Eat, Study, Love: Being Abroad in Berkeley

Ole Kavli, a student from Norway, sits in the International House courtyard.
Anya Schultz/Senior Staff
Ole Kavli, a student from Norway, sits in the International House courtyard.

Stephanie Cassin turned 21 a few days ago, and there’s one thing she’s very excited about: cheap vodka.

The thing is, 21 wasn’t a big birthday for Stephanie like it is for most UC Berkeley students. That’s because Stephanie has been legally drinking for quite a while now. She is a student from University College Cork in Ireland, a country that has a drinking age of 18, but, apparently, much higher vodka prices than the good ol’ US of A.

Stephanie is one of more than 200 international students studying abroad at UC Berkeley this semester. Just as the United States dispatches countless iPhone-toting, WordPress-publishing undergrad invaders across the globe every year, foreign students from all four corners of the Earth make their way to UC Berkeley for their own study abroad experiences. Raised on U.S. movies, television and pop culture, they had a distant familiarity with American life, and now they are here to try a piece of the American Pie themselves.

“I was born and bred on American culture,” Cassin said. “It was this other world that was fed into my existence so much, yet still felt incredibly far away.”

Some are here to take advantage of UC Berkeley’s academic prestige; others are pursuing the mystical red cup. They live in I-House, co-ops, apartments and Greek houses; they join clubs and become Yogurtland addicts. They are here to learn.

Ole Kavli is a physics masters student from Norway. He said he came to Berkeley because the work being done here is at the cutting edge of his field. The academic culture surrounding it, however, is a bit unfamiliar.

“Students here rely much more on getting help from the system,” he said. “In Norway, it’s more up to yourself. Here, you have office hours, discussion hours, you have GSIs.”

And then there’s that classic U.S. school spirit, which is as foreign as it is compelling for many exchange students.

“The whole ‘Go Bears’ culture is terrifying but excellent,” said Nadia Okraglik. Nadia is a student from the University of Melbourne in Australia. Back home, she has a single U of M sweatshirt that she reluctantly wears in public places. At UC Berkeley, she estimates that in the last few weeks alone she has accumulated more than $300 worth of Berkeley merchandise.

This doesn’t mean that everyone is completely sold on the whole package, though.

“To put it mildly, I find American football baffling, as a concept,” Cassin said. “I don’t understand why the game needs to be four hours long. I don’t see how if you play for 30 seconds and then stop it’s a test of physical stamina.”

James Hope, a history student from the University of Sussex in England, has tried to immerse himself in the cornerstone of the stereotypical American college experience: frat life. And he doesn’t let the fact that his friends back home make fun of him — partially motivated by jealousy, he thinks — rain on his parade.

“I can’t tell you the stuff that we do, because it’s all shrouded in mystery, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

Another element of the UC Berkeley experience which may be unfamiliar is the culture of openness and freedom from judgment.

Ollie Rutherford is here for the year from University College London. Back home, he said, he is scared to voice his opinion in class.

“‘If I say this, will people think I’m not clever?’ I feel like here, you can ask what you think is a stupid question, and no one will judge you,” he said. “There’s a much more open environment.”

Dain Kim, who hails from Seoul, South Korea, said she agrees. Being at UC Berkeley has given her much more confidence to participate in lectures and discussion sections, she said. But speaking up still isn’t always easy, especially when it’s in a less comfortable language.

“When I first came here, I couldn’t joke,” Kim said. “I could barely understand what people were saying in everyday life. That was very frustrating. Especially because I can do really well in Korean; I can make people laugh in Korea.”

Non-native English speakers aren’t the only study abroad students at Berkeley who have experienced things getting lost in translation. Nadia laments that the sarcasm that is so cherished in Australian culture often isn’t well received here.

“Americans, they’re just serious,” she said. “It’s gotten me into some very amusing situations.”

For these six study abroad students and their 200-odd peers, Berkeley so far has been full of the new. New humor, new sports, new vodka prices. But beneath all this, a sense of the familiar can still take root. James wears his pledge pin over a University of Sussex t-shirt; Ole chats with a fellow Scandinavian student about physics in the I-House Great Hall; Ollie tries to spread some London slang.

“Being here has made me more of a full person,” Cassin said. “I’m not going to crumble when I move away from everything I know.”