Ellen Hu ’24
As I reflect on my semester abroad so far, I can’t ignore the many questions, doubts, and stress that came before my decision to be here. Yet, when I frame those moments within the many other moments I’ve experienced over the past three months, I can’t even remember the sinking feeling in my stomach.
Studying abroad is a once in a lifetime experience where you have the opportunity to break the Claremont bubble, push yourself out of your comfort zone, and build new skills. It’s shaped me in ways that I hadn’t even thought about before arriving.
While it sounds cliché when I say that taking classes in a different country pushes you out of your comfort zone, I can’t ignore how broad the impacts are. After all, simply entering a new space is equivalent to entering the unknown.
As a part of my program, DIS Copenhagen, I have a core course that meets regularly and has class-related travel. My course is on ice cores, something that I had heard about but never learned a lot about in my student career. I had chosen the program because of this course and the connections Denmark has to ice core science, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t nervous.
I felt extremely unprepared as I stepped foot into the classroom for the first time. Surrounded by graphs with data collected from ice cores and students from some of the top universities in the United States, I was intimidated.
Yet, I knew that I didn’t want my entire semester to be composed of quietly sitting in the corner while everyone else took a hands on approach. I was going to understand it all. All I had to do was start engaging more in the classroom.
So I did. Every class I tried to answer at least one question and I slowly began to realize that the once-intimidating content was actually digestible if I engaged with my professor and my classmates. I was learning things I never would have had the opportunity to learn in Claremont.
Differences in the perceptions surrounding mask wearing also challenged me to be confident in my choices and personal beliefs when I first arrived. Most people in Copenhagen do not wear masks, so when I turned up to classes as the only student wearing a mask I felt like I stuck out.
Some professors asked me why I was wearing one and there were times when I felt like I was having a harder time connecting with other students. Nonetheless, these tests provided me with the opportunity to reassess my own comfort level and stand up for what I believed was best for me.
At some point it was no longer about what others thought or what they were pushing onto me. The pressure I had originally felt to follow the majority of people without masks disappeared when I was confident in myself.
Not everything is inside of the classroom. Entering a big city in a new part of the world came with cultural adjustments that took time to embrace, but led to moments of realization about how I function in relation to others.
I don’t drink alcohol or smoke, so when high school students I walked by on the street boasted beers, I was a little taken aback. I had completely forgotten that the drinking age in Europe was so much lower than in the United States.
According to the World Health Organization, Danish youth drink more alcohol than their European counterparts. Drinking is deeply ingrained into the culture, and I quickly realized that going out to drink was one of the best ways to socialize in the local community.
Nonetheless, I eventually found that volunteering at food banks on the weekends allowed me to meet new people living in Copenhagen without having to drink. While I may not be engaging with the culture in the same way others are, I’ve made peace with it.
I don’t think I completely understood what the Claremont bubble was until I arrived in Denmark. It isn’t just an isolated physical location, it’s also the people that you find.
One of the first people I met lived in my housing site and also happened to be applying for the same student photographer position that I was. He could have easily been competitive with me, but instead we’ve built each other up and enforced the value of each other’s work. He’s become one of the most important people of my time here not only because of how supportive he’s been, but also because of the way that he thinks and pushes me to think.
The future is terrifying and something that I have prolonged thinking about seriously for a long time now. Yet, the conversations that we’ve had have made me stop and consider my options with a level head. He looks at the future as something to be excited about and uses the present to network more options. Over the past few months, he’s started to instill this excitement into me as well.
I’ve also become good friends with a student at Smith College who has taught me about finding footing in new situations. As an international student from Paraguay, she has opened my eyes to what studying abroad could mean and how it’s possible to overcome the associated challenges. I come away from our conversations both realizing how I live in a U.S. bubble and with new insight into the world.
While you do get to break the Claremont and U.S. bubble, it also doesn’t hurt to connect with fellow 5C students while abroad –– one of my classmates is from CMC! Through travel and studying, he’s helped me reinforce that I know what I’m doing and encouraged me to apologize less. Breaking the bad habit has been so much easier with him by my side.
Of course, the best part about studying abroad is the opportunity to get out and explore a new place for an extended amount of time. Living and working in a new space has allowed me to see the place in a completely different light — I’m not just a tourist, I have become a semi-local.
I have coffee shops I would recommend, I know all of the little spots to visit if you want to get away from the tourists, and I have designated walking and running routes if I want to get away from the world.
That being said, Denmark has a lot to offer for being such a small country. I’ve been here for more than half of a semester and I still haven’t explored every neighborhood in Copenhagen yet.
The thing is, studying abroad does not mean that you’re confined to the city or region you’re taking classes in. Throughout the semester I’ve had the opportunity to visit Prague, Vienna, Budapest, London, and many other areas of Denmark outside of Copenhagen. As I write this, I’m also packing for my trip to Greenland.
It’s hard to go out of your way, fill out another application, and pack everything up to study abroad for a semester, but it’s a formative experience that you won’t be able to replicate otherwise. You’ll discover more about yourself and find that the world is much bigger than what you’ve known before.
Image Source: Jiayu Hou ’24