Must-Do American Activities - A Guide for Foreign Graduate Students

If I think back to 1993, I recall how exciting it was to move from Connecticut to Wyoming to attend graduate school.  I imagine that excitement must be ten-fold for the foreign student coming to the United States. Given my fond memories of this time in my life and the fact that my current job has me working with graduate students, graduate school often crosses my mind.

My friend Nina from Serbia just arrived in Ohio to attend graduate school so while she has visited the United States in the past, it will be a completely different experience now that she is making America her home for a few years. I contemplated what I'd suggest to her and all of the other foreign graduate students coming to the United States for graduate school. There are so many things to do yet so few experiences are truly unique these days. Is there anything left that is truly American to recommend? I'm not sure but I have come up with three must-do activities for foreign graduate students studying in the United States.

Below is what the A-List has to say about music, road trips and football.

Dear Foreign Graduate Student,

The A-List has come up with a few things to be sure to check out during your time in the United States. These aren't necessarily the best things to do but they are distinctly American and by participating in them, you'll will get a good feel for American culture and passions.

Sure, graduate school is all-encompassing but it is important to have a life beyond coursework and research. This is what will rejuvenate you and help you through the hard times. Below are my three suggestions.

Work hard but don't forget to have fun too!

Annie V.


1) Check out some American music - There are so many types of music that can be found in so many settings and on various radio stations. Jazz, hip-hop, rock 'n roll, country, bluegrass, folk and more all have their place in American culture and college towns can be a great place to see live music. From large stadium rock shows to local cover bands at dive bars to acoustic music at coffee shops, live music can allow for so many experiences - a chance to relax, get inspired, party hard, get your mind off of work, the list goes on and on. Here are a few types of bands and setting in which to see live music.

Community or college radio - Not really a place to "see" music but a great source of music. Many of these stations are staffed by volunteer DJs who are students and members of the community. A good way to get a sense of a place and become exposed to a wide variety of music. Often times these stations are commercial-free and received support from listeners and business underwrites. This adds to the authenticity of the station.

Bar bands and cover bands-This is exactly what the name says, bands that play in bars. In many cases these bands are from the local area and most members have day jobs - music is just a hobby. Often times the bands are what we call "cover bands," those that primarily play (Or "cover") songs of other other musicians. Not always so inspiring musically, but bar and cover bands can be free or charge a small fee at the door, bring great enthusiasm to their playing, and are good for a fun night out on the town. 

Open-mic nights - Evenings where musicians can sign up for a short time to perform with several folks performing in one night. Often times singer-songwriters don the stage solo with his or her guitar and appreciate this safe environment to test out some of their original music. Coffee shops often have open mic nights as do bars. Open mic night tend to be a mellow scene. A nice quite way to see some live music (Or to play music in front of a crowd) without having a big night out.

Stadium, arena and theatre shows - These tend to be the bigger bands that "everyone" is talking about. If you go to school is a decent size town, you're campus is bound to bring some nationally knows acts to its theatre or arena.

This post will give you a list of great venues for live music and perhaps inspire a road trip, the next item on the must-do list.

2) Go on a road trip - Vast distances and lack of adequate public transportation make the United States a mecca for fans of the road trip. A road trip is any long trip in a car to a far-off destination for any number of reasons - a not-to-be-missed concert or music festival, a visit to family or friends for the holidays, complete R&R (rest and relaxation) during spring break, etc.

To get the full road trip experience, try to incorporate as many of these into your trip as possible:
  • The distance should be long and the rest stops on the way short. 
  • Be prepared to suffer discomfort and live on little sleep.
  • The more folks crammed into the car the better. 
  • Don't get too upset is you consume some junk food. Although this habit it not be be encouraged, it is often hard to find healthy food on the road and the fuss of preparing and keeping healthy food fresh during a long is a big hassle. Plus, big bags of pretzels and chips are great for sharing.
  • Create a few playlists on your iPod or device to set the mood. These are important. In the 80s and 90s we called these "mixed-tapes" as they were actually on tape cassettes. Feel free to refer to your iPod mix as a "mixed-tape".  ("I'll bring a few mixed-tapes," you might tell your fellow passengers) This will show you're hip in a retro way.
  • Be ready for deep and meaningful conversation with your fellow passengers or just a lot of silly banter.
  • Learn a few road games and car travel traditions. American children grew up with these so ask some American graduate students in your program to explain the rules. A few examples include the License Plate Game, Punch Buggy, Calling Shot Gun, I Spy, 20 Questions
  • Plan sometime memorable to do upon your arrival - Experience American Thanksgiving at your roommate's family's home; visit a national park; see an epic concert or music festival;  go see or do something completely random (Visit Mt. Rushmore, explore a ghost town, visit the Corn Palace in South Dakota, gaze upon the biggest ball of twine in Kansas. Just Google "roadside attractions" and you'll find an endless source of inspiration)
  • Occasionally complain during the long ride yet recall nothing but fond memories upon your return home.
3) Attend a football game - That is American football to be distinguished from regular ol' football (what Americans call soccer) to the rest of the world. At many campuses, football is a big-deal activity during the fall semester. I am not a fan of the sport so it's my least favorite thing on this list. As I see it, football is just a bunch of macho young men passing a ball around and tackling one another to prevent the other team from scoring. A football game doesn't have long stretches of action as for some reason the plays is always stopping and  time-outs seem to be called regularly. Despite all of this, many Americans are football fanatics and colleges, regardless if their size, locations or team's ability, seem to be home to football fans.

At least once during graduate school, a you should check out a game. Hopefully, you'll get to see an exciting game with closely matched teams but many times the teams aren't evenly matched and the game can be a bore. Either way, sure to stay at least through half-time so you can catch the full experience. I can't comment on the rules or the intricacies of the game, but a few things to look for include:

Tailgating - The party before the game. People congregate around their car, are usually parked in big fields and parking lots near the stadium. College students, alumni and community members all come together to eat, drink and have a good time. Many make it into the game, but for some tailgating is the whole point. Take a walk through a tailgate party and you'll see a whole variety of human behavior. From drunken shenanigans to die-hard fans with faces painted team colors to ordinary folks just hanging out. Basically, you'll see a lot of stoked, happy people.

Half-time - A football game is divided into quarters and after the second quarter the action on the field takes a break. Often times there is some sort of half-time show (See "Marching Band" below) and this is also a chance to revisit the tailgate parties.

Cheerleaders - You may have seen cheerleaders in movies and in most instances they exist exactly as portrayed in the films. Cheerleaders are essentially a pep squad whose job is to lead cheers and chants to encourage the team and excite the fans. Cheerleaders tend to be perky (yet not always athletic) girls dolled up in short skirts and nicely coiffed hair. Guys can be cheerleaders too but their job is primarily to hoist and flip the girls.

Marching band - A large ensemble of loud and brassy musicians. They'll play short blips of music at key points in the game (IE: At touchdowns) and often times put on a big show at half-time. The show consists of more loud, brassy music complete with synchronized marching in a series of formations. Overall, the marching band show and music they play can be kinda hokey, but at the bigger schools, marching band configurations can be quite intricate as evidenced by this Michael Jackson moonwalk formation. It really is quite cool.