NASA, BBQ, vast landscapes, conservatism, and unfortunately also gun violence. These were some of the initial thoughts that came to mind when I was first told about the chance to attend grad school at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Growing up in Germany and having never been to Texas, my opinions were shaped by stories from friends or family that had visited Texas. All of them had successfully found the version of Texas that tourists are looking for, made up of space agencies, shooting ranges, massive food portions, and some beautiful, vast landscapes. Maybe a fun place to visit, but not to live in. I had never considered moving here, but confronted with the option to attend an internationally recognized top research university I had to ask myself: What would it actually be like to live in Texas, especially in a city like Houston?
Five years later I am amazed by how different reality turned out compared to the cliché image that is so commonly portrayed. I have had an amazing grad school experience in Houston, and the city has exceeded all my expectations. Looking back, I wish someone had told me what to expect from life in Houston. It would not only have made my decision easier but actually put Rice University and Houston on my map of top choices for grad school in the first place. So, to help anyone making the decision right now, here is a list of things that I would have liked to know:
- Houston is diverse and progressive.
I had never considered a city in Texas to be this diverse and home to so many cultures. In fact, Houston has been ranked the most diverse city in the US multiple times, most recently in 2021. Nearly one in four Houstonians were born outside the US, and the city boasts huge Asian and Hispanic populations. This ethnic diversity shows in 145 spoken languages, diverse food, and cultural heritage. Houston is also diverse in sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic status; it provides residents from all backgrounds a space to live and coexist. You will find comparable environments in other major Texas cities such as Austin. In all fairness, Texas remains an overall conservative state, and important improvements must be made. However, the growing cities give us hope that long-lasting change can be achieved sooner than later.
- Houston is huge.
You probably guessed that Houston is a large city. But did you know that it is the fourth most populous city in the US, with about 2.3 million residents? At the same time, the Houston metropolitan area covers an area larger than New Jersey! Because the city is so spread out, Houston gives you a big-city feel without being overwhelming. You will likely find that Houston offers something for any of your interests, whether that is hiking in a park, biking along Bayous (canals), exploring world-famous museums, or partying in its many bars and clubs. However, you should know that the large city size limits the use of public transportation. While buses and rails cover a limited amount of the city, and Uber or Lyft can be found anytime, owning a car is almost necessary to fully take advantage of everything Houston offers. Cars are generally advantageous in Texas, as it can take up to an hour to leave the Houston metropolitan area, and many cities or state parks are multiple hours away.
- Houston is hot (and I love it) and humid.
Coming from Germany, I was used to seasons and limited sun throughout the winter and many months in fall and spring. Houston, on the other hand, barely experiences seasons and is sunny throughout the year! You will find that Houston is on the same latitude as the Sahara, and the Gulf of Mexico supplies us with plenty of heat. As a result, Houston offers temperatures that allow you to comfortably sit outside in bars, restaurants, or parks even in winter. The coldest temperatures are usually reached in February, but freezing temperatures generally don’t stay around for more than a few days at a time. If you appreciate the sun and like hot weather, Houston is for you! You will likely hear from many Houstonians that the humidity makes hot temperatures in the summer unbearable. Indeed, Houston gets very humid - a downside of the Mexican gulf – but I have found it to be a tolerable compromise to enjoy warm temperatures in December. Lastly, the lack of an east-west mountain range in the US allows cold weather to reach Texas pretty much undisturbed. In combination with warm weather from the gulf, this circumstance can lead to quick weather changes, and Houston has its fair share of memes predicting snow, hail, hurricanes, tornados and sunshine on the same day.
- Houston, and especially Rice University, feels safe to me.
As an international, I was concerned about the effect of highly unrestricted gun ownership on my personal safety. To me, this was and is a critical issue, and recent events have shown us the consequences of such gun policy. However, I can confidently say that I feel safe and comfortable in Houston, and especially Rice University. Within the city, I have yet to be exposed to individuals openly carrying their guns, even though that is legal in Texas. With Rice being a private University, guns are banned on campus and our very own police department ensures our safety day and night. Be aware that guns are legally available and more widespread than you might be used to, and you will be fine.
- Houston is a food city!
I already mentioned how cultural diversity is reflected in Houston’s food options, but can’t emphasize it enough! You will find almost any cuisine represented, with many small and authentic restaurants that cover all price ranges. You can easily try a new restaurant every week of your time as a graduate student and will still have plenty to explore. If you are less adventurous or desire fast food, you have access to various chain restaurants including Texas’s very own Whataburger. I have also never expected to develop a pronounced preference for specific grocery stores but found myself a big fan of a Texas grocery store chain called HEB. Here everything is better! The bottom line is that Houston supplies you with plenty of delicious and high-quality food.
- Houston is still affordable.
A big concern for graduate students is the affordability of their graduate school location. While Houston has experienced increases in rent and house prices, it is still affordable for a city of its size and quality. This is especially true when comparing Houston to major cities on the coasts. Additionally, Rice University is taking increasing costs and inflation into account, and regularly adjusts the graduate student stipend to ensure sufficient funding.
These are some of the things I did not know about Houston, and I hope they help you to determine if Rice University is the right fit for you. We look forward to welcoming you and helping you make Houston a place that you call home.