By Anna Mária Pisoňová
The United States has never been on my bucket list. I have never dreamed about visiting the country of President Trump, eating hamburgers, or living the American dream. I happen to be here, because of an email from Dr. Tomkova that we all got last year in December in which she presented a last-minute offer to study abroad for a semester. There were no motivational letters and no interviews needed, just a genuine interest to go. It took me a thirty-minute-long googling of Juniata College, its location and options, to make a decision. Hasty? Irresponsible? Undigested? Definitely. But so far also one of the best decisions of my life.
So, I find myself writing this letter in central Pennsylvania, in a small town of 6,000 inhabitants – Huntingdon, which is a home to 2,000 students of Juniata College. The campus is tiny but comprises everything needed – multiple academic buildings with classrooms, and computer and biology labs, various houses of residence, and a canteen offering a variety of food which overwhelmed me in the first few weeks and it took me some time before balancing my eating habits back to normal.
On campus, the emphasis is put on respecting diversity and embracing individuality, but as soon as I left the campus for the first time I found myself surrounded by mainly Trump supporters.
Because the liberal-oriented university is set in a very conservative environment of rural Pennsylvania, living in Huntingdon is kind of funny. On campus, the emphasis is put on respecting diversity and embracing individuality, but as soon as I left the campus for the first time I found myself surrounded by mainly Trump supporters. Some of the households even have confederate flags on their houses and cars! However, there are always two sides of the same coin and although many locals would be happy if the college together with its queer, international, and multiracial students disappeared, there are many more who support what Juniata College stands for and welcome its students. Right now, for example, I am writing this letter in a small café/antique shop in downtown Huntingdon where I go every Saturday. I always meet the same group of old men sitting around a table, drinking coffee and commenting on politics and sport here. They find me as interesting as I find them and although our opinions usually collide, we always end up laughing together rather than fighting. They certainly broaden my horizons about the American countryside.
Another peculiarity of Huntingdon is its incredible isolation from the outside world. Before my departure, I read the complaints in the reports of other exchange students from Masaryk University about the inability to move around without a car. Back then I thought that they were exaggerating or maybe just lazy to use public transport. Now I know that they were totally right. Without a car, it is not possible to move around. Fortunately, some of my friends here have cars, so I have got to see places around Pennsylvania, such as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Hopefully, I will visit New York City and Washington D.C. during the winter break.
Here, the classes are held twice or three times a week for 50 or 90 minutes and students are given take-home assignments after each class.
Another of my cultural shocks here was the structure of the schedule. The American system is very different from the Czech one-lecture-per-week one. Here, the classes are held twice or three times a week for 50 or 90 minutes and students are given take-home assignments after each class.
Moreover, the participation forms a crucial part of my grade and therefore coming to class unprepared is out of the question (not that I have ever thought about that). My friends and I used to joke about how it feels like going back to high school as we spent the first few weeks just doing homework whenever there was a little bit of free time until we figured out how to do it more efficiently. Being a liberal arts college, Juniata encourages its students to broaden their focus to more than one specific academic field. Indeed, as a double degree program student, I am not only required to take a certain number of English-related subjects but also to take two well-removed courses. They are very refreshing after years of focusing primarily on English. One of these is Language in Motion, a course primarily meant for returnees from study abroad and international students to talk about foreign cultures and languages at schools in Central Pennsylvania. Thus, later in the semester, I am going to deliver a couple of presentations about Slovakia and our culture, which is really cool. Locals have already thought I am from Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and even Russia.
Last but not least, the college organizes lectures by scholars outside of Juniata College from time to time. I have seen some of the most inspiring speeches here, especially the one given by Jonathan Mooney on inclusion at schools. I am a member of the TedEx club at Juniata and we are organizing our own TedEx talk in April, hopefully getting Jonathan Mooney to do one more speech in the spring semester. Other speakers are usually Juniata teachers and staff. There is even a slight chance that I will be delivering a talk, too, as an international student! Although I cannot imagine myself standing in front of a hundred people talking about anything at all, it would be a unique (and possibly embarrassing) experience. However, there are another few months until I have to worry about it, so I would rather finish my coffee and dive into another conversation with the local gentlemen. Slowly, it is beginning to feel like home here. At least for now.
Anna Mária Pisoňová
Anna Mária is a student of English language and literature and Teaching English language and literature for high schools at Masaryk University. She is interested in Slovak and international politics, history, and feminism. She is trying to be her best self. Waiting is the biggest waste of her time and energy.
1 A well-removed course – Juniata is a Liberal Arts institution. That means that it is diversified, has a core curriculum and has many disciplines. Therefore, international students are required to take two courses outside of their major.