July 2011 issue

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California magic

Inspiring many a songwriter, the USA’s golden state is varied in landscape, culture, lifestyle and language. Jane Vernon Smith finds out that it truly has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Once you visit California, nowhere else quite compares,” asserts Junko Takada of Geos English Academy’s Los Angeles Costa Mesa school. Many factors contribute to this overall impression. “You have access to major cities, small beach towns, breath-taking national parks, unique attractions, cultural diversity and prestigious universities.” There is also the man-made glamour of Hollywood and the magic of Disneyland.

“California is the entertainment capital of the world,” comments Monica Raymond of Santa Barbara Business College (SBB) in Santa Barbara. Yet, at the same time, she points out, it also has a quieter side. “As one of the largest states in the USA, California’s natural attractions are numerous and diverse, and offer something for everyone. You can get away from it all. Take a quiet walk in the John Muir woods; hike at Yosemite or take a sailing excursion to Channel Islands National Park. California is home to a number of national and state parks, so you can hike, camp, stargaze and enjoy the great outdoors.“

Furthermore, says Effie Ip from the IEC at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, San Francisco, “California has a diversified population. People here are friendly, welcoming and can accept people from different cultures easily.”

For Joe Picard, Marketing Director at the American Language & Culture Institute (ALCI) at California State University in Chico, excellent university systems are a further ingredient in the mix, enhancing the region’s appeal. His own institution is located in the mid-sized town of Chico in the heart of the Sacramento Valley in northern California, which is, as he points out, one of the world’s richest agricultural areas.

“Many students come to Chico because it is a true college town,” he comments, “and it gives them a chance to get away from their urban lifestyles and experience a place where it’s easy to meet friends and find a nice café to study.” He adds that Chico also scores highly in terms of value, with housing and living costs being generally lower than in the metropolitan areas of the state.

Chico may be more relaxed than the bigger cities. However, “Many international students enjoy the quality of musicians, theatre and the arts in Chico,” adds Picard, noting that many top-name performers visit the city each year, as part of the cultural offerings of the university. In addition, on Friday nights during the summer, there is live music at the central city plaza. “It’s free and the music creates an atmosphere of fun that many of our students participate in,” he comments.

For a true American experience, the nearby city of Sacramento holds the promise of national basketball. Meanwhile, Chico is convenient for ski-ing and snowboarding on Mount Shasta, and ALCI Chico’s annual trip provides “a good opportunity for our students to tour northern California and ski one of the most majestic mountains in the state”.

The Sacramento Valley is also the location of the university town of Davis. Home to the University of California, Davis Extension, “Davis is a welcoming, modern, innovative community,” says Administration Manager, Gregory Zebouni. “The atmosphere is relaxed, with abundant open space, trees and blue skies.”

Furthermore, as spokesperson Susan Silva points out, northern California is the place where the organic food movement began. “Visitors discover a wide array of wonderful artisan cheeses, fresh olive oils and fragrant vinegars – all available at the Davis farmers’ market. In fact,” she adds, “food is one of the major attractions.”

The town’s defining feature, however, must be its bicycle trails. “The city of Davis is…known as the bicycle capital of the USA,” explains Silva. “Everyone here rides bicycles…There are convenient bicycle trails everywhere, and even those who have never ridden a bicycle before have the chance to learn and ride in Davis.” At the same time, the city is well placed for enjoying a host of other outdoor activities. The Yosemite National Park is close by, while San Francisco Bay is just 90 minutes away, offering the chance for sailing and windsurfing; and scenic Lake Tahoe can be reached within two hours.

Students who have a love of wine will find California’s Napa Valley a serious lure, and the “modern, friendly community” of Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa (the region’s cultural and financial centre) is ideally situated for visiting the area’s many wineries. Furthermore, it is home to Sonoma State American Language Institute, which offers courses in wine business and marketing, including an MBA in Wine Business. Here, “One of the favourite and unique excursions,” comments Director Helen Kallenbach, “is our trip to Korbel Winery, with wine tasting and a lunch on the patio, followed by a short hike through the redwoods in Armstrong Woods, and some canoeing or kayaking on the Russian River.”

She adds that, “At Sonoma State University students enjoy a refreshing blend of city conveniences and country comforts.” The campus covers 220 park-like acres surrounded by farmland and foothills. Meanwhile, just an hour to the south is all the excitement of San Francisco.

According to Silva, “Discovering the amazing city of San Francisco – the “Paris of the West” – is one of the most popular [attractions] in Northern California. From lunch or dinner at one of Fisherman’s Wharf’s world-renowned restaurants, to riding cable cars or visiting Alcatraz Island or one of San Francisco’s many art museums or its Exploratorium, there is,” she underlines, “much to see.”

“Students can also explore [the city’s] famous neighbourhoods and Golden Gate Park,” adds Admissions Co-ordinator at the University of California, Davis Extension, Ryan Hedrick. “There is an abundance of nightlife. In fact, there are so many things to do and see in San Francisco [that] it is impossible to even list them!”

The San Francisco suburb of Pleasant Hill, home to Diablo Valley College, is safe and clean, according to Ip at the college, and provides a good base to explore the many tourist sights in and around the city. High on Ip’s list of recommendations is the island of Alcatraz – site of a one-time federal prison, now a public recreation area. For all the thrills of an amusement park, nearby Waterworld is “a fun place to spend a day in summer”, according to Ip, while the Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is also close by in Vallejo. From San Francisco, it is also possible to take a road trip to the southern ‘mecca’ of Los Angeles.

