Beyond culture shock

What I’ve learned as an exchange student in Chico

From cold and snow to beer pong and flip-flops. The author with James Luyirika-Sewagudde.

From cold and snow to beer pong and flip-flops. The author with James Luyirika-Sewagudde.

photo of duo by Kyle Delmar

On my first day in Chico last August, I saw a student on his roof pouring beer into a funnel. The funnel was attached to a long hose, which was attached to his friend’s face. His friend was standing in the yard in his best athletic stance, preparing for a cascade of Keystone Light while a crowd of fervent supporters urged him on.

This was the beginning of the culture shock that occurred during my National Student Exchange to Chico State.

I had just arrived from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the town of my birth. The day before, I was watching yellow leaves drop into my yard from one of the three kinds of trees that can survive the harsh winters in Fairbanks. August is generally a wet and cool month in Alaska, a precursor to the frigid air that will soon move in from the Arctic.

The next day, amid the vegetative diversity of the Avenues, my parents and I were moving furniture into my new second-floor apartment on a day that was hotter than the hottest day in Fairbanks—ever.

Before I took my first step down Ivy Street, I knew I was in for a culture shock. James Luyirika-Sewagudde, the NSE coordinator for Chico State, literally knew where I was coming from. During a visit to Alaska, he got off the bus in downtown Fairbanks and was sure he had the wrong stop. Simply put, you would be hard pressed to find a city that contrasts more starkly with the vibrant, bustling atmosphere of downtown Chico.

You would also be hard pressed to find someone with more experience with culture shock than Luyirika-Sewagudde. A native of Uganda, he moved to Chico 30 years ago and has long since adjusted to the drastic change.

“Culture shock is simply the absence of the things that made your life normal,” he said. “The things you eat, the people you like and the people you don’t like—those things just aren’t there anymore. You have to start all over again.”

I coped with any feelings of loneliness by being as active and outgoing as possible. I joined two baseball teams. I started playing pick-up ultimate Frisbee games, even though I wasn’t very good at first. I went to the WREC almost every day. I talked to whomever was sitting next to me in class.

“If you spend your time texting your friends from home, you are ignoring those people right next to you,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said. “You are the guest, so you have to make the adjustment. It’s important to miss your mom, but no matter how much you miss her, you need to move on and find something else to do.”

While it’s a good idea to get out and make friends, it’s a bad idea to get caught up in the party scene while on exchange (or ever, for that matter).When I got around to checking out Ivy Street, it felt like I was an extra in a bad college movie. There was a beer pong table on every corner, outrageous inebriates on every porch and a girl lifting her shirt for a slice in every pizza line.

It would be a shame to become absorbed with that aspect of a town that has so much to offer, Luyirika-Sewagudde said.

“We have everything a student should be able to enjoy here,” he said. “Aside from the academic programs, we are located in a rather ideal place for people who want to go skiing or go to the city. If you don’t want to leave town, we have a park 10 miles long and only blocks away.”

The NSE basically trades students within an approved list of universities. For every student Chico State exports, it will get a student in return. That’s how I was able to pay UAF’s in-state tuition while on exchange at Chico State. If you are an interested student, head to the fourth floor of the Student Services Center, where you will be able to read up on the exchange process and meet with Luyirika-Sewagudde in person.

With my exchange spent, I will be returning to Fairbanks shortly. I will do so without regret. As Luyirika-Sewagudde hopes is the case with each of the roughly 50 exchange students who come to Chico State each semester, I will continue to travel and seek out new experiences.

“It’s a pity not to know what’s around you,” Luyirika-Sewagudde said. “You have to go see what’s on the other side of the hill.”