by Mariia Minaeva
When I started writing my motivation letter for Juniata College, I did not think that I actually had a chance to go there. The United States looked like a faraway dream, a place from films and magazines but not from real life. Not from mine, at least. And I think if I had known that I was starting one of the most awesome adventures of my life, I would have gotten nervous and spoiled everything. But I didn’t know it, and I took the opportunity. And so, my journey into the world of a movie-like college in a small town somewhere in that big-big country began.
I had only one question when I went to the USA. Does it really look like what they show us in the movies? I wondered if people actually always smile, if they put flags in their gardens, if someone drinks Cola with extra sugar, or wears T-shirts outside in winter. I wondered if it is indeed a country where new movements get turned into freedoms and where, at the same time, citizens stick to the old ways and go to church every Sunday. I did not have to wait long for the answers. As soon as I stepped out of the airport and looked at the New York streets with their dark brick buildings, I thought, “Oh my, it does look like in the movies.” The world of yellow school buses, little bagel shops, and noisy basketball courts took me in. New York was not perfect; it was dirty, confusing, and cold, but it was alive. The several days that I spent there made me even more excited. I felt that I was open to everything that this country could give me. It was time to go to my college, Juniata College in the state of Pennsylvania. During my five-hour long train trip I did not close my eyes even for a minute: sleeping at a moment like this felt blasphemous.
When I and other international students arrived at Juniata, we were met by the International office staff who instantly showered us with affection. After the first ten minutes, I knew everything was going to be alright. I felt like I arrived at a place where someone had waited for me, and for everyone in our group of childishly excited foreigners. We had different languages, habits, and ideas but we were united by an adventurous spirit. We were ready to explore our new home for the next five months, and the college was supportive and welcoming, ready to become that home.
Juniata is a small Liberal Arts college located in Huntingdon, right in the middle of Pennsylvania. It is campus-based which means that it gives you that very famous American college experience shown in the films. In comparison to Masaryk university with several buildings spread around the city and more than forty thousand students studying there, living on campus becomes an experience in itself. A tiny world with its own rules, views, and beliefs that often greatly differ from whatever is happening outside. Supporting all ways of free expression, it gives the students a chance to explore themselves. One thing I was afraid of at the beginning was that in a place like this everyone knows each other. And I was right, but only partially. You get to know a lot of people, and they know you, so every time you go somewhere, you see familiar faces. But that turned out to be a good thing. Even if you usually prefer your own company and try to avoid big gatherings, you still feel pleased to know that when you need someone, people would be happy to be there for you. Well, at least that was how I felt.
One thing that was a bit suspicious for me though, was the timetable. At Masaryk University in Brno, I am used to each course having one class per week. In Juniata college (and in other American institutions too, I believe) one course can have up to three classes per week which means that you get homework every single day. In the beginning, I felt like I had gone to school. But with time I realized that in the conditions where you live in a place where everything is taken care of, food is prepared for you in a cafeteria, and you do not have to go shopping or commute, you have enough time to do as much homework as needed. You even have time to see your teacher in between these classes which is actually encouraged and sometimes even expected.
Another thing that worried me at the beginning was the thought of how small the town was. Even though I was ready to explore the surroundings and didn’t plan to sit inside the dormitory, I was still afraid that I would run out of ideas and places to go to in a month. And what would I do, locked in the middle of a state with one train per day being the only way to get out of there? Well, it turned out that the college had taken care of it too. Everyone is quite aware that there is not much to do off-campus, so the students have come up with a variety of ways to entertain each other. Starting with the clubs that you can participate in, to the various events that these clubs hold for everyone, the campus schedule is packed with things to do every day. I could never imagine that there would be so much going on. There are clubs for everybody, any sport you want and any field you are interested in. And it is open for all so you can have your epistemology meeting and then go and knit something in the comfort of the library. And it does not matter if you studied something about epistemology before or knew how to knit. Students in the clubs are very friendly and would only be happy if someone joined. I, for example, joined a K-pop dancing club, even though I have zero dancing skills, and I enjoyed every single meeting as they were genuinely fun.
Openness is the thing that I loved the most. I felt accepted by people who barely knew me. The astonishing easiness of communication proved to me that the American smiles we see on TV are not necessarily fake. People indeed have a more positive approach to everything around them. Of course, it does not mean that they bluntly ignore the problems in society. But I felt that when someone saw me for the first time, they approached me first without any superstitions. It is like they see a potential friend in you from the very beginning.
And I really found many friends there. More than I could have expected. In my mind, the whole experience has already turned into a happy dream, the one that you remember with a smile, and the one that you want to return to when you close your eyes. But in fact, what this dream showed me is that reality is full of surprises and wonders, so I will open my eyes and look for all these blessings the world can give, snatch them, and hide them in the pockets of my American blue jeans.