Even though all university towns surely are similar in some ways, life in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is different than it is in Göttingen. In today’s episode of my study abroad series, I will tell you about 9 peculiarities of campus life in the United States – and a few things I can’t quite get used to.
Unlike the U of Gö, the University of Arkansas does not have a rivalry between Nordcampus and Z-Campus – instead, all students go to class on the same campus which is located on a hill right next to Downtown Fayetteville and thus has earned the fond nickname “The Hill”. Although there are a few offices located more remotely, the major part of campus life takes place on The Hill. Here, chemists study next to architects, literary scholars next to business majors and prospective layers next to plant scientists. The campus itself is huge and has architecturally impressive buildings as well as generous lawns. Between 10am and 5pm, the paths in between burst with students.
Fall in Fayetteville is akin to cherry blossom time in Göttingen: As soon as the leaves start to change their colors and the golden October sun makes an appearance, all students storm campus and take pictures of the colorful spectacle. And who could blame them? The views of campus and the surrounding mountains in fall are indeed extremely beautiful.
Who would have guessed, but I do miss the Turmmensa intensely. The reason for that is the lack of a comparable Mensa system in the US. There are Dining Halls but they are more reminiscent of five star all inclusive catering than of canteens. For the price of 10 Dollars, you get several buffets, a salad bar, a sandwich station, assorted desserts and drinks included. Certainly a reasonable price-performance ratio, but a little expensive for every day nonetheless. The plus side: in one of the Dining Halls, Graduate Students (meaning students in their Master’s or PhD degree) only pay 7 Dollars on Fridays – an opportunity other international students and I do not fail to miss in order to get a satisfying meal at least once a week.
Apart from that, food choices are rather disappointing: American campuses are full of private fast food companies where you can also spend up to 10 Dollars for a meal – not to mention how unhealthy such a diet is in the long run. There are however a few highlights of campus gastronomy; a salad restaurant that only uses vegetables that have been grown on campus, small coffee chops that serve locally roasted coffee against which the watery coffee in Göttingen cannot compete in the slightest.
Otherwise, free food is the way to go: all university events are usually catered. Especially as a Graduate Student, you learn fast to take advantage of these occasions since groceries and cooking aren’t exactly cheap either. And in case the end of the month comes with monetary difficulties, the Graduate Student Lounge has a shelf with readymade meals that are free to take for everyone.
Sports are the center of American campus life. The varsity teams in the United States are generously sponsored. There is a team for almost every kind of sports, especially of course for the most popular ones: football, baseball and basketball.
Football games for sure are an exciting cultural experience and definitely worth seeing due to the whole fuss that surrounds them (fireworks, cheerleaders, marching band, …). The game itself however can put you to sleep. Several attempts of well-meaning friends at explaining the rules to me have failed so far. I still have no clue what is happening on the field. Because the game is interrupted frequently, it lacks dynamic and lasts literally for hours. Adding to that, the Razorbacks, the U of A’s football team are incredibly bad and only managed to win two games this season. The coach (who earns millions every year, more than all the professors at the university) has just been fired. Way more entertaining (and shorter): Basketball!
Fayetteville and the area surrounding it have a lot to offer culturally. Not too far away from the university the famous Crystal Bridges Museum for American Art can be found and recently, The Momentary opened; both great places to see American art from indigenous to contemporary. But also the city itself has a diverse cultural scene: numerous galleries, several theaters, poetry performances, concerts, drag shows – it’s hard to get bored here.
Clubs and Organizations
The University of Arkansas has a big and very active community of international students. There’s always something going on for internationals, be it organized trips, cultural presentations or getting matched with a Friendship Family with whom you can get to know American culture. Apart from that, there is an organization for almost every possible interest to get involved in.
American handling of alcohol is strangely hypocritical: in public spaces, alcohol is strictly forbidden. If you get caught with an “open container”, for example a beer can that is not covered up in any way, you face a hefty fine. The campus police (which, yes, is a thing in the US) controls students that seem drunk. If they turn out to be intoxicated, a night in jail might be the result which, for international students, means immediate visa termination. On the inside however, inhibitions against consuming alcohol are virtually non-existent: Iít might only be allowed above the age of 21 but younger students still find their means and ways to get hammered.
The heart of Fayetteville night life is Dickson Street, on which bars and clubs lie back to back. On Fridays and Saturdays, when all the students hit the streets, the sidewalks here are so full it gets hard to walk. The bars look the same as in Europe but going out itself is different: instead of getting comfortable in one bar, bar hopping is the way to go. Away from all that turmoil, there are some calmer bars that brew their own craft which, as opposed to most American beer, actually has a taste.
A big part of American university life are fraternities and sororities that work a little differently than they do in Germany. Sororities are for women, fraternities are for men. There are numerous ones whose names all include an arbitrary combination of Greek letters (Kappa Beta, Phi Gamma Alpha, Delta Delta Delta), which is why the whole madness is usually called “Greek Life”. I have been assured that all of the Greek organizations are distinctly different but from the outside, they seem indistinguishable. They all own pompous villas on the brink of campus in which some of the members live. The sorority houses are always decorated with some kind of candy colored, glittery stuff. Being a member in a fraternity or sorority is pricy, accordingly little diverse is their community’s composition.
At the beginning of the academic year, all prospective members go through a complication application process after which they hopefully receive an offer to join from at least one organization. The decision takes place on the so-called “Bid Day” that includes an elaborate ceremony on campus at which new members reveal their new sorority shirts, thus announcing which one they joined. The whole family is present for that spectacle, since fraternities and sororities are also family traditions. Greek Life is intense: Every week there is some new nonsense to make decorations for, constantly some pep rally is happening at which the members have to chant and dance and the sorority shirt has to be thrown in the laundry regularly so that it can be worn proudly on campus. But for Undergrads, the Greek Life is a welcome opportunity to get to know other peroxide blonde girls and undercut dudes. Officially, all the Greek organizations in Fayetteville are vocal against Hazing (humiliating initiation rituals) but nobody knows what happens behind the scenes. At any rate, a lot of gossip about sexual assaults at frat parties goes around campus.
On campus, there seems to be some kind of unspoken dress code. Especially female students all dress the same in summer: an oversize shirt, shorts and sneakers. In winter, they add a pullover (never a jacket because as a principle, Americans only move in fresh air when they walk from their car to class) and exchange the shorts for leggings or (yes, indeed) pajama pants. In general, life here is less formal; it seems unthinkable that any of the professors would ever give a lecture in a suit. Moreover, almost all students own university merchandise, red shirts, pullovers and caps featuring the university mascot, the ubiquitous razorback. And I have to admit that even I can be caught sporting a pig pullover occasionally by now.
Differences between everyday life at European and American universities are not really grave. But still there are a few things that remain strange to me even after having lived here for several months. Most prominently: the normalcy of weapons. It is no secret that the US have an enormous problem with gun violence and that the gun lobby works tirelessly to prevent stricter laws. Last year it was decided that weapons can be worn on university campuses all over Arkansas as long as they are not visible. Even though I have never seen anyone walking around with a gun before, the idea that basically everyone of my fellow students could be carrying one in their bag still makes me uncomfortable. Even more so if you’ve ever been to the weapon aisle at Walmart and realized how easy it actually is to purchase arms.
Equally odd for Europeans is the American treatment of the environment. Everywhere on campus paper cups and plastic plates are thrown around wildly. Only very few students walk, bike or take the bus to campus. Instead, most Americans prefer to drive there with their own car – even if that means having to pay for parking somewhere around the university.
But despite all the craziness, my excursion into US campus life is an amazing experience. And after all, it would be a pity if I couldn’t look forward to having a 3 Euro lunch completely free of plastic at the Turmmensa again soon.