The Fun and Free Washington, D.C.

The Danish team hit the road on 23rd of November towards Washington, D.C. to soak in some American culture and history throughout the Thanksgiving break. From a tourist’s point of view, the capital is a ‘comfortable’ and convenient place to visit. The most iconic attractions are in one place or at least very close to each other, and you can do plenty of stuff for free that are fun, interesting and enriching at the same time.

Washington, D.C. is right along the Potomac River, and geographically it is located on two states, Maryland and Virginia. However, because of the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress, the capital is considered independent of any states.  Its name obviously comes from George Washington, who was the first president and one of the Founding Fathers of USA.

The city itself is relatively small, a bit more than 650,000 people are living there (if we exclude the metropolitan area). I didn’t know this prior to our arrival, so I must admit, I was surprised by its size and homely atmosphere. The whole place was absolutely not what I expected. I was prepared for traffic jams, crowd, noise and craziness, because most of the capitals that I have seen so far made me expect that. But what I got instead was peace and quiet, cleanliness, security and simplicity. And this last point shocked me the most: there was no highlife shown off, no extravaganza, no skyscrapers or anything else that particularly catches someone’s attention. It seemed like the most down-to-Earth city that I’ve ever been to, and I guess that’s why I loved it right from the moment we arrived.

Washington, D.C. became one of my favorite cities after the five eventful days that we spent on exploring the fun and free things that it has to offer. Being fun and being free are two main criteria for students, who prefer travelling on a budget as low as possible. So here are my top five places to experience in D.C. that won’t make you put yourself in expenses but they will definitely leave you with nice memories.

1. The National Mall

The National Mall is a symbolic setting of the nation, and at the same time a stage for national events and public gatherings. It is probably the most popular attraction, being an enormous complex including the Memorial Park, the Smithsonian Museums, the Capitol Building and other governmental institutions, placed right in the middle of the city. Its two most well-known monuments are: the Washington Monument, which is the world’s tallest obelisk and the Lincoln Memorial, which gave place to many famous speeches throughout the history.

When I was standing at Abraham Lincoln’s statue, facing the entire eastern part of the Mall, I literally got goosebumps just by the thought that 53 years ago Martin Luther King was standing at the exact same spot as I was and gave this famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream’. That was a moment that I want to remember for the rest of my life.

But beside all the historical moments that are unified in this park, visitors can also experience something more: the everyday life of locals. The park is a place where residents go out for a run or for a long walk, where children feed the ducks and couples go on dates. Every spot at the Mall is a gem and every view is picturesque. However, if you are searching for the best, I would suggest to climb the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, and turn towards east. You can get almost a complete view. It is breathtaking.

2. The Capitol Building

It is on the eastern end of the National Mall. It is magnificent, but still simple. It stands out already from the distance like a superior power over the capital. It is the home of the Congress and the legislative branch, that make the big decisions that affect all of us. Beside its main functions, it is also a very popular tourist place and they offer short, but free tours inside the building. The tour starts with an approximately 15 minutes video about the history of the building, American politics and overall The United States. I was thankful for showing us this video, because honestly, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how politics work in this country.

The Capitol is as gorgeous from inside as it is from outside. We visited the Crypt (the intended burial place of George Washington), the National Statuary Hall (has a collection of statues donated by each of the fifty states) and the Capitol Rotunda (the central section of the building).  After the tour, we could walk over to the Library of Congress through the underground tunnel. The National Archives and the Supreme Court are also extremely close by, which is very convenient for tourists, who want to walk less but want to see more. The Capitol and its surrounding area is simply a ‘must visit attraction’ for everyone.

I totally recommend this tour to anyone; not just because it is free, but well-organized, has a smooth flow and the guides give enough time for visitors to listen, look around and enjoy the impressive environment.

3. Georgetown

This neighborhood is probably the prettiest, most expensive and liveliest in this city. The most popular part of the area is Wisconsin Avenue, which is packed with pubs, bars, restaurants and stores.

