Everyone reacts positively when I relay the fact that I spent a year abroad, even before I tell them what I did or how it changed me. It is generally assumed that a year away from home, in a place where you have a non-existent supportsystem, is a productive experience for a person and a young person especially. After personal reflection and many conversations I am able to officially agree that I had an amazing time, or at least encountered people and places that I couldhave never imagined before I left La Jolla.
Originally, I anticipated a notably challenging academic experience; after all, I am paying tuition to learn something. What surprised me, however, was how much I learned about and from people instead of from my syllabus. Not to say that I wandered around Europe and never attended classes. My goal was to integrate seamlessly, to dress like a Danish person, communicate with them, to be like them, and a successful student life was part of that. In fact I was so successful that by the time I left that the other exchange students even jokingly called me Danish because of my intense need to avoid being noticeablyAmerican.
Most of my learning happened while I lived with Danish people, attended classes with them, cooked with them, and traveled with them; even while Iattended evening courses to be able to understand them. In fact I fell in love andout of love with a Danish student.
After coming back I realized that obviously, I will always be American, or more specifically, Californian, and it was silly to think I could be anything else. However, my intense need to understand as an outsider provided me with a unique perspective on people that I had never had before.
I studied evolutionary biology, anthropology, history, traveled to some of the most beautiful tourist destinations imaginable — if you ever get a change to trek around Iceland then definitely take the opportunity and the time— but the most unique and special things I learned and witnessed were while real life was happening.
When I was adjusting to a new city I saw how all of my floor-mates went out of their way to arrange transportation and explain their world to me. When my mother died I felt the support and kindness while I was trying to explain how my world had fallen apart. I met a new person and learned something new about life everyday. I keep in contact with some directly, and the others still silently affect me below the surface, because they changed my attitudes and perspectives in an entirely surprising way.
I will never forget the things I saw and did or stop being grateful for the opportunity to live for a year, to reinvent myself, and to come one step closer to being a better person.