FLYING halfway across the world just to go to university might seem a bit mad, but my first year playing tennis for California State University, Long Beach has been an amazing experience, writes Laura Eales.

Obviously the weather has been fantastic, (especially when I travelled with the team to Hawaii to play our first matches of the season in January) and although there is the odd 5.1 earthquake, our three-hour weekday practices are rarely interrupted!

As the name suggests, the university is located on the beautiful Pacific coast of California just south of Los Angeles.

Although we play most of our matches in California, the state is nearly twice as large as the UK so we play teams in a variety of climates.

I am studying English at Long Beach on a four-year tennis scholarship, which pays for all my university fees, accommodation, tennis training, kit – and even my food!

My first year was pretty tough as I was playing a lot more tennis than I was used to, plus when I arrived there were all the usual freshman worries of meeting new people, finding my way around campus and studying for my new classes.

However, once I adjusted I began to really enjoy training along with my team-mates who come from all over the world – France, Sweden, America, Russia and the Czech Republic.

I love the competitive spirit of our team and our ‘boosters’ (aka loyal supporters) who follow us all over the States to watch our games and cheer us on.

The tennis team had a lot of success this year, winning both the Big West Conference title as well as beating our rivals UC Irvine to win the overall championship, played at Indian Wells – the venue of the BNP Paribas Open which is currently the fifth largest tournament in the world.

Long Beach also beat the higher-ranked University of Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA National Championships before losing a hard-fought contest against the defending champions Stanford. Our coach Jenny Hilt-Costello also won the Big West Coach of the Year Award.

Out of the 1,200 colleges that compete across three divisions, Long Beach State finished No. 40 in the top Division One of the Women’s ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings and we will certainly be working hard to improve that this year.

Although sporting success is important, academic achievement is equally valued – the university provides a unique support system for myself and the other student-athletes to help us balance both school work and sport.

As a result, the women’s tennis team has recently won its 11th All Academic Award from the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.

Rather than specialising in a single subject as in British universities, I can take a variety of classes such as Greek Mythology, Kinesiology and Political Science before officially declaring my Major topic at the end of my second year.

Although it is extremely difficult to leave my friends and family here in the UK, I am really looking forward to returning to Long Beach with the hope of more tennis and academic success this coming year.