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Keeping up with the American Dream

By gjmacdougall

If you'd told me before I left for America that within the first week of classes starting I'd be sitting in the corridor of a university building at 12.30am, eating M&Ms whilst waiting for my acapella group audition, I don't think I'd have believed you. Yet that's how things turned out as I wanted to live the 'Pitch Perfect' fantasy - though without quite the voice of Anna Kendrick my own story did not exactly follow that of the film's.

Auditioning for acapella groups was one of of the many stereotypically 'American' activities I wanted to check off my list, and trying to embrace every opportunity has kept me busy. However, the past two weeks have been dominated by the beginning of classes and adjusting to the US college system.

At the pre-departure talk in Edinburgh we had been warned that studying in America might feel slightly like 'going back to school' and my own less-than-fond memories of middle school in the States meant I was vaguely worried about this but also better prepared for it. However, myself and other exchange students were still surprised at the relative lack of independence and increase in assignments in comparison to our home universities - it's a long time since I've had homework!

Classes are also very professor-oriented in America in a way I have not experienced at Edinburgh (though as I have not taken honours classes there yet, I'm not entirely sure how much this might change as you progress through your degree). It seems slightly unfair to me that here your grade for a class is so dependent on your teacher's opinion of you, how harsh or lenient a marker they are, and how they have designed the syllabus, with seemingly no anonymously marked papers, moderation system or degree-wide overall exam. The use of continuous assessment - constant regular assignments, quizzes and small exams that add up to form your grade, as opposed to the more spaced out essays and end of term exams at universities in the UK - does have an advantage in that students are not penalised quite so much for having an off day during the exam period and are measured more on their overall ability. However, as I experienced at thirteen, not having grown up with this system means the long list of reports and papers can be daunting. The mistake I made seven years ago was to allow these to swallow up all my free time and prevent me from doing anything outside of class, and as I want to get involved in as much as possible at the uni and in DC, it means that I have had to get better at managing my time - though as only my credits and not my grades transfer the pressure to do well academically is off.

As a reward to myself for surviving my three-day week, I went with a friend to Buzzfeed-staple Baked & Wired in Georgetown for expensive but delicious cupcakes.

Sugar highs at Baked & Wired - pistachio and red velvet (photo credit: Kelli Jones)
Sugar highs at Baked & Wired - pistachio and red velvet (photo credit: Kelli Jones)

An antidote to class was also found sitting on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial watching dusk (or as a Scottish poet might call it, 'the gloaming') settle over the Tidal Basin.

Remembering - and thinking (photo credit: Marcos Falcone)
Remembering - and thinking (photo credit: Marcos Falcone)


The text in the picture above at the memorial is an amalgamation of quotes from Thomas Jefferson and though when read is deeply impressive and inspiring, is also a reminder of the selectivity involved in remembering the past. The line 'nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [slaves] are to be free' is originally followed by the words 'nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them' - this racism obviously not included on the memorial. Those who cannot remember the past may be condemned to repeat it but it is also important to note what is remembered, and by whom.

My weekend concluded by once again experiencing DC brunch culture with a flatmate outing to The Liberty Tavern in Arlington for an all-you-can-eat buffet, which I sluggishly tried to walk off around the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the first I have seen of the many galleries and museums in the city.

Things are currently the right mix between familiar and fresh and exciting, so I'm looking forward to what next week will bring,

Till then,


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