My college is strange enough as is. We’re an “art school,” though my major is in political communications, and fit a lot of the stereotypes one would associate with that type of school. But, being a college made up mostly of theatre kids and film enthusiasts is not strange enough for my college. No, we have to go and buy a 14th century castle in the Netherlands, in a small village about five kilometers from the German border. And what do you do when you are a college that happens to have a 14th century castle in the Netherlands? Well, you set up a European Center and allow about eighty-five students a semester, mostly sophomores, to take general education classes and, arguably more important, travel. The way the program is set up, there are never any Friday classes, leaving our weekends free to explore. So, over the course of the next three months, I will be sharing those explorations with you, for a personal look at what studying in a foreign country is like.
At this point, I have been living in the castle for about a week, and already my world has been turned upside down. When we landed in Amsterdam, sleep deprived and confused, it still hadn’t hit me that I am actually living in a new country. (I’m still not entirely sure it has hit me yet.) After a two-hour drive, we arrived at our castle, which remains to be a strange statement. And because planes and jet lag are the worst, I cannot even remember much of the first twenty-four hours, or much of the orientation weekend, for that matter. But now, a week in, classes have started and things are settling down—just in time for our first excursion to Amsterdam. And as the craziness and shock has died down, I am starting to be able to address some of the fears I had before leaving the United States, which I thought I would share:
1. I don’t speak a word of Dutch
This is a true statement, and remains true. Sure, I can say “hello” and “thank you,” but outside of that I am useless. In high school, I always thought if I studied abroad I would do so in France, where at least I have four years of the language under my belt. But, unfortunately, that wasn’t an option for me, so I had to deal with not knowing a word of the native language. On the positive side, at least most people do speak English here and the program is completely in English. The downside, however, is that I feel like I’m missing out on a major experience by not being able to communicate as well with the people around me.
2. Completely new culture
Similarly, I don’t know much about the Dutch culture. Fortunately, a large part of our orientation was designed to help us understand it a little better. Now, before going, I knew everything was not going to be the same as it is in America, but I didn’t know to what extent. So, I prepared myself by leaving my mind open to anything. I had no expectation of what actually living in a foreign country was going to be like, so I wasn’t thrown off guard by much and I wasn’t disappointed when my preconceptions were not met.
3. Only eighty-five people?
I go to a fairly small school, so I’m used to the whole you see everyone everywhere sort of vibe. However, eighty-five is really, really small. Before leaving, I came up with two possibilities of what might happen because of this. First of all, I was afraid I would stick only to the friends I had prior to studying abroad. Second, everyone would get super close and become a family. As of right now, the first is true, though I am becoming better friends with people I only knew on a basic level beforehand. Hopefully, as time goes on, the second will become truer, and according to castle veterans, it does. The fact remains, though, you see everyone everywhere.
4. Nothing for my major
This is a fact that almost prevented me from doing this program and one that continues to cause me some anxiety. The program is designed for general education courses, but for the larger majors, there are classes available. I am not one of those larger majors. Plus, I only have a few general education requirements left, one of which there are no classes to fulfill here. So, for all intents and purposes, I’m wasting a semester. Because of this fact, I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan ahead before studying abroad. For me, it was possible to do everything I wanted to do academically, even with studying abroad. For others, going abroad means not being able to complete a minor they wanted to do. Talk to advisors and plan. Studying abroad is an amazing opportunity, but you also need to know if you can work it in with your academic goals.
5. Did I pack well?
Short answer: no. For some reason it failed to reach my brain that it rained almost every day in the Netherlands and, therefore, I have neither a raincoat nor an umbrella (though the umbrella was more out of forgetfulness). Also, I failed to realize that “mild” meant it was going to feel like early November in September. Not to help anything, I had to also pack summer clothing because I was at my school for four weeks before I actually left for the Netherlands. So, check the weather and check with people who have been there before. Know the climate and prepare so you don’t wear the same four sweaters over and over and over again.
6. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
I’ll admit it, I almost didn’t study abroad because I was too worried about missing out on what was going on back at the main campus in Boston. As this is still a fear I have, I cannot give advice on how to overcome it or assure you that you won’t or shouldn’t feel this when studying abroad. I have been assured it is worth it, but to be truthful, I don’t think I will actually know until I return home. So, the best I can do is assure you that it is a completely normal feeling.
And so, I look forward to writing regularly for this series, helping those who are considering studying abroad feel more comfortable about the idea and get an overall better sense of it all. By my next article, I will have a few weekends of travelling under my belt, and will hopefully have adventures and tips to share.