This time last year I secured a place at the University of Missouri’s renowned journalism school as an exchange student for the spring semester 2012. Back then it was a projection and a dream; now I look back at the reality.

After few gigantic administrative blips between my own college, DIT, and Missouri’s international department, Ieading me to fear for my place on the program, I was finally flying to the country I had never before visited, and to a state I never thought would ever visit. Destination? Columbia, Missouri, USA.

An Irish contingent of four, three of us from DIT and an Irish girl attending Napier University in Scotland. We had a week to settle in before the American students returned and classes began. For a week, nothing but international students. The English speakers flocked together, naturally. Irish, English and Aussies basically on a weeklong binge in Columbia; a town that would almost certainly have been a hick, or as we say, back-arse of nowhere, village had it not been for the existence of the University.  As a result, over 40% of the 100,000 population have college degrees; one of the highest rates for an American town. The Brazilians befriended each other, as did the Spanish speakers. These initial groups would grow looser and more integrated as the weeks would go on.

The hangover wore off and classes begun, with a new group of friends thrown together over international studies.

The Americans loved the accent, of course, to the point where a plain obscenity such as “feck” would cause a bellow of laughter around American classmates. It was a perk to be entertaining without even trying.

As for the University itself, I’ve never seen anything like it. American universities and their Irish counterparts couldn’t be further apart; academically, culturally, athletically and financially.

If you wanted an emphasis on theory and academics similar to what you’d find in Irish and English universities in a general sense, the east coast Ivy League colleges are the ones with a reputation for that. Other universities outside the Ivy system such as Stanford, MIT and UC Berkelely, also fall into a similar category of academic prestige.

Then there’s sports, the key financial drivers for many universities in the Midwest and throughout America. Take the University of Missouri as a good example, or Mizzou, as its sports teams are better known. A 70,000-stadium on campus for American football alone, which is used only three months a year. A $50 million training complex for all involved in the athletics department alone. A 15,00-seater indoor arena for the basketball teams. Then there’s the state-of-the-art gym with an Olympic swimming pool and a leisure pool based on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion! I could go on.

In a sentence, Irish and American universities are two completely different worlds.

Then there’s the fraternity-sorority system, or Greek life as it’s commonly known.

Ireland has societies, clubs, which are usually open to anyone interested. Sororities are from another planet. Fraternities are also ridiculous. Secret societies too. And hazing, yeah that’s a real thing. Although I’m sure there great, good-spirited, charitable fraternities out there, I didn’t come across them. Solidarity based on alcoholism and misogyny. If that’s your thing, go for it. And the houses: giant column-fronted mansions, home to more than 50 students in the larger ones. The only way I could tell the difference between a frat and sorority, was that the sororities were better kept on the outside.

The exposure to all of this though; the Journalism school with with partnerships with a local commercial TV station, radio station and newspaper, the social and athletic culture, and the city itself, was an unforgettable experience.

My intramural soccer team had eight different nationalities on it. I don’t know of any other country where that could be possible.

I’ve now shot a gun, (in a rifle range), eaten alligator (on spring break in New Orleans), been exposed to the ridiculously expensive American health system ($1200 in hospital fees for cutting my leg on glass, 80% covered by insurance, thank god), and I’ve driven an automatic car on the right-hand side of the road. How could I forget any of that?

And I met some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever encountered in my life… and some less intelligent.

To reaffirm an old stereotype about Americans, I was told on a few occasions, by Americans, that my English was very good. I answered “yes, I’m Irish, it’s my first language”. And they replied “yes, your English is very good.” Unforgettable.