Susanne's best time in Illinois

Published Oct 14, 2011

The best thing I've done in my entire life. So says Susanne Forchheimer, KTH's first exchange student in Urbana-Champaign. But it has not been an easy journey.

“I study round the clock and have had some difficulties in adapting to the American student corridor life. But it is very enlightening and I very much hope that I can stay for another term,” she says.

From the beginning, Susanne intended to study in Valencia, Spain. But by chance she heard about a new arrangement that had been arranged with a few American universities. Cal Poly in California seemed the most attractive, but her father who is a professor at Linköping University, recommended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“It felt a little strange at first to choose a university that is located out in the wilds. But I have no regrets. I applied to study here because it was the best ranked university to choose from, it is ranked among the United States' very best in terms of its educations in engineering. The teachers are great and the students are ambitious. I really do understand that it has a good reputation.”

At home at KTH, Susanne studies media technology, but on the campus of Urbana-Champaign, she is studying a few courses in computer science and one in creative processes. And it is much more demanding than she thought. Not least because there is so much homework, regular tests and writing assignments. The American system has much more control over the students, she says.

“You do learn a lot, but it produces a different feeling because we are so well looked after. Much like in high school at home in Sweden. There is no opportunity for me to plan my own studies, I am totally committed with all the homework and the tests. It is tough and time consuming.”

A plus when you start work

It was a bit unexpected, but the creativity course was the most rewarding. It is primarily due to the fact that the Americans are so competent in this area. When she studied similar courses in Sweden, they seemed a little more vague, she says.

“Here you will learn real techniques and tricks to be creative and think outside the box. It feels more structured here with a clear focus on own production. There is a lot of essay-writing and many oral presentations. My classmates are very skilled at holding speeches, they have practiced such much at high school, as for myself, I have to struggle a lot in order to keep up.”

But the greatest benefit of the exchange studies is not the courses themselves, according to Susanne.

“Admittedly they are fantastic. But what I appreciate most is the cultural exchange. I think it is difficult to understand for anyone who has not been here both how tough and rewarding the change of environment is. And I believe that future employers will regard this as a plus, that I had the courage to throw myself into something where I wasn't sure of the outcome.”

Susanne is the only student from KTH at the campus, but altogether there are around 10 other Swedes from Lund, Uppsala and Luleå University of technology. Most of them study engineering subjects. Some of them she met on the flight when she came here in August, she often meets other Swedes and Europeans at a pub in town on Green Street. It has long been the traditional meeting place for Urbana-Champaign's international students, she says.

“Even though we came here to meet Americans, it's nice to have a network of people from your neighbouring countries. There is also a Facebook page for international students, which works great.”

Different student accommodation

Student accommodation has been the biggest challenge. Susanne shares the room with an 18-year-old student from Chicago, who has slightly different study and living habits than her. Sharing toilets and the shower room with 50 other students and eating lunch and dinner in the school dining room each day has also provided new experiences.

More or less everybody living in the student accommodations are first-year students who in many cases have just moved away from home in connection with their university studies. As in other American student residences, there are many codes of conduct to deal with. One of the students act as landlord to ensure that the rules are complied with.

“Actually, I am probably too old for this sort of accommodation,” says 22-year-old Susanne.

She recommends other Swedish students who travel to Urbana-Champaign to rent their own student apartment instead. They are not hard to come by and are centrally located on campus.

If Susanne stays next term as well, she will choose subjects that are a little more outside the area of technology. It would be foolish to not study courses from one of the other faculties on the campus, she says.

“I am considering studying something within the area of management and entrepreneurship. It's a little of an American speciality. I may as well take the opportunity to develop my skills, now that I have access to everything this university has to offer. This is also my advice to others who want to go to the United States. Hopefully I will also be able to include these courses in my degree at KTH.”

If her application to study in the spring is accepted, she hopes she will also find time to travel.

“Yes, it is my dream. I want to go to Mexico, California and Las Vegas. And Canada, where I would like to go skiing.”

“If KTH students get to know of the American exchange agreements I am sure many will take the opportunity to study in the United States,” says Susanne.

She diligently marketed KTH during a student fair recently for foreign students at Urbana-Champaign.

“I was asked many questions about the courses available at KTH and did my best to attract students to Stockholm.”

Text: Christer Gummeson

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