Ronakraj - University of Maryland

B. Engineering / M. Engineering (Electrical)
Semester 2, 2016

Academic experience

I studied four courses at The University of Maryland (UMD) each worth 3 credit points (for a total of 12 credit points), these were: ENEE303 Analog and Digital Electronics, ENEE381 Electromagnetic Wave Propogation (UQ ELEC3100 equivalent), ENEE425 Digital Signal Processing (UQ ELEC4620 equivalent) and ENEE313 Introduction to Device Physics. A full-time load in the Engineering faculty at UMD is 12 credit points, but traditionally local students generally study 15 credit points or more per semester. There are some really obvious differences between education systems at UMD and at UQ, for starters, the maximum class size for any of my courses was 30 students. This meant that we had lectures and tutorials (called discussions) with 30 students in the class and a single Professor or Tutor (called Teaching Assistants, or TA). As a result, I had a very good relationship with all my Professors and TAs who knew me and everyone else by their first name. Another difference which was very challenging for me, in the beginning, was that homework was assigned every week (or fortnight) at UMD for all courses in all faculties.

This meant that there was very little free time throughout the week and weekends, as a significant amount of time was spent studying and completing Homework on content taught in the previous week. Having said that, all my Professors were very open about consultation hours and happy to open extra office hours for students who need any help completing the Homeworks. I also found that getting an early start to the Homework meant I could have most of it completed and not miss out on weekend trips. It was also a good idea to develop study groups and I found that completing all the Homeworks and reviewing them helped me score well in the final exams. Speaking of which, all of my courses had 3 midterm exams and 1 final exam which meant I had a total of 16 exams in one semester! While this may sound daunting, and it did make me very anxious at the beginning of the semester, after the first set of midterm exams I started to understand the level of knowledge expected by each professor and in turn became better at taking future exams.

Just like at UQ, all my Professors were part-time Professors and full-time Researchers, which meant that they lived busy lives and had a great deal of empathy for students and their busy schedules as well. A tip that I would advice future exchange students would be to let your Professors know at the beginning of the semester that you are on exchange, as I found that my Professors were a bit more flexible with midterm exam timetables and Homework due dates as a result.

Personal experience

My Intramural Tag-Football team
My Intramural Tag-Football team

I went into this exchange program knowing no one else at UMD, but I had a friend of a friend who I knew that went to The University of Maryland - so the first thing I did after settling in and overcoming jet-lag, was meeting up with the mutual connection. He introduced me to his Soccer team that I joined and I learnt how to play soccer properly in the defence and mid-field positions through this experience. I also made lots of new friends in the Soccer team, some of whom then invited me to their Tag-Football team (American Football), where I made even more friends and learnt the rules of NFL and Tag-Football. One thing that I quickly learnt at the beginning of my student exchange was the power of saying 'Yes' and giving everything a go.

I felt extremely nervous playing Soccer, for the very first time, in a proper team in front of a group of new friends who I did not want to let down, but the close friendships I made and the fun we all had together made it all worth it. The students and staff at UMD were all very nice and welcoming and so I tried to take as many opportunities as I could to make new friends and learn new things. Having said that, in the beginning when classes had first started, I found making friends in my classes a little challenging. This was because I felt that I was entering into third and fourth-year courses where close friendship groups had already been established. Usually, I am not an introverted person, but I find it very difficult to make new friends in a new environment and to break the ice into a conversation.

I was also feeling a little bit homesick at this point in my exchange as everything around me felt new and different. But I distinctly remember at one point in the first week of classes, one of my fellow classmates asked me for a pencil, and as cheesy as it may sound, I took the opportunity to introduce myself and start a conversation. After that ice was broken, I made a group of friends who were in most of my classes, and together we completed homework, assignments and prepared for exams together throughout the semester. We also motivated each other to regularly go to the gym and workout together, and I joined their Yoga and Meditation Club where I learnt the fundamentals of Sun Salutation.

Accommodation

I lived off campus in a house with 4 other roommates, one of them was a student and the rest were locals. My rent was $500 USD + $80 USD for utilities (approximately) per month. I found the listing for the accommodation on craigslist and it took about 1 week and several inspections before I found a property that was affordable and close by to the University. It was also a little bit difficult finding a landlord willing to rent out for one semester, as contracts are usually 12 months long in Maryland. There were several advantages of living off-campus: I saved a lot of money that went towards travel, I had the freedom and privacy of cooking in a kitchen to meet my dietary requirements (I am vegetarian), I was able to wash my clothes without incurring extra costs in washing and drying machines at the house and I made lots of local friends that lived in the neighbourhood which had some perks such as our Halloween celebrations.

Having said all of this, most exchange students at UMD lived on-campus in residential dorms. There were obvious advantages of this. Firstly, it's a lot easier to become friends with other exchange students and local students if you live, eat and sleep where everyone else also does. Getting involved in sports and local clubs would have also been easier if I lived on-campus as practice/meetings for societies tends to happen late in the evening or on weekends, when public transportation is less frequent. Most local students at UMD also live on-campus, so there's a much larger population of students living in residential dorms and on-campus apartment-style accommodations.

There's also a food plan at UMD which students can purchase that gets them breakfast, lunch and dinner at 3 different dining halls scattered throughout the campus all day long throughout the semester. So my advice for future students is that if you are money conscious and would like an experience of living in the United States as a local, then off-campus accommodation would be a better option, otherwise, the on-campus accommodation has several perks and the price difference between the two options are, in my opinion, justifiable.

Budget

As I lived off-campus my rent cost $500 USD + approximately $80 USD per month (utilities increased as the weather became colder due to heating) which totalled approximately $2320 USD for the 4 months of my semester. I bought groceries every week which cost around $50 USD. As UMD provided free shuttle services to and from the campus, I only spent money on transportation when travelling to Washington, D.C. which was around $3-4 USD one-way. The rest of my weekly costs during the semester were incurred in eating out, travelling to different cities during the weekends, catching Uber/Lyft, public transport and Megabus/Greyhound buses costs and phone bill. I budgeted to spend $250 USD per week, and I kept an excel spreadsheet of everything that I purchased to help me track my expenses. This was very helpful to me as it helped me ensure that I didn't overspend before my road trip (planned for after the semester ends), but also at times gave me an incentive to spend more if I had spent very little in the week.

Professional development and employability

Living in a new country with a different culture, way of life and living off-campus in a shared house have all been first-time experiences for me which, I believe, has made me more open-minded, appreciative and independent. Because of the 14-hour time-zone difference between Brisbane and Maryland, I found that it was difficult to communicate with my parents when I needed to ask them for important decisions, or when I was missing home. As a result, there were several decisions that I thought at the time as being quite big, such as deciding to live off-campus, deciding on a house etc. that I wasn't able to get a second opinion on from my parents. Being forced to make lots of decisions for myself and bearing all of the burdens of the outcome of my decisions have made my decision-making ability and my method of studying a situation and inferring potential outcomes of certain decisions improve tremendously.

I also feel like I have improved my interpersonal communication skills and have a higher level of self-confidence when meeting new people because of the many times I have been in situations where every face in the room was new to me and where I have tried my best to fit in by making friends.

Highlight

The highlight of my experience was the road trip that I did with three exchange friends from Maryland to California after the end of Semester from December 21 to January 16 (26 days). It all started with a Facebook post in the UMD Exchange Students group, where I wrote to see if anyone had plans to travel during the holidays. One person replied saying they were heading South and then West, and we formed a group together. I was very fortunate because by chance this person actually had bought a car, he had some experience driving on American roads and he was also an exchange student. Through our connections, we found two more exchange students who were also interested in the road trip. The trip started in Maryland, the day after the final exams finished, and we first travelled southwards stopping at Charlotte, North Carolina. From there, we travelled to Orlando where we spent 2 days visiting Universal Studios, Florida and the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

Next, we went to Miami Beach where we stayed for Christmas and we visited Key West (the southmost point of continental USA) driving over a beautiful ocean road with the waves hitting us from both sides of the road. After Key West, we headed north towards Alabama, New Orleans in Louisiana and San Antonio in Texas where we spent New Years. We celebrated the countdown on top of a woodcraft shop/Youth Hostel with fireworks lighting up the skies above us from all possible angles! Next stop was Houston, the capital of Texas, where we caught a Rockets game (they won!) and from there we headed towards Arizona where the weather dropped in temperature considerably due to the altitude. We visited Albuquerque (home of Breaking Bad) where we did a bit of trekking and saw some ancient Petroglyphs!

From there, we went to Las Vegas, we skied at Lake Tahoe, drove through Yosemite National Park and Death Valley National Park and played in 2-meter tall snow in Oregon, before heading back down to California. We travelled through Redwood Forest on the way down to San Francisco, where we stayed for three days, and then took the scenic route down to Los Angeles, our final destination. The experiences we had on the road trip are ones that I will remember until the day I die. We saw so many amazing places, met so many beautiful people and had incredible food everywhere we stopped. America was definitely built in the age of cars, and the best way to experience the different cultures that make up the United States, in my opinion, is to drive and physically experience the journey from state to state.

Top tips

  • Be open to step outside of your comfort zone and give everything a go - when you're in a new country every opportunity has the potential to open new doors, make new friendships and create memorable experiences so try as many new things as you can (in a safe environment)!
  • Call home often - I underestimated how much my parents would miss me and how much I would miss home at the beginning of my exchange trip, and this became much more apparent to me when I was unable to call them during the week due to the time-zone difference. A lot of my exchange friends also went through a similar experience, so we came up with a window of time when we could call our parents over the weekends and tried to ensure that we had called home at least once a fortnight.
  • Join a club or pick up a new sport - University life is very similar between UMD and UQ in that there are tonnes of clubs and societies that you can join at UMD, so I would highly recommend joining one to meet locals. The best thing is - meetings usually have free pizza (Papa John's!) and soda (yum!). I joined the UMD Virtual Reality Club, Intramural Soccer and Intramural Tag-Football.
  • Go and cheer the UMD Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball, Football, Baseball, Swimming and Cricket Teams - yep, UMD students play a lot of different sports and the school is actually very good in general. Home games are always hosted on campus and a lot of money actually goes towards maintaining the fields and stadiums for these sports, training students and coaching athletes, so the games are always lots of fun to watch! Top tip: arrive 2 hours early to the first UMD Soccer Game of the season as they usually give out free memorabilia scarfs. You have to sign up to the UMD Pride group beforehand, however, which is a free online form!
  • Travel into D.C. and do as much local sightseeing as possible as well - the Smithsonian Institute has created several free to the public museums on the National Mall that are rich in history, culture and fascinating artefacts, so do make sure you take the time to look at these. My highlight was seeing the very first (actual) aircraft flown by the Wright Brothers in the National Air and Space Museum. 
  • Take a coach (MegaBus, Greyhound etc.) to New York and you can usually get a one-way ride for around $25 USD from D.C.! I did two week-long trips to New York because it was so convenient and cheap.
  • Whilst you will likely travel to a lot of big cities such as New York, Miami, Orlando, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas etc. there are also less touristy cities that are rich in history which include Philadelphia, Pennsylvanian (a short bus ride from D.C.), the capital of USA for a short time and where the Constitution of the United States and the Deceleration of Independence was signed by the Founding Fathers in the Independence Hall. Philadelphia is also the hometown of Rocky! Jamestown, Virginia is another place I would highly recommend to visit as this was the first official English settlement in the United States (their equivalent of Botany Bay, Australia). There's a really nice museum/theme-park in Jamestown where they re-enact life during the English settlement with live hangings (fake of course), metalwork exhibits, George Washington actors etc.
  • Budget your week to week spending - I wrote down everything that I bought at the end of the day and tallied up my total expenses each week to ensure I would have enough money by the end of the semester for my road trip. This is a suggestion only, but I found that some of my friends who didn't write down their weekly expenditures had spent too much by the end. Also try to ensure you have a financial backup for emergency flights, health treatments etc. because you never know what may happen and having the financial backing to be able to return home safely (if need be) at any time can reduce stress on you and your parents.
  • Have fun and make the most of your experience - we are very fortunate to have a program set up by UQ Abroad to go on student exchange and experience a different culture, a different university lifestyle and meet so many new friends from all over the world while we are still studying an Undergraduate degree. So I hope you're ready for a great adventure because you are going to make memories that will last you a lifetime!
Ronakraj - University of Maryland