebrows. How are you supposed to express the school spirit then? I guess we just don’t. The only exception being the one ice-hockey game in the fall.
Not so much here. The whole town comes together to cheer for the Jayhawks on Saturday afternoons even though everyone knows that KU football is not exactly in shape. Basketball games are hopelessly sold out. All Lawrencians from kids to senior citizens wears KU colors. Students are dressed head to toe in clothes with Jayhawks on them. Not only on game days.
And then, when the Kansas City Royals played in the World Series the apparel of the campus changed. For a week or two we switched from Jayhawks to Royals. (Luckily for me, blue clothes remained relevant.) Campus cafés offered a World Series special Royal Berry smoothie. On the night of the last and decisive game, one of my professors cancelled the seminar with the words “go and enjoy the game.”
The community feeling is really tangible here and very important. Kansas pride, Lawrence pride, occasional Kansas City pride, and KU pride. However, as much as athletics drives the school spirit, academics define the students’ spirits. Since students pay large sums of money for their education, and most of them need to get good grades to get their scholarship for next semester or because they later want to go to grad school, academics are generally of number one importance.
I was really curious to find out what classes were going to be like. In that regard, I have to admit that there are more similarities than differences. Again, I can only speak for a limited number of senior and grad classes I’m taking at the AMS (Department of American Studies) and AAAS (Department of African and African-American Studies). (Just to give you a little taste of Americans’ great love of acronyms.) As far as I can tell, the fundamentals are the same: lots of reading, class discussions, response papers, research papers. A big thank you card goes to our Department that saved me quite a shock. However, not everything is the same.
First of all, we don’t use ECTS credits here but credit hours. Undergraduates are expected to take 12 – 15 and graduate students 9 – 12 credit hours each semester. In a system where most courses are awarded 3 credit hours this means about half the number of classes I’m used to taking. But do not be misled, each class meets two or three times a week for either 50 or 75 minutes. And for each session there are of course readings to do. Those who are good at math might have already guessed that the workload seems to be pretty similar to what we’re supposed to do back home. But American professors in general expect students to be a lot more engaging in class than our professors. This entails two main types of work: written assignments and class discussion.
It is no exception to have multiple written assignments throughout the semester for each class you are taking – short reaction papers, quizzes, longer response papers, research projects, and final research papers. There hasn’t been a week in which I wouldn’t have to hand in one or two papers. Also, although I could hide in the classrooms back home and not say a word during the whole session, here it’s impossible. Participation in class discussion counts toward my grade in all of my classes. So I’m learning to look at the readings differently and ask more questions. Plus, it would be hard to hide in a class of no more than 10 people. All my professors know me by name and I have talked to all of them outside of class. Multiple times. That’s the American way. But it’s also very much part of the overall feeling of friendliness and openness on campus.
The Little Extra
Campus became my favorite American thing. It’s a very student-friendly environment. Buses and gym all free. Libraries 24/7. Cafés, cafeterias, bookstores, and ATMs right there. Health center, sport stadiums, park, lake – all’s here. Art museum, natural history museum, and research library within a 20-minute walk. Endless string of special lectures, workshops, and seminars. Student clubs offering a wide range of activities,… The resources are unlimited.
I just really love the fact that I can go and flip through the issues of The Black Panther, engage in a discussion with activists from Ferguson, or attend a pow wow. Learning about history suddenly gets a new dimension when you get a chance to speak with a man who took part in the struggles of the 1960s, who personally talked to Huey P. Newton and H. Rap Brown, and whose own brother was shot by a police officer in 1970. Talking about the struggle for the rights of minorities comes alive when you hear Native American students speak about their personal experiences.
That’s what’s great about being in America – the fact that I am not only learning about the culture and history anymore. I am in the midst of it. I am where it’s at. Even though it’s “only” Kansas.
There are way too many stories to tell to fit them into one article. So if you want to know more or have a specific question to ask, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d be more than happy to help!