Moreover, this is where one of the oldest buildings in D.C. can be found, called the Old Stone House (1.765). We made a huge mistake, when we headed to this street on Black Friday sometime in the afternoon. Simply moving around wasn’t a walk in the park, so we gave up very quickly. Instead we turned tail and decided to rather explore the little side-streets of this area.  And I am so happy that we did so. Because this is where we discovered the real face of Georgetown.

The architecture, the colors of the houses and the colors of autumn, the entire atmosphere was eye-cherishing. The district has its own sophisticated but homely character, which makes you forget that you are in an actual city. So don’t choose Wisconsin Avenue to be your first stop in this neighborhood.

Rather let it be the last one. Just simply get lost in Georgetown, visit the harbor and enjoy the uniqueness of the place, without putting yourself in the temptation to unnecessarily spend a stack of cash.

4. The National Museum of African American History and Culture

This museum, as basically any other Smithsonian Museum is free. It opened in September, 2016, so it is pretty new, and visitors coming to D.C. show great interest in it. The purpose of this place is to document African American life, history and culture. The most interesting part of the museum covers three floors, and presents how African American reached freedom after more than 300 years of slavery. Even though this topic is very sad and sensitive, the exhibition found the golden mean to make it touching, informative and enjoyable in the same time.

 

I love those museums, where beside the dry historical facts, people can see real, tangible objects from the respective era. And this place was exactly like that: I saw handcuffs used in slave trade, posters used for ‘negro propaganda’, video recordings about protests etc. I saw the shock on other visitors’ faces while we were walking along the museum, the same expressions I recognize when I go to a Holocaust or World War museum. I think that this place really caught the essence of how to make a real impact on their visitors, which is, in my opinion, the most important thing a place like this can achieve. So, even if you are not particularly interested in African American culture, I think you should go, because you will be richer when you come out than you were when you entered this place.

5. Pentagon

Since the Pentagon is super secured and classified, ordinary people don’t really have the chance to get very close by. And of course, it is not a typical tourist attraction. But if you are truly determined to get a small slice of this mysterious place, you can find a way. The building is right across the river, but it is not easy to approach it on foot. We were lucky, because we had a rented car, so we just drove by the Pentagon and got a quick, but at least a closer glance. However, from Arlington National Cemetery (which is easily accessible), you can have a distant but pretty decent view of the Pentagon building.

The cemetery is on a hillside and from the top you can see a part of the National Mall and the massive-sized Pentagon. And if you are there anyway, walk around the cemetery, look for J.F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and wait for the changing of the guard. The sea of the white headstones and monuments are eternal reminders of the heroes, who served their country and dedicated their lives for a bigger cause.

All in all, our stay in D.C. was exceptional and very eventful. Beside the fascinating places that I just listed above, we have visited plenty of other sites and experienced so much more. For example, we went to the National Zoo for the Light Festival (with the big hope to see Bei Bei, the panda baby, but unfortunately, he got sick due to bamboo overdose, and was not in the mood to appear in front of the visitors), we couchsurfed with mice (a situation that put us on an emotional rollercoaster) and had a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Chinatown (with the worse service and the highest ‘suggested’ tip ever).

 

Anyways, the trip in the American capital was memorable on many levels. Washington, D.C. is a place that makes you feel that you are in a special environment through its supremacy. This is something that cannot be explained but rather just experienced …and if you experience it with the proper people, then you are going to have a blast in this city!

The Third Biggest Party of USA – Halloween Block Party in Athens

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The first Halloween Block Party in Athens was held in 1974 and the tradition has been constantly going on ever since. Nowadays it is considered the third biggest block party in USA, after the New Year’s Eve Party in New York and the Mardi Gras Parade. Thousands of people come to Athens for this occasion from all over the country to dress up and go crazy on the last weekend of October. The city is a perfect location for this dark celebration, considering the fact that Athens and the state of Ohio is regarded as one of the most haunted places in this country with gruesome stories about horrific creatures and creepy, paranormal phenomena.

