By Caitlin Bones
Studying abroad in the US is an incredible opportunity and if you get the chance to go to DC take it! Even as an international student in Groningen going on exchange to the George Washington (GW) offered me many more opportunities and a chance to grow as a person. But if you possibly want to go to DC and GW then definitely consider everything in this post!
DC – The City
The city itself is absolutely-amazing as it’s cosmopolitan yet peaceful and pretty, with vast greenery and many parks. Then there are all the sites to see, museums to keep you busy (virtually all are free), plus lots of visiting events. I was definitely-never bored! My favourite event was the White House Gardens Fall opening, cueing from 7am in the freezing-cold for a free-ticket was well worth it! DC also provides a lot of networking opportunities and plenty of law related things – I watched two Supreme Court cases and attended some interesting events at the American Bar Association.
The city felt relatively safe and I just followed some common-sense principles. There were quite a few homeless people in certain areas but they seldom pester you. There is good public infrastructure – except the metro – so you can bus quite easily, there are bike lanes and always taxis or Ubers about. Note it is a legitimate excuse to be late for class because you were stopped for over 30 minutes waiting for the Presidential Motorcade to pass ☺ The metro is good when it works but when I was there, there were lots of incidents including fires, however, in the summer of 2016 major, major renovations on the metro began so hopefully if you go, the metro will be working properly again.
GW University and Law School
GW is a university in the very heart of DC – only a ten-minute walk to the White House – so you really are studying in DC! The university itself has lots of facilities including: a huge library with plenty of workspace open twenty-four hours a day; a massive + free city-centre sports complex including swimming pool, large gym and several sports courts (only exercise classes cost extra); and several food canteens, plus independent food trucks park on the surrounding streets. There is also a conveniently located Whole Foods supermarket though it is expensive. On the plus, you are quite likely to see a famous face shopping (with their security detail) – I saw Christine Lagarde and John Kerry! GW’s dedicated city blocks also have a metro station and their own emergency services – including a university police force so walking around GW is quite safe.
Now to the Law School. At GW, the law school, although still on campus, it is in its own self-contained building stretching a complete city block. Therefore, you really have little interaction with the rest of the university – except the undergrads playing Frisbee on the beautiful law school courtyard (watch your head in the warm months ☺) – but everything you need is at Law School! There is a coffee shop, printers, a staffed print shop, rentable lockers and a library about the size of Groningen’s university library yet solely dedicated to law. There are also lots of work spaces and the building itself is open from about 7am – 10pm and 24hrs in exam season – never an excuse not to study! But to make sure you have mind-wellness the Law School brings in dogs and cats for you to pat and play with a few times each semester ☺
GW Law School also has extremely helpful staff! Most importantly there is the Graduate Program Office (these are the staff who will organise your enrolment and orientation) pop by there at any time as there are no set office hours if you have questions or need a chat. The library also has very useful resource officers who will help direct and guide your research or access to documents when you undertake an essay – definitely-utilize this service it is amazing!
All international students are required to take two compulsory courses: Fundamental Issues in US Law + Legal, Research and Writing for International Students. Fundamentals is very good for getting the basics of US law and it’s also nice to have a class with all the other international exchange and LLM students – about 120 per year. As to Legal Writing the focus is on writing practical legal documents, which is very different to legal writing in Groningen but extremely interesting. Apart from those courses above, as an exchange student, I had virtually unlimited choice so could truly design my own study program. For me, I designed a program of half criminal law and half health care law. I found both Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure to be really-interesting and quite different to the LLB Criminal Law as US criminal law is based on the past precedence of case-law. I personally did not enjoy the Health Care Law course as it is not about a right to health care (there isn’t one in the US) but was basically health-care insurance law – not my cup of tea!
If I had realised I should of dropped Health Care Law so if you go make sure to use the add/drop period to its full advantage – this is the first week where you can change which courses you are signed up to with no repercussions (provided the course you want is not full). So, if there are a couple of courses you are unsure about or can’t choose between go along to them all that first week. Therefore, get Groningen to approve any possible courses (more than 30 ECTS) on the Learning Agreement before you go then it is much easier as after add/drop you cannot change!
The only other limitation is that you can only take a maximum of 15 credits per semester (30 ECTS) hence if you are a LLB student you will have to take the maximum. BUT this is an awful lot of work – the average US semester is 12 credits (24 ECTS). GW are not very keen on you doing any more than 12 per semester but for LLB students they will allow 15. So, the comparison of workload – that’s a big question! Like for like the content was not necessarily any more difficult than in Groningen. BUT the big difference is the sheer amount of work! The amount of reading for two weeks of only one course at GW can be equivalent to the whole block reading for all courses in Groningen. Plus, you must read and be prepared for class as most Professors cold-call question people in class and you can get points deducted for failure to prepare. Hence it is a totally different learning culture, one where everyone is much more competitive and driven – students can averagely spend easily eight hours a day studying. Plus, as an LLB I was taking more credits than US students. Hence, going to GW means you really must be prepared to work a lot – it is no easy semester – but can be worth it.
