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By gjmacdougall

I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that this week has been one of the best of my life.

I have been completely blown away by the generosity of my flatmates and friends and I would never have guessed that they would make sure I celebrated my 21st in such style. It has also definitely been exciting to turn this age in a country where it's a much bigger milestone than in Britain.

The day started with a surprise flat birthday breakfast complete with pancakes, cake - my flatmate woke up at 6 to make it! - and another flatmate's legendary apple crumble along with, incredibly, gifts!

Picture 1 birthday breakfast
Breakfast at 601 (photo credit: Yoonjoo Kyung)

Having only one class made for a relaxed day, with a gathering of food and friends on the roof of E Street to enjoy the warm weather and views, before having to leave for a tech rehearsal for 'Welcome Back One Acts' produced by GW theatre society 14th Grade Players.

I have been constantly impressed by how the theatre groups here make you feel part of their family. For example, for tech week the actors were each given survival packs of tea, vitamins and 'candy' to make sure they stayed fighting fit until the end of the run. Rehearsing and performing has been a brilliant experience and I've met a lot of amazing and talented people.

Picture 2 tech week
How to Survive to the End of Tech Week

With tech week and finally the shows taking up most evenings and still having a number of reports and assignments to complete, I've had to adopt what seems to be the American college culture of cutting down on sleep and increasing on caffeine (though it did give me an excuse to use the Starbucks gift card given to me by a friend for my birthday). I've also had to break my year abroad promise to myself by pulling a couple of all-nighters to get everything completed, but have been fuelled by the selection of birthday cupcakes given to me which had made my cupboard resemble the dessert counter of Whole Foods!

On Friday I rewarded myself for handling the week's craziness by going for brunch (yes, again) with a good friend to Founding Farmers where I enjoyed great conversation along with one of the biggest and best burgers I've ever had. I'm loving having Fridays off from class and a three-day weekend every weekend, so am predicting a struggle when I have to adjust back to a more normal week next year or next semester. The burger theme continued at Burger Tap & Shake at Washington Circle, where it amused me to see iced tea on tap along with the 'soda'.

Next week I have fewer rehearsals as One Acts is ending but I do have some big essays in place of midterms to hand in, which should keep me occupied. However, motivation comes in the form of seeing my first (pre-season) NBA game at the end of the week as well as other good things to look forward to.

Till the next week of 21,

Grace

By gjmacdougall

One of the best events of our exchange orientation week was the chance to ask anonymous, off-the-record questions to our ExO leaders to find out more about what life is really like in DC and at GW. One of the questions asked was 'what annoys you most about GW?' and the answer was a general attitude of negativity in some people, with the idea of things not being worth the effort.

As an exchange student there can be a tendency to take on an attitude of negativity towards the culture you are in, flagging up the many issues that seem 'wrong' or 'different' to you and it not seeming worth the effort to think about these differences further. Yes, I sometimes feel that my critical keenness is dulled and I am scared that I have been so absorbed by a different culture that I have lost some of the ability to interrogate it, but achieving an objective distance that can help in future understanding of cultural relations is different to being predisposed to be negative. What one person may find irritating in the behaviour of another may be simply the result of a different culture, and only a few minutes' conversation is enough to see genuine human warmth behind it. This is not to say that you can't be frustrated about things and passively accept 'the system' - the situation Bahar describes is completely different and not what I mean, I was inspired by another experience I had - but it does mean thinking a bit beyond your initial reactions.

This week has not only highlighted a 'melting pot' of different cultures but also of different religions, with Pope Francis' first visit to DC as well as the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. The last time I lived in an area with a relatively large Jewish community was in New Jersey, and it is fascinating to see how classmates practise their faith, with different attitudes towards the fast and celebration of the holiday.

Differences in religious practice was something I also experienced when I went to the National Community Church at Loews Theater, Georgetown this Sunday - the first time I've ever been to a church in a cinema and it worked! That you could potentially order popcorn to listen to the sermon was a strange thought but it was exciting to try something new and I liked the service.

The coming together of different cultures in joint celebration was seen in one of the highlights of my week, getting together with fellow exchange blogger Bahar and friends to create a stereotypical 'American' brunch that we felt we had been missing and which we enjoyed on the rooftop of my accommodation, overlooking the city.