The Halloween fever in Athens and at Ohio University arrived way earlier than I expected. Some houses around the city got transformed into haunted places with skeletons of all sizes, spider-webs and craved pumpkins already at the beginning of October. Literally, on the 1st of October dozens of shelves in the shops got filled up with traditional Halloween candies and with funny, crazy and creative costumes and accessories for all ages and tastes.

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I, myself, as much as I would have wanted to, quickly decided against the idea of a hand-made costume, knowing handicraft is certainly not one of my strengths. Therefore, I went to Walmart and I chose a costume that might be a Halloween cliché, but I liked it too much to care. I decided to dress up as a witch for the big occasion. I bought some fake scars and blood, because I was hoping to be able to put cool make-up on my face, but unfortunately my creativity left me in the lurch again, so after all I ended up being a nicely dressed, pretty witch.

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There was also a ‘Halloween Door Decoration’ contest announced in our residential hall on the first day of October, so students had enough time to figure out the best décor for their doors and set it up before Halloween Weekend arrived. My roommate, Mathilde and I decided to choose the harder but more excited direction. Instead of buying a premade fancywork, we decided to put more a bit more effort in it and start from scratch with the simple tools of colored paper, scissor and glue. The result was a devil-eyed monster that got a lot of compliments from the other residents but unfortunately didn’t win the final prize.

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And the excitement didn’t stop here. People just simply couldn’t stop talking about Halloween. I heard about their dilemma of which costume they should wear, which house party they should sneak in to, how they should drink alcohol on the street without getting arrested etc. etc. We also listened to safety measures more than once. The staff on campus took this very seriously, because it turned out that usually unpleasant events happen to those, who incontinently and irresponsibly set themselves out to Halloween night. They told us a lot of things about the crowd and the craziness. They made me scared indeed but excited in the same time. They also prepared us that the police will be everywhere: on horseback, on foot, in the cars … and they were right. They monitored the streets in groups all night long, making sure that nothing is getting out of control. I was kind of thankful for that, because without security I cannot imagine how this party would have looked like.

When the big day arrived, we ventured out to the scene relatively early. At least it was early according to European standards. The whole event started with the fifth Honey for the Heart parade at 6 p.m. The parade was very cool, since it was a procession done by locals holding handmade puppets that were made of recycled materials. This might sound very cheap and overwrought, but it was fascinating to see how creative some people can be. They made something truly impressive out of trash. It was obvious that people put effort in making these puppets, and as I could see the audience highly appreciated it.

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As I said, for us the party started at 6 pm. But there were others, who began warming up for the night already early in the morning. The houses and the sidewalks on the so-called party streets (where juniors, seniors or graduates live only and exclusively) got filled up with people dressed up beyond all recognition ready to dance, drink and lose their mind for the rest of the day.

We organized our own house party (at Nathalie and Pia’s house – thanks for hosting, girls!), which turned out to be one of my best since I am at OU. We had everything that is mandatory for having fun: we had a birthday girl dressed up as Alice in Wonderland (Happy birthday once again, Jess!), beer to keep us warm and beer pong to keep us entertained, music thanks to Tobi and his portable mini speakers and most importantly great people from eleven different countries squeezed in a tiny living room, making friends and unforgettable memories.

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What was followed by the warm-up party was insane. Seeing thousands of people at the two stages located on the most popular and central street of Athens, called Court Street, made me a bit reluctant to dig myself into the crowd. But I did it after all. And I cannot really express my feelings about it. Sometimes I felt like a suffocating sardine in the sea of bewildered animals and sometimes, when I managed to catch up with the rhythm of the crowd, I felt like I am flying because my feet literally didn’t touch the ground.

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Court Street went nuts on Halloween night. Imagine a long, straight street where superheroes, mermaids, aliens, zombies etc. walk and dance intoxicated or they fight to get into one of the stuffed pubs with all their power, often bringing each other to the ground. I had a hard time getting in to places as well and it took me forever to get a drink. But whatever, I had a good time while I was waiting. When I wasn’t talking with a random stranger at the bar, I was just observing the throng and giggled at others who obviously had the best time of their lives at that night.

