Life / Student life

Lauren Yeo – My USA College Exchange

By Lauren Yeo

Going on exchange as a law student is a lot of fun and the perfect way to break up a long degree. I went abroad for my last semester of my fifth and final year to the University of Oklahoma College of Law. An ‘exchange’ is basically a period of time (either one trimester or an academic year) where you can go to a university, which has a partnership with your home university, to study somewhere else in the world. The deal is that you only pay the fees for your home university and still have access your StudyLink loan and/or allowance – which is a pretty sweet deal!

Acceptance into an exchange programme is totally dependent on your university – at VUW you need to have at least a B average and attend an interview, then you apply to the individual universities you are interested in, which may have their own requirements. As a law student you must have completed all compulsory papers beforehand, so fifth year is the only year that it is possible to go – unless you do property and equity a year early.


American law school

American law students study a J.D (Juris Doctor) instead of an LL.B since law is a graduate degree in the USA, and they’ve done an undergraduate degree already – there’s also only three years of law school! The Socratic Method is heavily used; I must have had the few professors that didn’t use it, since I definitely wasn’t called on as much as I would be at home, but I heard from other people that their classes were very Socratic. Preparation for class is almost exactly as it is in New Zealand law schools, with the reading materials that are assigned being mostly cases.

I took Federal Indian Law, Constitutional Law, an interdisciplinary child abuse clinic and two American legal system/research courses. The main difference, I found, was that courses are assessed by one final exam that is worth 100% of your grade. Although there is a ‘syllabus’ (a course outline), these don’t necessarily set out anything about assessments, including whether they are open or closed book. One of my professors decided spur of the moment a few weeks before the exam that it would be open book, and everyone was pretty chilled about details like this. The exams themselves are also really relaxed, with none of the formalities we’re used to. However, the exam content is definitely at VUW 300 level (senior elective papers), and my courses were examined in a similar problem-question style as we would be at home.


Studying in the USA

Most exchange students enter the USA on a J-1 visa, which you have to attend an interview in Auckland for. There’s a lot of paperwork before you leave for Auckland, and you have to wait at the office for a while with no one but giant pictures of Donald Trump and Mike Pence to keep you company – but the actual interview was very quick and straightforward.

Your experience studying in the USA will really depend on which part of the country you are in. The University of Oklahoma is a big campus in a college town, and is probably one of the most ‘authentic’ American experiences you can get. Everyone is football obsessed and the Sooners are one of the top teams; Greek life is huge (one of the weirder parts of US college life), and there’s school spirit pretty much everywhere.

There are more social and cultural differences than you’d expect as well. In a state like Oklahoma, the car culture is insane – everyone drives literally everywhere, and they drive huge cars. New Zealand slang or any word that isn’t American English will confuse people; when I asked a woman at Walmart where the rubbish bins were on my first day in the US, she looked at me like I was speaking another language. These things aren’t hard to get used to, and soon enough you’ll be calling tomato sauce ‘ketchup’ and saying ‘y’all’ three times in a sentence (probably one of my favourite things about Oklahoma). Just be sure to lower your coffee standards before you go, because this will probably be any Wellingtonian’s major struggle in the USA – I would have done anything for a flat white!

Without sounding too cliché, my time in Norman was some of the best months of my life and I would have stayed for a year if it was possible. I’d recommend studying abroad as a law student to anyone. If you want to know more about exchange programmes then you can contact the international office at your university.