The exams were similar in content to Groningen but many were open-book so I could take whatever notes I liked with me ☺ Also, while the in-class exams were computerised, everyone does them on your own laptop, after downloading special software that locks out all other programs – that’s cool! I also had take-home exams – self-explanatory, these are much more relaxed. However, it is important to note that all the exams are within a two-week period and there is only one chance! If you are not there it is an automatic fail. Plus, there is no post mortem and no option of arguing/raising your grade up – it only goes up if it was added up wrong. So even if the Professor marks it wrong when its right it won’t be changed so you must make sure you write your point very-clearly. The other assessment option for some courses is writing assignments – here you are expected to write a paper averaging about 8000 words so the equivalent of the LLB thesis but in only about 14 weeks and while doing approximately four other courses. Though don’t be put off, I loved writing about a topic that interested me but be mindful of the time they take. Then there are the grades: it can be quite difficult to score well as you are graded on a curve so your mark is influenced by how others in the class do. For example, in my seminar class of 16 people only 4 could get an A (including + and -) and 3 had to get a C so even if 5 people had A quality work one had to be given a B. Nevertheless, the grades converted back to Groningen grades quite nicely with B+ to A being a 9, for example, so don’t stress!
Finding housing as an exchange student is very difficult because you are not in DC for the minimum number of months required for most rental agreements (8 or 12 months typically). But there are options. I used WISH (Washington Intern Student Housing) which was great as I could rent per semester, however, it was expensive! I think my parents paid around $7000.00 for only 4.5 months – yikes! That was for a single self-contained apartment, while serviceable it was nothing fab by any means. You can get shared rooms, up to four people, which would make it cheaper. On a good point, as it is designed for interns and students they organise excellent social events from monument tours to CV workshops. Plus, most of the housing is on Capitol Hill so it is a very safe place to live – I had a police man stood opposite my building 24hrs a day – though you will have to travel about 30minutes to university using two metros or biking.
Studying at GW and living in DC is expensive!!! Though as exchange students we are lucky to not pay tuition fees ☺ The main expenses are rent (as mentioned above ☹), transport, books and insurance. Transport could easily average about $8 a day if travelling by metro – that soon adds up. The other major cost is text books!!! An average textbook can easily cost $100-200 and you may need five or six altogether so definitely not cheap! Then there’s insurance – you must have medical insurance. Exchange students are automatically enrolled in the university insurance plan but this cost approximately $1200 for the one semester. It did mean that if I went to the university medical centre I generally had no fees to pay. Except for tests, for example, I was left with 10% to pay for a blood test, costing me around $30.00. So, there are lots of insurance deductibles still to pay – try to be healthy and injury-free in the US! Or pay! For example, when I visited the Emergency Department after falling, a discharge 2hrs later with no tests or x-rays cost me $300!! Therefore, cost is a major consideration to make before going to DC. Rent, transport (excluding airfare), books and insurance cost me around $10,500.00 before eating or living – US exchanges = expense! But if you can afford it, it is worth it!!!
You need a student VISA to go and GW helps coordinate that – but plan ahead. As you need to leave enough time for the VISA interview at the US Embassy/Consulate, as well as, time to get your passport sent back before traveling to the US, on holiday or home for summer. Note, it’s fine to book your flight before provided you will have the VISA by the time you are flying to the US – I did this ☺ The interview for me was straight forward. They were mainly interested in seeing that I (aka my parents) had the money to support me – GW will give you an estimated price that you must prove you have available. Note the price given is high and you probably will not spend that much, for me it was around $27,000.00 we had to prove and we did not spend that. The Embassy also likes to see my ties to NL and your home country. So, I took a letter from the International Office saying I would be enrolled upon my return. Plus, a copy of my parents’ passports showing I had family at home. Basically, they just want to know that if they give you a VISA you will not overstay and never leave. But don’t fret over the interview it is merely a formality and the Embassy provides a list of everything you need to take with you – just don’t forget anything!
This seems like an odd section but one you need to know! You must have an immunisation form certified by a doctor before you go and if you are missing any or the dates you got them do not match the US schedule, then you need have them again. So, it is best to start early and be organised! This is something most people do not account for as the US does not sound tropical to need injections. But all students must have certain immunisations to be enrolled and without the form GW will not admit you. However, if you must have a course of injections, such as Hepatitis B, the GW medical centre can give you the additional ones while you are there.
There are lots to consider about going on exchange to DC (or the US in general) – especially expense. But it is most definitely-worth it – 100%. I adored my time at GW, made lifetime friends and grew so much as a person. So, if you get the chance seize the day and enjoy!!! ☺