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I officially ran out of energy at 4 in the morning, after spending ten hours constantly walking and dancing. I was starving. I needed nothing else but a 5 dollars Chinese Buffet. And when I finally got it, God, believe me, noodles had never felt that good before.

The next day was the quietest since I am in Athens. No screaming, shouting or drama on our floor. Everybody was recovering from the events of the night behind closed doors, in silence. So did I.

The whole Halloween celebration ended on Monday, 31st of October. On this day children went trick-or-treating in small groups or with their parents. Some of them visited us on campus, knocking on the doors of residential halls and asking for candies. With their cute costumes and crammed bags nobody could resist them. Seeing them wandering around campus excitedly was the best ending of my Halloween experience in Athens. Because while I got the chance to be a part of a mind blowing, nationally known festival, I was also able to see the traditions of Halloween that people, from children to adults, follow and appreciate in their everyday lives.

Autumn Getaway in The Amish Country

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I had a plan before I arrived to Ohio. I promised myself that I wouldn’t leave this state until I had visited the largest Amish Community in USA. Luckily, I found three more people in my immediate vicinity, who were as keen as I was about this strange and fascinating culture.

So on 24th of October, we managed to squeeze in a one day trip to the magical Ohio countryside. Pia, Nathalie, Jess and I headed North early in the morning, Jess being so kind to drive us, poor European students, to the Amish Country, sacrificing herself to sit behind the wheel all day long. Honestly, I don’t even think that we could get to this region without a car. These people are ‘hiding’ among tall hills and never ending forests, where you cannot find highways, buses, trains or other kinds of public transportation. The road is sinuous; it goes up and down, making you feel so dizzy and sick after a while, but it is all worth it because it leads to places that takes your breath away in a second. I don’t know what the region looks like during other seasons, but autumn dressed up the nature in so many colors and nuances that I started to hate myself for not spending more time outdoors in such magical places.

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The whole trip seemed a bit otherworldly; maybe because of the authenticity of the places we have seen, maybe because I didn’t expect that there are people in this country and in this century, that are living the way that Amish people do or maybe just because it gave us a much-needed mental break from the high pressure of grad school.

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The reason why I am so interested about the Amish culture is that these people live in a very simple way, trying to keep the traditional lifestyle their ancestors created centuries ago and in the same time ‘fight’ against the adoption of modern technology in their everyday. They are living according to the rules of the church, that includes the prohibition of telephones, power-line electricity, television, computer, radio, automobiles etc. Can you imagine life without all these things? Because I can’t. That is probably is why I am so fascinated, but the same time also skeptical about their beliefs. Just as a short background information, Amish people are a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships, who immigrated to US in the 18th century from Europe to escape religious persecution and to find land for farming. Currently, the Amish population in the States is a bit over 300.000, and the biggest population is in Ohio (almost 70.000 inhabitants).

We spent around three hours, driving around their territories, trying to explore as much as we could about this isolated society. We saw a couple of people using the traditional horse-driven buggies and bikes, and others riding horses. We saw women and men wearing their unique clothes and caps while working on the land. (In some of their sects, people wear just black and white but some of them also allow muted colors. Amish are also not allowed to wear buttons, because it is considered ostentatious.) We also saw children going home from school, walking long distances between the traditional one-room school and their out-of-the-way homes. By the way, Amish children finish school at the age of 14 (8th grade) and afterwards they become fully active, working members of the community. After the age of 16, they can decide whether they want to be baptized or not, but if they refuse to do so, they must leave the community. Most Amish don’t have insurance or participate in any ways in Social Security. They also don’t serve in the military. To make a living, they farm, produce furniture, perform manual labor, gardening, and sell home-made food at markets, such as pies, pickles or canned goods.