The Brunch Club (photo credit: Alicia Gonzalez-Barros)
The Brunch Club (photo credit: Alicia Gonzalez-Barros)

However, the DC brunch culture is strong as the next day I got a second taste of that cliché at the 21st birthday brunch for a friend from my poetry class who was also in Smackdown with me.

Caption: Poor lighting, top people
Caption: Poor lighting, top people

Fellowship over food continued as my cousin treated me to an early birthday dinner a short walk from campus at Nooshi on 19th and L - as the name suggests, a restaurant serving noodles and sushi.

2

And I also enjoyed deep midnight chats catching up with an exchange friend over a carton of oreo ice cream.

My weekend was rounded off watching a friend play in the GW water polo team and though sadly they lost this time to Princeton I definitely enjoyed seeing my first game and plan to go again!

This coming week looks to be the most hectic yet, but also the most amazing (I'm finally turning the big 2-1)

See you on the other side,

Grace

By gjmacdougall

This week has again been full of new adventures, bringing out my British side but also challenging some of those British views. For example, I had arrived with the prejudice that all Americans were much more conservative politically than Europeans, but I have been proven wrong and am enjoying that - I have had classes with professors as liberal, if not more so, than any UK lecturer!

However, I did hear 'socialism' used as a dirty word in my first real, brief taste of American politics, when watching the CNN Republican Debate with friends. Seeing the debate fulfilled part of the reason I wanted to come to DC, to feel connected to and attempt to understand the US political system, beyond the quite negative and simplistic view I had of it. Having good friends who differ from me politically is both interesting and positive - pushing me to want to learn more about viewpoints that I otherwise would have had less time for.

Three weeks into classes and I have been able to become more fully involved in activities outside of my subject timetable. Theatre societies were something I really enjoyed being a part of in Edinburgh and where I made a lot of friends, so I was keen to investigate the student theatre scene at GW. Everyone has been lovely and welcoming and there are so many things going on! Socially, I have found being involved in a society very useful, as it has been harder to make friends in class than I had perhaps naively assumed - it's much easier to connect when you have shared interests. One of the theatre societies I have got involved in has been the GW Shakespeare Company and I have had an amazing time rehearsing for and performing in their annual 'Shakespeare Smackdown' scene and monologue competition. I also got a flavour of Greek life as the society has adopted the tradition of assigning each new member a 'big' - an older member of the society who anonymously gives their 'little' gifts and notes during tech week and becomes a mentor figure after their identity is revealed.

Big Love
Big Love
Big and Little- I won!
Big and Little- I won!

Smackdown was a chance not only to make new friends but also reconnect with family, as my second cousin - whom I last saw when I was in America seven years ago - is also in DC for the year and came to give me her support!

This week has completely flown by in a whirl of slight stress and a lot of excitement and next week looks to be the same - but I'm looking forward to it.

Till then,

Grace

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,

Grace

By gjmacdougall

So this week has seen the start of classes and I'm already starting to feel like there aren't quite enough hours in the day. There are so many things to see and do, particularly at the beginning of the year as societies get started up again after summer, and there are also all the errands to run that come with setting up a new flat and getting settled into a new semester in a foreign country.

These errands often involve running around the city and as a result I thought I'd talk about the different methods of transport I've used to get around DC this week. However, there are many other transport options such as the bus system and GW's 4ride service (provided mainly for student safety) that I have yet to try. I'm also looking forward in the future to using the train and bus networks to get out of the city and travel up and down the east coast.

Metro Since neither Edinburgh nor Norwich have a metro system (Edinburgh has the trams, but that's a sore point) I'm enjoying living in a city that has one. Yes, on the inside it resembles the set of a 1960s dystopian movie, the trains take longer and come with much less frequency than London, and it is quite expensive, but it is simple to follow and has been very useful in getting to places - such as Columbia Heights, one of the main shopping areas in DC. I definitely feel like a local when using my SmarTrip card to swipe through the gates. Again, our orientation was great in introducing us to the metro as a way to get around.

The Vern Express This is a free shuttle bus service provided by GW to ferry its students between the two main campuses of Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon, around 10 to 15 minutes' drive apart. Although at first it seems like a hassle to use, with multiple stops and buses departing every 5 minutes during peak hours, it is a quick and easy way to attend classes and access the facilities across both areas.

