August 2004 issue

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West coast USA

From mountain biking to celebrity spotting, the USA's west coast states of Oregon, Washington and California offer a wide range of pastimes suited to all tastes. Bethan Norris looks at just a few of the many attractions of this area of the USA.

The US west coast states of Washington, Oregon and California span a surface area of nearly 839,000 square kilometres and offer a tremendous variety of experiences. 'The west coast has both large and small cities and every variation of geography on earth,' relates Mary Brooks, Director of the English Language Institute at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, WA, when asked what attracts language students to this region of the USA. She adds, 'It's easy to travel in the northwest [and] it's easy to be out of doors and take part in all kinds of sports.'

The many attractions of California, which is the home of the US film industry and famous cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are generally well known to students worldwide but the sheer range of opportunities that Washington and Oregon have to offer have a lower international profile. While the big cities of Spokane, Seattle and Portland offer all the usual attractions of city life, a key selling feature for these two states is the breadth of the rural landscape and the numerous outdoor activities on offer.

'The Intensive American Language Center is located in the beautiful rolling hills of the inland northwest of Washington State,' says Jeannie Anderson at Washington State University in Pullman. 'Our unique environment boasts clean air and water, with four distinct seasons that are conducive to a whole range of outdoor activities, from snowboarding and skiing to horseback riding and white-water rafting.'

Brooks too is enthusiastic about the attractions of the local environment. 'Our local area is connected to the Palouse, some of the best cropland in the world, made up of rolling hills,' she says. 'There are 70 lakes within a 100-mile radius [and] the mountains are also close. [Students] can always live and travel to big cities. This [environment] offers an alternative.'

At the American English Institute at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR, Christa Hansen explains that both the university and the language institute provide students with 'structured activities to experience the great outdoors'. Activities available to students, such as skiing in winter, hiking, white-water rafting, desert exploration, fossil digging, mountain biking, mountain climbing, waterfall viewing, camping, swimming and bird watching 'are all within two hours' drive'.

Exploring the great outdoors also features highly in the extra-curricular activities available to students at the English Language Institute at Oregon State University in Covallis, OR. 'One of the best things about the Corvallis area is its proximity to the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Cascade Mountains on the east,' says Deborah Healey at the institute. She adds that one of the most enjoyable local activities for students during the summer and autumn is berry picking 'at the many U-Pick fruit farms in the area. Pickers eat as much as they take home'.

As well as offering a range of outdoor activities, language schools in Oregon and Washington are also keen to share the area's fascinating historical background with their visitors. 'President Thomas Jefferson's Lewis & Clark Expedition - Corps of Discovery - passed through this way in the 1800s, and trappers and traders used the many river highways,' details Anderson. 'The local Native American Indian tribes maintain a strong presence with their traditional cultures [and] students can visit various museums to learn more, attend powwows and rodeos, and even take part in harvest activities at a nearby wheat ranch.'

While Washington and Oregon's natural environment plays a large part in the states' appeal to language students, Hansen adds that students often cite safety and security as another of the region's plus points. 'Parents feel comfortable sending students to Oregon in particular because of that secure atmosphere,' she asserts. This sentiment is echoed by Anderson in Washington, who adds, 'Pullman is 'walker friendly' and the safe, friendly atmosphere encourages students to get around on foot, or they may use the free public transport system.'

Further south in the state of California, many of the major cities are situated on the beach and this, combined with the state's enviable year-round mild weather, means that much of the local life revolves around a beach culture. Scuba diving, surfing, swimming and roller blading along the promenade are all popular activities for students in any of the coastal cities once lessons have finished, while at English Language International at the University of California Santa Cruz, students can combine their studies with an opportunity to learn more about the local marine life. 'Students who have taken our 'Introduction to Marine Life' elective go to a local tide pool for lectures on sea life,' says Carol Johnson at the university. She adds, 'Santa Cruz is located on Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary offering great surfing and other water sports just a few miles out of town.'

The university's language school classrooms and offices are located right in the centre of Santa Cruz, giving students the chance to make the most of the lively city nightlife. 'At night [students] can go to one of four downtown movie theatres or go to hear live music and go dancing at one of the many clubs around town,' says Johnson.

For some, California is synonymous with the many celebrities that live within its boundaries and students are often keen to witness the glittering social scene and visit the latest fashionable club venues. 'Students often choose the west coast [of America], and particularly Los Angeles, for the access to the southern California beaches and Hollywood lifestyle,' confirms Doug Fay from Aspect Whittier, near Los Angeles. 'While everyone in Los Angeles is not a movie star and doesn't drive a Hummer [type of car], you have the opportunity on any given night to see a movie star.'

