With more than 5,000 universities and colleges to study at in the USA, many schools become the center of their region, often a small town. In fact, many areas with US universities and colleges are so closely associated that the towns become known as “college towns.” There is no proper definition of a college town, except that it has one or more universities and there are many off-campus shops, restaurants, and arts venues that are welcoming to students.
College towns are often described as lively, hip, and creative because of the businesses that cater to younger people — food trucks, boutique shops, cheap eats. These areas are often home to tech start-ups, too — thanks to students or recent graduates — and many college towns find their way onto “best of” lists thanks to student-friendly factors like the local job market, housing affordability, walkability, green spaces, and creative arts.
But what is life like for international students who go off campus in a college town? Here, we profile three welcoming towns with international-friendly universities — Auburn, Alabama; Lawrence, Kansas; and Oxford, Mississippi. Will one of them be your new home away from home?
Home of Auburn University
Charming southern town with a population of ~66,000
Student enrollment 30,440
Top 100 Best Places to Live—Livability.com, 2020
Top 100 Places to Live—Money Magazine, 2019
Top 20 College Towns to Start a Career—Business Insider, 2019
About the Auburn Family Spirit
In America, “Southern charm” is a term commonly used to describe the South’s warm hospitality, good manners, and generosity of spirit. And small cities like Auburn exemplify exactly why. Auburn is known as a “boutique town” because it feels like a small town, but has many amenities including cute shops and cafes, big retailers and popular chain restaurants, and movie theaters, alongside a rich history that predates the Civil War.
“We use the term ‘Auburn Family.’ When you come on campus, people are going to welcome you, ask how you are, what you need,” says Charus Campbell, partnerships manager at Shorelight and Auburn University graduate (2004). “We use the phrase ‘War Eagle’ when greeting people. It can mean hello, goodbye, how are you, anything! You will always find a club to join or a group of friends to click with. From day one, everything is very student-centric.”
Auburn is located 100 miles southwest of the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International, providing easy access for international student travelers. Driving to campus for the first time, you will see rolling hills, vast stretches of farmland, and plenty of pine forests for outdoor exploring. The Gulf Shore beaches are less than a four-hour drive by car.
Once on campus, picture yourself at the corner of College and Magnolia streets, where the university and city blend seamlessly. Then look for legendary Toomer’s Drugs to get your bearings — and to get the famous lemonade or a chocolate milkshake. “Downtown” Auburn is the center of everything, with shops, cafes, lunch spots, restaurants, convenience stores, pharmacies, tech stores, and more.
Auburn sophomore and India native Jahnavi says some of her favorite things to do on and off campus are “having a picnic at Samford Lawn, having lemonade at Toomer’s, and watching [the] sunset at the Red Barn.”
A few more Auburn University attractions and events:
Cheer on the Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium (and be sure to snag your tickets early for the coveted Auburn–Alabama “Iron Bowl” football game)
Explore the great outdoors at Chewacla State Park, Lake Martin, or the Davis Arboretum (right on campus)
Take in an art exhibit at the renowned Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art
Attend a music concert at the Gogue Performing Arts Center (everything from classical to classic rock!)
Eating in Auburn
“Campus [has] all kinds of meals, whether you are a vegetarian, which I am, or vegan,” says Jahnavi. “I am big fan of Mexican food. So, I love to eat at Chipotle and Acapulco’s Mexican Grill. [For] Indian cuisine, I like to eat at Good Karma food truck, [which] gives me [a] home food feeling. For Southern or American food, I like corn bread and mac ’n’ cheese from Momma Goldberg’s. I love sweet tea, which is [a] very Southern thing here.”
Looking for kosher, halal, Thai, vegan, tacos, barbecue, pizza, Vietnamese pho, or Chinese food? Campbell assures international students that Auburn’s restaurant scene is creative, diverse, and affordable, offering something for everyone. A few of his personal favorites include:
The Irritable Bao—which serves creative bao buns like Buffalo Chicken dip and zucchini and egg
Fusion—Asian “fusion” cuisine that mixes Thai, Chinese, and Japanese
Royal Doner—for late-night Turkish/Mediterranean and halal food
Mellow Mushroom—creative and funky pizza combos like the Breakfast Spectacular and the Thai Dye
Pannie-George’s Kitchen—a classic barbecue “meat and three” (think a hearty plate with a main dish like ribs and three sides, such as cornbread, baked beans, and coleslaw)
Day trips from Auburn
There is a lot to explore beyond Auburn, too. Take a tour at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site museum — which tells the story of America’s first military corps of Black aviators — is just a 30-minute car ride, or you can get a Civil Rights history lesson in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Music fans can rock out in Muscle Shoals, known for recording legends like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and others.
Home of the University of Kansas
Lively midwestern city with a population of ~98,000
Student enrollment 27,690
Top 20 Best College Towns—USA Today, 2019
#5 Small Town for Business and Careers—Forbes, 2017
Top 10 Best College Towns—Livability.com, 2019
KU: Big Heart in America’s Heartland
Home to KU, Lawrence is a welcoming college town on the banks of the Kansas and Lawrence rivers. Centered in the heart of the Midwest, this friendly city was founded by New England abolitionists in 1854 and is known for its vibrant arts and culture scene, Native American heritage, and outdoor recreational offerings. Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, coached at KU, and famous writers Langston Hughes and William S. Burroughs lived in Lawrence.
