Letter from Abroad: Greetings from Washington

By Natália Poláková

Bellingham downtown – Courtesy of Denisa Krásná

In the first place, I don’t want you to get confused. I am writing from Bellingham, in the State of Washington, home to Western Washington University, not Washington D.C., home to President Trump. This place rather wants to distance itself from Trump – but I will get to politics a bit later.

To give you an idea, Bellingham is situated in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. For those who have read or seen the popular series Twilight, which takes place further south, the weather is exactly as gloomy as described in the books. Being a small town with roughly 85,000 inhabitants, Bellingham is observably less diverse, speaking in cultural and ethnic terms, than American larger towns or cities on the west coast such as Seattle or Portland, Oregon.

Some of my friends keep asking me why I decided to do an exchange program here at Western. Honestly, I have never been a huge US fan but I believe the quality of education matters, and for Economics degrees, the US is a well-respected place to study. But I limited my choice of universities to either the west or northeast coast. For a continental European, it is exciting to live on the coast and generally, the people from coastal areas tend to be very open-minded, politically and culturally.  

 


Washington is considered one of the most liberal states in the US. It legalized marihuana in 2012 and substantially reduced tuition fees attracting many out-of-state students. Currently, it has the highest minimum wage in the US and especially, the political spectrum is characterized as “blue”


 

Western covered in snow – Courtesy of Denisa Krásná

“But it is at the end of the world and you don’t have an American accent,” a friend of mine commented. Well, it didn’t take me long to brush up my American vocabulary and my accent has gradually become hybrid.  Above all, my friend was right. Washington is quite far away from, what I call, mainstream states. By mainstream states, I refer to flyover states such as Midwest being mostly marked as “red”. In these turbulent times, it really is a big advantage. Wonder why?

Washington is considered one of the most liberal states in the US. It legalized marihuana in 2012 and substantially reduced tuition fees attracting many out-of-state students. Currently, it has the highest minimum wage in the US and especially, the political spectrum is characterized as “blue” More than a half voted for Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections and a few old folks in the pub would argue that “nobody in Bellingham actually voted for Trump”. Just to be precise, in Bellingham, 35.8 per cent voted Republican. Trump has been a top issue among my fellow students and professors for the past four months. The majority of them hold negative views about the current state of the US politics and the only thing they want to hear from me is criticism of Trump’s policies from a European perspective. “You are lucky. You are European. You don’t have to live in this mess,” said one of my most skeptic professors openly in class.

Bellingham Bay – Courtesy of Denisa Krásná

However, I think most people have already come to terms with the fact that Mr Trump is the lawfully elected president. It was January and February that were particularly intense months, with students organizing one protest after another gathering in the middle of the campus square holding protest signs saying “You are not my president” or “Respect my body”. There were several anti-Trump protests organized by different communities like Western’s LGBT community and foreign students’ association. Western students are generally very active and socially aware. Wouldn’t you like to join them for a muffin or brownie?

 


I think most people have already come to terms with the fact that Mr Trump is the lawfully elected president.


 

Photo Documentation of Women’s March in Bellingham – Courtesy of Denisa Krásná

Not only Western students, but also locals in Bellingham have initiative to organize protest movements. On January 21, I decided to join Women’s March in Bellingham downtown. It was one of the most important marches the town has seen with more than 10,000 people taking part, which was an incredible success given the population of the town. March for Science to show support for science funding, cut by the current administration, is scheduled on April 22 but it is unlikely to sweep the streets with the same magnitude as the Women’s March did.

Moreover, not only students, but also university staff publicly expressed their concerns over Trump’s policies.   Particularly, the day after Trump issued the executive order banning entry for 90 days by citizens from predominately Muslim countries, I received an inspiring email from Western’s President Randhawa, originally from Pakistan. He pointed out: “Our country and our world are better places because so many people from other nations choose to pursue their higher education experience here.  Some stay because of their belief in the values of this great nation and they enhance our quality of life here, while others return home to do the same.” I certainly agree with Mr Randhawa that it is the inflow of intellectuals and highly educated individuals irrespective of their background that makes America a great country for study. Indeed, the teaching staff at Western’s Economics department is very international with professors originally from countries like Iran or Turkey.

 


I certainly agree with Mr Randhawa that it is the inflow of intellectuals and highly educated individuals irrespective of their background that makes America a great country for study.


 

Western is a medium-sized university with around 15,000 students, most of them being in-state students. It is known for a small class size averaging twenty to maximum thirty people. Western runs on a quarter-based academic year and we usually take three to four classes per quarter. Unlike the Czech system, the class usually meets two or three times per week, workload is generally much higher and courses are narrowly focused. The final grade is based on multiple papers, homework sets, mid-term and final exams, and some professors give an option of earning an extra credit by attending a conference or special lecture series in the library.  The final exam itself may represent only 30 per cent of your grade, which forces the students to work equally hard throughout the quarter.

Photo Documentation of Women’s March in Bellingham – Courtesy of Denisa Krásná

Interestingly, I learned that Western is one of few universities that awards a degree in social justice, which in effect, makes the university a perfect hub for LGBT groups and minorities. This is reflected in many social action events taking place in Bellingham such as Human Rights Film Festival screening documentaries about social issues neglected by the US government. Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival scheduled next week is another prominent social event I plan to attend.

Professors are easy-going and students are on a first-name basis with them. During a short break in a lecture, they may stir up the atmosphere by showing some extracts from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Big Bang Theory. The professors are quite accessible, encouraging students to meet up during their office hours. Some of their office hours serve as a collective “catch-up” and the students should feel free to share their opinions or ask questions in a small group of roughly five people.  

What you don’t see in the Czech Republic are students coming to class in yoga pants, sweaty workout clothes, even pyjamas or wearing socks in flip flops, which is ultimately becoming very fashionable here. Other kids resemble a bunch of hipsters smoking weed on their way to the campus.

More than 90 percent have a part-time job and usually work in Starbucks, Subway or other cafes, restaurants and offices located on the campus. It is always easier to have a campus job because your supervisors are “schedule-friendly” and assign you shifts doable within your schedule. It doesn’t, however, mean it is easy to get one. After three months, I finally found an internship in economics at a university research center, which will keep me busy until the end of my stay.

 


What you don’t see in the Czech Republic are students coming to class in yoga pants, sweaty workout clothes, even pyjamas or wearing socks in flip flops, which is ultimately becoming very fashionable here.


 

Beside their jobs, students socialize in student clubs and associations. There are over two hundred clubs in total ranging from sports, dance, foreign languages to for example, Political Economy Club, Socialist Alternative, Anime or a hedgehog club. If you are wondering what a hedgehog club looks like, it is a weekly meeting of hedgehogs and their owners.  I personally joined the hiking club to see national parks around Bellingham because they are difficult to access without a car. Most students have their own cars but I met very few with a genuine passion for hiking. I have also been to Spanish and French clubs but since Americans are not exactly the best foreign language learners in the world, I went to these clubs only once.

Photo Documentation of Women’s March in Bellingham – Courtesy of Denisa Krásná

 


The best days at Western are snow days and the best message you can possibly get at 6am is the one saying the classes are cancelled due to hazardous weather conditions.


 

What is the best thing that has happened at Western so far? The best days at Western are snow days and the best message you can possibly get at 6am is the one saying the classes are cancelled due to hazardous weather conditions. By hazardous weather conditions, I mean the few fresh inches of snow we got in early February. Given the fact that having winter tires is as rare as the snow itself, “only those persons designated as ‘essential’ need to report to work”. Spending the morning sliding down the hill and playing in snow was definitely more fun than a class at 8am.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *