I’ll be honest and say that choosing to study abroad was probably one of the hardest things I have done in my life. During the first two weeks my brother came with me to help me get settled, but I vividly remember standing on the train platform two weeks later, watching as he was leaving and thinking to myself: “Was this a mistake?”
I was suddenly all alone in a country I had never been to before, a culture I didn’t know, a language I didn’t speak, and watching my last connection to home getting increasingly smaller as the train picked up speed and moved away–I definitely had a dramatic cry.
A year later though, as I was packing to return home, a completely different girl from the one on the train platform, I knew without a shred of doubt that it was and will always be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Here’s why.
Choosing To Go And Where Was The Easy Part
I decided to study abroad in my third year, figuring it was the perfect time before I completed my final year of studies, graduated, and moved into the adult world. There are so many things that people tell you will happen when you study abroad and all the different ways in which you will grow and all the friends you will meet and make, that I honestly thought I was prepared for whatever was thrown at me. The thing that I’ve come to know now is that classroom teaching cannot prepare you for what it’s really like.
I chose to study in the Netherlands, in a small city up north called Groningen. It’s one of the largest northern cities, and I honestly didn’t know it existed until I went. I decided to go away for a year, thinking that six months would be too short and a full year would be just perfect. I flew into Amsterdam, and then took the two hour train north into Groningen.
Along the way I got my first taste of this new country as we passed by windmills, farms, and lots of cows. My brother had come with me, the two of us having left two weeks early so that I could familiarize myself with everything. He even helped me find the store where I would later buy my first bike.
I felt ready, prepared for this new adventure waiting ahead of me over the next year. Of course I didn’t realize that the easy part had been choosing where and when to go, and that the real adventure and all its challenges would come in two weeks when my brother left and I suddenly had to face everything on my own. And more than anything, I suddenly realized just how much time I had on my hands and how long a year really was.
I Was More Than Just A Student Abroad, I Was Part of The Culture And The People
About a month in, I realized something that at the time felt so profound and shocking, but that looking back now seems so obvious: I wasn’t just a tourist. I had certainly spent the first few weeks riding around the city (everyone rides bicycles) getting used to the layout and visiting the handful of sights that felt like the proper touristic thing to do. I saw tulips and windmills, took the ‘bike by the canal’ picture, climbed to the top of the tallest building and took a selfie–I even bought a keychain with a little white clog and pink tulip on it.
After two months I knew the layout of the city well enough to take shortcuts–sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t–I knew which cafés had the best food for the right price, and I could navigate the weekly market stalls and find the best fruit deals. I was even starting to pick up a bit on the language and would greet people in the local manner.
After six months, I was Skyping home to my family and gushing about how I felt like an honorary Dutch citizen. I now had a basic enough grasp of the language that when I went grocery shopping, I would practice in Dutch asking where different foods were. Whenever a local festival or celebration came around, I made sure to attend and follow suit with whatever the locals did or ate. There were even days where I forgot about home or about the fact that in another six months this would be over.
I just focused on the now and let myself become lost in the idea that this country, this culture, and these people were as much as part of me and my life as I felt I was to them.
Of course there were days I felt completely detached. I felt neither Canadian nor Dutch, I didn’t feel at home but I also didn’t want to go home. It was the experience of seeing the world from the perspective of someone else, and living each day the same way they did that was at times crippling. The magnitude of the world and all its citizens was suddenly so clear and open to me, that there were days I spent locked in my room with the curtains drawn and didn’t Skype home.
I had become more aware, and that awareness was changing me.
I Fell In Love With My New Life And Country And It Broke My Heart To Leave
A year later, my time abroad was ending. I was taking one last ride through the city and saying goodbye to the familiar sights, to the teachers who had become both friends and mentors, and was making promises to the new friends I had made that we would visit each other soon.
Then I boarded my plane, plastered my face against the little window as I watched my little city get smaller and smaller, and felt my heart break. I spent the entire flight home torn between the excitement of seeing my family again, and the mad desire to convince the pilot to turn the plane around and let me go home.
Before I left Canada, my university planned a mandatory seminar for returning students to talk about their experience abroad and help get acclimatized to being back. At the time I thought it was a joke and that I wasn’t going to attend because why would I need to familiarize myself to my own home and country?
But I realized why as my pilot announced we were arriving back in Canada. It was because once I arrived home and stepped on my home soil again, I was hit by the shock of how everything was so staggeringly mundane.
Life at home had continued as normal and yet at the same time nothing had changed. Everything was just as I had left it, all the sites, the people, even the cold weather was there to greet me. Yet for me, I had left a year ago as one person and had now come back as someone wholly different. It was something my friends and family constantly commented on: “You seem different somehow.”
And I was.
Why You Should Also Study Abroad
Choosing to study abroad will not be the hardest thing you do, but the experience of it will be. It will challenge you in ways you thought it wouldn’t, it will change you in ways you won’t realize until you come home, and leaving will be the worst part of it all. But choosing to study abroad will be one of the greatest things you can ever do for yourself. Not just for the friends you will make, the experiences you will live, or that nice looking resume boost, but because of how it will shape and change you into someone new, and you will be all the stronger for it.
Have you ever studied abroad? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Feature image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/G96J64iNrHo
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