‘Stop watching Netflix’
‘Have you found any housing?’
‘You should be saving money’
‘Why aren’t you stressed?’
I had two weeks to go and I still didn’t have accommodation. The truth was, I have this persistent, unrelenting belief that everything will work out in the end. I don’t mean that in the all-inclusive sense – you still have to put in the effort and do the right thing, as I had. Immunisations, visas, travel cards, enrolment, course checks, scholarship applications, and even applications for various housing services (really you name it) had all been completed and yet, that abyss remained. So here I was, a 19-year-old young woman going to live (small problem, where exactly was unknown, but somewhere) by myself for a semester, for the first time in my life. I was going on exchange, to UC Berkeley.
Unapologetically inhabiting a part of my mind since year 10 and often nagging me like the knowing drip of a kitchen tap, exchange had always been something to be scheduled, not to be considered. Regardless, I didn’t really think I would ultimately go to the US. I mean as a kid, I was absolutely hooked once I saw the dorm living style of the US especially growing up saturated with American films. But with a few years, I became fixated on Scandinavia. Although after realising all subjects I would do there were not in English (shocker, I know), I chose the US largely on a whim. The selection of UC & UC Berkeley was because of its prestige, the challenge it posed (both as a demanding uni & the high chance my application processors would just assign me another UC campus instead) and their strong social justice nature.
Exchange is not a light decision, but neither does it feel like one. The process is quite frankly prolonged, yet annoyingly not constant; I felt effort became smeared onto my timeline in a heavily clumped or concentrated way, and not out of choice. People start and then opt out, and that’s ok. You really do have to be quite determined in order to see it through. Expect frantic decisions, staying up to mid-morning without break, at least 1 year of planning and most importantly expect to do it all yourself. If it’s going to cost about $25,000 AUD (my estimation including home uni fees but not scholarships), then it’s honestly not all that unmatched with a long overseas vacation or a short-term exchange (e.g. summer semester or exchange subject). Note this is more than double the estimate given by my home uni.
Arguably the most fiddly part is the accommodation, where I might add, I felt like a blind person in the casino. Pooling in desperation, I got a free monthly subscription on Skype to call US numbers (would recommend for the month before arrival) and started ringing any housing related number I could find on UC Berkeley’s website. After not being able to get through to the on-campus housing office and hearing their message bank multiple times (super frustrating!), they listed a number which you call for and I quote, ‘an emergency’. So I was sitting at home calling this US number and there I was explaining my exchange dilemma, how I literally had no housing, and how basically, I was going to be homeless so it’s an emergency.
The woman on the other end of the line responded;
“THIS IS THE POLICE DEPARTMENT”
I was like ???? ??
“Isn’t this…. the LEASE department ???? ?"
Without a sprinkle of humour, almost like a computerised voice it was so flat she strung out; “No………. this is.. the po… lice department.”
So without even setting foot into the US, I’ve already managed to call Emergency Services at Berkeley. Great start as I’m sure you can tell.
The four sentences at the start of this piece have been the most common phrases I’ve heard recently. But then there’s the other one.
‘Are you excited?’
Or, if they’re feeling brave enough,
‘Are you scared?’
Honestly, I haven’t really been answering it consistently. I don’t even think I’ve made up my mind about it, rather when I answer it’s a response to the person, to their expectations. Kind of like finding the path of least resistance. Yes I am excited, yes I am also scared; in what proportions I don’t know myself. But I do know, it’ll all work out; some way or another. I mean, I’m going to UC Berkeley after all. Surely that means something good. Or at least, I’m hoping that it does.
Some Tips and Links
If you’re looking for extra accommodation and visa resources, here they are!
Immediately when you get your acceptance email from your exchange university, apply to multiple housing services, not just on-campus (expect a processing fee each time). I didn’t do this, and I paid the price with time, effort, stress and eventually more money. Don’t wait, apply before it’s too late and you become waitlisted.
Get contact info from your home uni of the exchange students who are in the exact same situation. Keep in touch – make sure you all discuss back-up plans and consider sharing a temporary Airbnb before your specific allocated move-in date
Short term stay? Expect to pay a higher rate
Take initiative, early. In all aspects, especially if you need to find roommates (CalRentals, no luck for me here)
Do not expect on-campus housing. At Berkeley they use a lottery system, I got an offer the day before I left (applied May 23, received offer August 15 ie 12 weeks) which was exactly a week before the move-in date.
Again, start as early as you can. I did not record all dates but I applied for my DS-2019 (eligibility for J-1visa) May 22, applied for visa interview June 28, had my interview July 16 (very lucky. When I first booked only available slot was Aug 6; can only schedule/reschedule 3 times).
Keep the rest of your appointment day free. I was there for over three hours and almost missed a driving test (literally had to immediately take a taxi to get to it in time)
The actual interview is nothing to worry about (for J-1 visa) – I didn’t even realise I had had it because I was asked basically no questions
Bring a card to pay reciprocity fares in USD. It must be your card (with your name) or you need the card owner to be present downstairs at the Consulate
Useful site: US travel docs
Time differences are hard. Know their calendar and be prepared to stay up/wake up early to contact them. Email works but phone (get a Skype subscription) is more efficient
Always speak up, make sure you can confront others; most likely you will need to.
Rachelle Papantuono is an Enquiring Minds Mentor and an Undergraduate at the University of Melbourne presently on exchange in California, U.S.A.