Uber I had never used Uber before as it's not that popular in Edinburgh or Norwich, so I was surprised to see how much people love it over here. There are arguments on either side as to whether this popularity is a good thing, but it appears to be very convenient and also inexpensive, costing only as much as the metro if a group splits the fare.

Target Party Bus One of the more unusual modes of transport I used this week was part of the GW-organised Target Takeover - an event where GW students were allowed in the store after-hours from 10.30 to 12.30am to buy whatever they needed, with the incentives of price reductions, prize giveaways, and free samples. Intrigued and in need of a hoover, myself and my flatmate, along with a group of other exchange students, boarded one of the especially laid on buses playing dance music and headed to the store. The night was a very strange experience - like a mini black Friday, although a lot less intense - and we left slightly dazed though with quite a few shopping bags.

Walking My favourite way to navigate DC, however, is by simply walking. In Edinburgh I never really took public transport as everything I needed I could get to by foot, and it does slightly frustrate me here that not all the shops and facilities are within as easy reach. However, I like that DC is ultimately a 'walkable' city. This week I have enjoyed an evening stroll from the White House to the Capitol and taken my American poetry to study at the back of the Lincoln Memorial, overlooking the Potomac (another great tip from one of our ExO leaders). The buildings on GW's Foggy Bottom campus are all within very easy walking distance, which means it took me only 5 minutes to get to the Smith Center to see a GW win against Princeton for the women's volleyball team (with Dunkin' Donuts providing courtside refreshment).

School spirit and coffee!
School spirit...and coffee.

 

This coming week looks similarly busy and exciting, so I'm thankful for this long Labor Day weekend to get caught up on things and to relax with the great weather!

Till next week,

Grace

By gjmacdougall

This past week marks my introduction to Washington, D.C. through GW's Exchange Orientation. The hot, flat grid of DC streets are little like the drizzly, winding roads of Edinburgh and I feel slightly like I'm on holiday. The obvious differences that hit me 7 years ago are still there - everything tastes so much sweeter, the cars and roads are bigger, my accent attracts interest and excitement - but that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying being immersed in American culture again, particularly due to the packed programme of events organised for the exchange students.

One thing that immediately strikes you in DC is the food. I thought Edinburgh took this seriously - 'why are are there so many places to eat?' my friend once asked me while visiting - but DC takes dining to a whole other level. This week I have tried not only the stereotypical 'American' foods of burgers and fries such as at Bobby's Burger Palace and at the Shake Shack stand at the Nationals Park baseball stadium, but Ethiopian food at Das Ethiopian in Georgetown and Indian from the vast range of food trucks at Farragut Square. My English notions of what constitutes are barbeque (a few hamburgers, slightly soggy from the rain) were also turned on their head by the welcome laid on for us by the Office for Study Abroad, where we enjoyed pulled pork and collard greens from a caterer who has served the White House.

Exchange Orientation went by in a whirlwind and was a flood of information but also a lot of fun. The week has been an amazing mix and interaction of different cultures, from being able to introduce French friends to the masala dosa, a dish from the south of India where my mother is from, to discussing the British Labour party leadership election with an Argentinian friend who was as knowledgeable, if not more so, than me. Thanks to the exchange coordinators and ExO student leaders for in a week introducing a 70-strong group of students to the city and university, as well as giving us the support system of each other for the months ahead.

Ellen's got nothing on us
Ellen's got nothing on us

The week has also given me a lot to think about as I have been able to see 'America' up close and in more detail, and have seen some more unsettling images that are absent from its Hollywood depiction. Being part of the crowds streaming out of a highly commercial major league baseball game where bottled water costs almost $5 and then passing disabled beggars on the way to the metro station impressed on me the inequality present in the country, and race issues were also highlighted when my French friend pointed out that the stadium played reggae and Latin American music only when introducing players of colour. These problems are by no means unique to the US but they are there I hope that my exchange will make me more aware of them, as well as of any solutions.

On Monday classes start and I am looking forward to seeing how my American college experience will be different from my memories of middle school. I'm also excited about the student organisations fair and trying out some of the 400+ societies GW has to offer!

Until next time,

Grace

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