According to Ashlee Breitman, School Manager at Geos English Academy in Los Angeles’ South Bay, one of the most striking attributes of southern California is the weather. “It’s wonderful here all year long, and our students comment on this immediately upon their arrival,” she observes. With its coastal location, LA is perfect for swimmers, surfers and beach volleyball players.

“We love taking our students to the beach,” says Breitman, “because beach-life is so ingrained in the South Bay culture…. We take students to the Redondo Pier to eat freshly caught local seafood, [and] to Hermosa Beach to play volleyball in the plush sand. It’s also easy to get surf lessons, [and] to find a friend who has an extra [surf]board in the South Bay. And, if you’re lucky, you might be on the water when a school of dolphins happens [to swim] by.”

For those who prefer to spectate, the LA Galaxy soccer team provides top entertainment with its current stars, David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Geos has been cultivating a new relationship with this team, and, as Breitman explains: “Our new partnership with LA Galaxy will get Geos students exclusive access and pricing for Galaxy tickets.”

Los Angeles is, of course, well known as the entertainment capital of the world, and, says Takada at Geos Los Angeles Costa Mesa, a trip to Hollywood is “unmissable”. Students can visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Kodak Theatre, home of the annual Academy Award Ceremonies (the Oscars). “If you go a little further west,” Takada points out, “you will hit Beverly Hills, where you can see the gorgeous mansions of famous celebrities and shop at Rodeo Drive, where, if you are lucky, you will meet movie stars shopping there.”

The other ‘must-do’, according to Takada, is Six Flags Magic Mountain. “Many students enjoy going to popular amusement parks, like Disneyland and Universal Studios,” he comments, “but when you ask them what they enjoyed the most, the answer that we get is Six Flags Magic Mountain, where they get to enjoy the crazy roller-coaster rides.”

As Breitman highlights, Los Angeles also offers rich cultural opportunities, with theatre, dance and concert venues close at hand, as well as museums and galleries, such as the Getty Museum and Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. Then again, she says, “Movies, shopping and sightseeing are a must in Hollywood.”

“Students love to hang out at the nearby upscale luxury shopping mall, South Coast Plaza,” adds Takada. “It is the largest shopping mall in the USA, and there are over 250 stores to choose from. Even if students are just window-shopping, they have a great time.”

Located on the coast, approximately 200 kilometres to the south of Los Angeles, another popular destination for visitors to California is the city of San Diego. California State University’s San Marcos campus is located in the suburbs, and, comments Dawn Schmid, Director at the university’s American Language & Culture Institute, “Students here enjoy being on a university campus in a small city with friendly people.” Another advantage, she reveals, is that it has access to the beach via the Sprinter train, which stops on the campus.

With Disneyland and the many attractions of LA within easy reach, from here students can also take in the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the city’s historic old town, and the nearby resort of Coronado Island, with its renowned beach, notes Schmid. The nearby Wave Water Park at Vista has also become a favourite with students, since it was added to ALCI’s excursion list last summer. With water slides, a wave pool and other water attractions, “Students really enjoyed this new way of enjoying the Southern California sunshine,” she comments.

Another popular southern California destination is Santa Barbara, also known as “the American Riviera”. “Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and [the] Pacific coast, Santa Barbara…has beautiful beaches and near-perfect weather,” claims Raymond of SBB in the city. A year-round destination, “[It] is best suited to give visitors a taste of ‘Old California’, with its historic Mission, known as the Queen of the California Missions, [its] Museum of Natural History, Museum of Art and downtown area. Students can go shopping on State Street, the heart of Santa Barbara’s downtown area, or ride bikes along the beach to enjoy the sunset.”

The city is big enough, she adds, to provide a rich cultural experience – with theatre events, concerts and festivals. At the same time, it is also small enough to provide a safe, secure and focused learning environment. Furthermore, “When it’s time to go to the big city, Santa Barbara is a little more than an hour by car from attractions in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

“When students arrive in Santa Barbara, they quickly find out this area has it all!” Raymond concludes.

Agent viewpoint

“California is one of the most well-known states in the USA among Korean students, with Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose having the highest profile. They choose these locations… for the nice weather, liberal atmosphere, beautiful nature and renowned universities. Regardless of which area our students select in California…they have a plethora of extra-curricular activities available to them.”
Julia Hong, Uhak.com, Korea

“[Students] say California is the sunshine state, and [that] very friendly people live there. There are lots of attractions and the climate is perfect. They say California has everything, like parks, tourist attractions, beautiful beaches, culture, and, of course, shopping. The cost of living is not that expensive either.”
Luiz Henrique de Carmo, ISA Intercâmbio,

“I personally like California, so I recommend my students go there first… The mild climate of California is most appealing [and] the mix of city and nature attractions make it ideal for learning and sightseeing. [Students often comment on] the food – the amounts and [portion sizes] are much larger [in California than at home]. Other things that are different from Japan [include] driving on the right side of the road and not taking off shoes in the house. Many are surprised that [people] all don’t carry guns, and that people are not fighting in the streets, and it’s not as dangerous as they thought it would be.”
Michael Greisamer, Kobe Gakuin Uni., Japan

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