14787035_1185378648183037_1456149866_oUnfortunately, I know all these facts only because I have read about their culture, and not because I got the chance to have a face-to-face conversation with an Amish person about their principles. It seemed very difficult to make personal contact with these people. It probably didn’t really help that we tried to take photos of them while we were driving around the regions. They were apparently very annoyed about our nosy touristy behavior. They were usually covering their faces or turning to the other direction. I guess it can become very irritating when curious visitors are disturbing their peace on a daily basis. But I don’t blame them; they are not tourist attractions after all. Never mind, at least they waved to us when we approached them until they saw the camera in our hands.

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After driving around the Amish territories and purchasing some locally made, delicious cheese, we decided to stop by the annually organized Apple Butter Stirrin’ Festival at the Historic Roscoe Village on our way back to Athens.

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Roscoe Village is a restored mid-nineteenth century town, located on the Ohio-Erie canal. This place has the charm, beauty and atmosphere that take you back in time through its characteristic artisan shops and restaurants. During the festival, vendors take over the main street and sell handcrafted jewelry, antiques and locally made food. The best part in all this was that at each and every tent, vendors offered sample tastings, which we obviously took advantage of with the greatest pleasure. We tasted delicious fudges and caramelized apples, marmalade, chocolate, wine and of course the famous apple butter. Without a doubt, everyone could find something delicious according to their taste.

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While we eagerly tried to taste every single sample they had at the festival, we also managed to take a photo with a cute couple dressed up according to the 19th century. In the end, we found out that the cute couple were the mayor and his wife. Luckily they didn’t get offended by the fact that we had no idea who they were.

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After we filled our stomach with all the good stuff, we took a short walk along the canal. The path we followed was spectacular with all the colors of autumn surrounding us everywhere we looked. The water, the hills and trees together created a view that I won’t forget for a long time.

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Summing up this short getaway, I think I can truly say that it was meaningful and eye-opening. We saw another side of Ohio that is completely different from the OU bubble. The countryside in some regions is shockingly poor and the circumstances people are living in is much worse than I imagined. It often gave me goosebumps and a creepy feeling when we drove along abandoned, remote places and I kind of understood why Ohio is considered the most haunted state in USA. But despite all this, the landscape and nature completely blew me away and visiting the Amish community was one of the best and most memorable experiences that I have had during my exchange so far. The festival was just the icing on the cake. The entire experience felt very authentic and unique, especially because I got the chance to mingle with locals. All in all, this region of Ohio has its special charm. I totally and honestly recommend it to everyone, who loves nature, good food and history.

 

Meet the OU Bubble! – First impressions of the American college life

I moved to USA on 4th of August, 2016 in order to spend one semester as a graduate exchange student at Ohio University (OU) in Athens, a cute little town located in the state of Ohio. This is my first time in the States and my last chance to study abroad. So obviously when I got the news that I was nominated for the exchange program at OU, I didn’t hesitate for too long to say yes to the opportunity. (Here I would like to take a moment to give you guys a good advice: If you are a student or you are planning to become one in the future, don’t miss the chance to go for an exchange. It is an experience for life and you never gonna regret it – if you make an effort to make the most out of it!)

So turning back to my story, this is my sixth week on campus and I am absolutely in love with this place. I don’t know every corner like the back of my hand but I can tell you one thing: OU is a vibrant melting pot to its core that unifies the Bobcat family with all its strengths. The OU bubble, as people call it, strongly embedded itself in the foot of the Appalachian Mountains creating the values of its own.

As a European student I needed some time to get used to all the strange but very exciting components of the American university life. So here are my three favorite oddities of OU: 

  1. The ’like-in-the-movies’ campus

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Ohio University is one of the oldest universities in U.S. being established in 1804 on the side of Hocking River. It is considered one of the most beautiful campuses in the country and people often refer to it as ’Harvard on the Hocking’. (Funny facts: the university was founded one year earlier than the city of Athens. Moreover, the population of the university is higher that the population of the city.) OU is hosting more than 23.000 students and 2.000+ academic staff. It has 245 buildings organized in four districts (College Green, West Green, East Green and South Green), offering students all the facilities they can ever wish for. The campus is created so that it keeps its residents together as much as possible. Beside all the ordinary facilities a university usually has (library, offices, residential and dining halls), within the territory of OU you can find stadiums, parks, a health care center, cafes, chapels and churches, community centers, stores and a police station. Basically students are eating, learning, partying and living together in this giant bubble. These shared college experiences bound them together and this is how they become one big family.