At another branch of Aspect in Santa Barbara, also near Los Angeles, Tyler Wilson says that their students have an opportunity to come into even closer contact with local and international celebrities during the International Film Festival held every year in Santa Barbara. 'Our students volunteer to help in the organisation [of the event], which includes translating, promoting and helping at the events,' he reveals. 'One of our students volunteered this year and got to work next to one of his favourite celebrities, Charlize Theron. He was thrilled!'

However, Wilson adds that while students often ask about the rich and famous living in Santa Barbara, 'they are pleasantly surprised to learn that there is more to our city than celebrities'. Outdoor activities that are available in the area include hiking in the mountains, biking, sailing and surfing and, as the language school is situated on the campus of Santa Barbara City College, language students spend their free time enjoying the campus facilities with other international or US students. 'At night, the famous State Street is an accessible, fun and safe place for students to visit bookstores, cafés, restaurants, pubs and discos. It's the place to be seen in Santa Barbara at night,' explains Wilson.

Mixing with local students is a good way to make friends and practise newly acquired language skills, and organised activities through student clubs are a good way of achieving this. At the American Language Programme at California State University Fullerton, students can choose from 230 clubs, ranging from 'the surf club to the metals club and from the rugby club to the linguistics student association', says Lynne Richmond at the university. 'Clubs, sports, theatre and musical events give international students plenty of opportunities to interact with American students, thus helping them adapt to campus life.'

At Aspect San Diego, students are given the opportunity to engage even more fully with the local community. According to Nini Hirschsohn at the school, advanced level students can undertake an internship with a local company. 'Internships have included an interesting variety of fields and experiences, including sound engineering in a music recording studio, an airport ambassador helping travellers find their way round the airport, a web page designer for a software developer and setting up fashion shows for a nationally-known fashion commentator,' she says.

In a state renowned for its glamour, some language schools are also keen to introduce their students to a more balanced view of their area and local projects involving homeless people often form the basis of some of the voluntary activities that students can undertake in their free time. 'Students often volunteer in the community, working with children in day-care facilities or helping with the local homeless garden project,' says Johnson in Santa Cruz, while Hirschsohn adds, 'Students can do volunteer work at local service centres in the area, participate in free-lunch programmes for the homeless in San Diego or volunteer at the nearby hospital.'

Whatever a student wants to achieve through their language programme in the USA, it is certain that it will be available somewhere in the states of Washington, Oregon and California. As well as the vast array of activities on offer, schools also point out that the friendly laid-back atmosphere of the west coast states is a welcome attraction for students. As Hirschsohn says, 'The atmosphere on the west coast is casual, people are very friendly and often a conversation can start just while sitting on a terrace drinking coffee.'

Agent viewpoint

'The three most popular destinations [in this region] are Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Los Angeles is chosen for convenience - many direct flights - and it is well known, including the University of California, Los Angeles. And of course there are many famous attractions in the city. San Francisco has a good public transport system. The climate is cooler and some students prefer that. There are also many good tourist spots, and there are opportunities for internships in San Francisco [because] the programmes are well developed. San Diego has an exotic image due to its proximity to Mexico. There are fewer Asians here than in the other two cities. The beautiful beaches are also alluring. Those students interested in film studies are naturally attracted to courses offered in this part of the USA as the schools are fairly close to the film industry.'
Yumiko Fukuda, Ryugaku Journal Inc, Japan

'The west coast is popular because of its mild climate and comfortable, relaxed lifestyle as well as its wide selection of outstanding academic institutions. Students have infinite opportunity to explore the Pacific Ocean beaches and spectacular national parks, hike the majestic mountain ranges and visit the coast's cosmopolitan cities and their popular local attractions. The larger cities of Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are popular. However, more and more students are becoming aware of high quality programmes in the suburban and rural areas. Living and studying in smaller towns affords students the opportunity to really use their English within the community and become entrenched in the American lifestyle.'
Tomoya Okumura, ApplyESL.com, USA

'The warm weather, compared with the east coast, is probably the most important thing that Thai students enjoy about the west coast. A friendly atmosphere is also important. The popular areas for Thais are still big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and smaller [towns] close to big cities. Most Thai students are used to living in a big city like Bangkok. They worry about being lonely and inconvenient transport.'
Salaksana Kanchana, Professional InterEducation Co., Thailand

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