When you go off campus, you will find Massachusetts Street — or “Mass” as it is known to locals — offers students plenty of shopping, dining, and nightlife options. Thanks to the city’s 30-plus venues and concert halls, Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times have both touted the Lawrence music scene. Clinton Lake, more than 50 city parks, and the area’s proximity to the Oregon and the Santa Fe cross-country trails make Lawrence an outdoor lover’s dream. Kansas City is just an hour away.
What to Do and See in Lawrence
“When I was trying to decide where I wanted to study in the United States, the first thing that made me want to come to the middle of the [country] was the university,” says Humberto, a KU student and Mexico native. “I felt really welcomed, which is basically what made me [want] to come to the Midwest. I can assure you that everyone here will make you feel like part of the community.”
Once you find your like-minded group of friends at KU, a few things to do locally are:
Head to Clinton State Park to swim, hike, sail, camp, picnic, birdwatch, or golf
Do the Rock Chalk and cheer on KU’s legendary Jayhawks basketball team at Allen Fieldhouse
Learn about the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, old prairie life, and the Bleeding Kansas era
Visit the Dole Institute of Politics, founded by KU alum and former US Senator Bob Dole
Where to Eat in Lawrence
Lawrence is a true foodie city with a broad range of restaurants for every taste and budget. At KU, you will find an all-vegan dining menu, a kosher kitchen, and a food allergen-friendly concept at the dining halls. Off campus, a few student favorites are:
Ramen Bowls—slurp classic or modern variations, even a ghost pepper ramen if you dare
Thai Diner—for authentic curries, pad thai, and green papaya salad
Limestone—dig into slices of pizza, pastas, and salads
Taco Zone—classic and creative-twist tacos, burritos, and nachos
The Burger Stand—named one of the top 25 burger joints in the US by Zagat
The Jayhawker—a fancy option when mom and dad are footing the bill
Weekend Getaways from Lawrence
Kansas City, less than an hour away by car, is known for its famous barbecue restaurants, live music, and the American Jazz Museum. Omaha, Nebraska, is just three hours away, while the Ozarks in Arkansas is a four-hour trip. Chicago is a 90-minute flight.
Home of the University of Mississippi
Quaint southern town with a population of ~28,000
Student enrollment 22,456
#1 Most Beautiful College Campus—USA Today Readers’ Choice, 2016
Top 100 Best Places to Live—Livability.com, 2020
20 Best Small Towns in America—Smithsonian Magazine
New Beginnings at Ole Miss
Oxford is a shining example of Southern living — a charming and friendly community filled with literature, music, food, and intellectuals. Like the people, the weather is welcoming and warm — you can expect mild, sunny days in the winter (~12°C) and hot summers (~32°C).
Founded in 1837, the city of Oxford is located in northern Mississippi, about 75 miles southeast of Memphis, Tennessee, and a five-hour drive from Atlanta and New Orleans. Dotted with historic buildings and quintessential Southern architecture, this pretty city is touted for its literary, artistic, and musical ties — having been home to writers such as William Faulkner, John Grisham, and Willie Morris. It is also a main stop on the “Mississippi Blues Trail.”
Start your exploration of downtown Oxford at Courthouse Square — known locally as just “the square.” Shop at Neilson’s, the oldest department store in the South, or browse the rare and signed collectible editions at Square Books. Then settle onto one of the ornate restaurant balconies for a bird’s eye view of the square’s goings-on.
“The term ‘Ole Miss family’ is not a cliché. It’s true, it’s real, I felt it,” says Ole Miss student Carol. “Understand that this will be one of the best experiences of your lifetime if you allow it to be.”
Things to Do and See in Oxford
History, literature, art, architecture, music — there is good reason why Smithsonian Magazine calls this vibrant college town an “intellectual oasis.” Walking around downtown Oxford, you will be able to take in more than 50 gorgeous buildings listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. On campus, you can study, play sports, walk, or catch up with friends at the Grove, 800 hectares of lush lawns and wooded trails.
A few more cool things to do if you attend Ole Miss:
Get writerly inspiration at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s former homestead
Hop the Double Decker bus for a city tour (Oxford modeled itself after the famed university town in the UK)
Bike one of Clear Creek’s many trails or explore the arboretum at Lamar Park
Take in Civil War history at the Confederate Cemetery and the LQC Lamar House
Eating Out in Oxford
Oxford is a college town, and that means lots of budget-friendly eating spots for students (and plenty of upscale places when mom and dad come into town). Sushi, tacos, tapas, Thai, Chinese, vegan, seafood, Mexican, Greek, burgers, Italian — you can find it all. Our friends at Ole Miss say these should be on your off-campus must-eat list:
Ajax—Southern classics and comfort food in a funky atmosphere
Big Bad Breakfast—do your morning fuel up with pancakes, biscuits and gravy, or avocado toast
Rebel Barn—cheap barbecue eats like pulled pork, ribs, and the “BBQ Sundae”
City Grocery—book this upscale eatery for parents’ weekend or a celebratory dinner
Saint Leo—wood-fired pizzas and creative pastas
Getting Out of Town
Oxford’s location makes weekend getaways around the South super easy. Memphis and Nashville are within a two- and four-hour drive, respectively. New Orleans’ world-famous French Quarter is just four hours away. Take in Civil War history at Shiloh Battlefield in Tennessee, or tour Elvis Presley’s childhood home in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Your home away from home is ready to welcome you. Which US college town will you choose for your study in the USA journey?
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