The campus itself is very welcoming, clean and well-maintained. The far-reaching labyrinth of brick buildings with the surrounding green spaces really makes you feel that you are home away from home. Each and every edifice has its own story to tell, and the university makes sure that these stories are heard by students and visitors as well.

I guess we all have an image at least from the movies about how an American campus looks like. When I walk around OU I always remember The Gilmore Girls TV show and Rory walking around Yale with a coffee to go in one of her hands and with a bunch of books in the other one. Most of the time I feel the same way that she used to: stressed and overwhelmed by the academic expectations, but still proud and extremely happy to be a part of the college community.

2. Community spirit

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The sense of community and belonging is extreme at OU, and honestly it seemed pretty weird to find myself in the middle of this strong team spirit at the beginning. On my first week on campus I participated at the convocation speech made by the president of the university. Frankly, that speech was emotionally so strong and encouraging that suddenly I felt that within this community everything is possible and if we want, we can just redeem the world. And I saw the same feeling on the hundreds of freshmen’s faces, who just got out of their parents’ nests and wanted nothing else but becoming a Bobcat.

Through becoming a student at OU, you automatically become a member of the Bobcat family. Theoretically Ohio’s athletic teams are called The Bobcats, but in practice every OU student is considered as one. It is true that not all of them play in the intercollegiate competitions but they are all equally eager about the success of the Bobcat family. Probably that is why they say that, if you are once a bobcat, than you are always a bobcat. It is interesting to see that not just students, but also faculty members and the inhabitants of Athens share this common enthusiasm towards the university.

However, until you don’t get at least one spirit cloth (T-shirts, hoodies etc.) for yourself, you are not an official Bobcat. The popularity of spirit clothes and merchandises within and outside of campus shocked me when I arrived. I absolutely hated T-shirts and bags with my university logo on them back in Europe, and I felt really awkward every time I had to wear them … Well, guess what? Now I have a Bobcat shirt, an OU key chain, a coffee mug, pens and bags with the university logo and I am definitely planning to broaden my collection at least with a hoodie … and a cap … and maybe a photo frame. Yes, this is what the Bobcat spirit did to me. It just changed me imperceptibly from one day to the other.

3. Extra-curricular activities

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American college life is complex and demanding. Studying and performing well in classes are just tiny parts of the entire experience. On top of these, students are not required but ’highly recommended’ to get involved in different student organizations, sport clubs and Greek life activities. At OU there are approximately 509 student organizations, over 30 sororities and fraternities and over 30 sport clubs. In addition, the Ohio University Marching 110 has 245 members, and is considered the best marching band in the States. Students have the opportunity to apply to these organizations and become members, if they go through the auditions successfully. (Usually volunteer and recreation-related organizations don’t hold auditions.) But if you join one of these communities, you are expected to participate, get engaged and try to make a difference. Meetings are taking place regularly and students often find themselves under serious pressure.

As I see now, for many students getting accepted to the preferred organization is nearly as important as getting accepted to the university. A lot of them know which teams they would like to join already before they even arrive to OU. Getting involved is a big deal here. Not just because they can fill in their resumes with all the extra-curricular activities they do here, but also because this is what makes their time special here: belonging to a community that shares the same interests and values that you got.

So here I am now, still accommodating to the OU bubble and its principles. And I often ask myself: how well do I fit in this community? Honestly, I don’t know. But one thing is for sure: it feels right to be here and I am making my stay a lifelong experience.

  • Freshmen arrived at OU