I wanted to study abroad since high school. I tried then to go through the Rotary program but that didn’t end up working out and in college I worried I may not be able to afford studying abroad or may not be able to fit it into my degree schedule. It seemed so daunting, doing everything it was going to take to leave Kirksville and live abroad. In the end, however, I was able to do the work needed to make it to my exchange program in Sweden and it was so worth it.
I chose to travel to Stockholm Sweden through Truman’s exchange program. I arrived there on a cold January day to find the path to my housing covered in 2 inches of ice and dark evenings starting at 3:00 in the afternoon. However, I was surprised to quickly become accustomed to the early nights and winter weather. The snow was beautiful and I soon made friends to go sledding with. Classes were very different from home and helped me meet even more people. My favorite change was my introduction to fika, a Swedish tradition of taking a break at least once a day with coffee or tea, and a pastry like Kanelbullar (cinnamon buns). My friends and I would go to the city almost every day to explore and enjoy a good conversation in cute cafes.
Living in the suburbs, even the suburbs of Stockholm, may not sound like the most interesting place to be, but it was perfect for international students. We were all together in two different dorm-like apartments and could easily stay connected, plan activities, and spend time together. We were also surrounded by a fantastic forest which, thanks to Sweden’s “Freedom to Roam” policies, we could easily explore. The best part was that we were just a 20 minute tunnelbana (metro) ride from the center of Stockholm. It was so easy to get to and get around one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Stockholm is a city I’ll never forget and always miss. It is beautiful and clean, with water on every side. It’s an extremely safe city so you can even feel secure hopping on the metro and getting off randomly to explore. The public transport is some of the best in the world and makes it easy for you to visit every nook and cranny of the central city and far beyond it to cozy small towns and even islands.
Going to school at a foreign university allowed me to compare vastly different education systems and learn from perspectives I never would have had at Truman. I even was able to take a masters course which counted for my major and was a subject not offered at Truman. The classes were also not so hard that I couldn’t spend time enjoying where I was living. A huge amount of learning you gain while abroad is not from the classroom.
Through the international student program at my university, I was able to take a week-long trip to Finnish Lapland, were in March, the snow was still at least 3 feet deep. We went dog sledding, hiked through beautiful nature, saw reindeer herded by the indigenous Sami people, and visited a fishing village in Norway on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. We even met Santa at the Santa Claus Village past the Arctic Circle. I also went on a road trip with friends into the heart of Sweden and spent three nights camping in whatever flat place we could find to pitch our tent. In the summer, I had the amazing opportunity to spend more time in Europe traveling around to visit friends in Slovakia, Germany, France, and Ireland. I learned so much more about these counties staying with my friends’ families and being a part of the local culture instead of stopping by as a tourist. In between, I traveled alone and was able to challenge myself to feel comfortable on my own and in the process discovered how freeing it can be to take that much responsibility for yourself in a country you are not from. I also made great friends traveling from hostel to hostel in Ireland and was able to adjust my plans based on the tips and help form those around me.
It was a lot of work to study abroad. To get ready, I had to do my own research, talk to the study abroad office many times, and do a fair amount of paper work. I made sure to save a little from every job I had for the trip and while there, I worked hard (along with most other students) to find the best deals and live in a reasonable way (most of the time anyway). I had to push my boundaries to talk to people, try new things, deal with problems, and be willing to stay positive and look at issues in new ways. People are not going to agree with you on a lot of things and I found that the best way to learn from them was to listen and ask questions and keep many of my opinions to myself at least for a while.
Don’t assume automatically that you can’t study abroad. I’ve seen many people turn down the option because they think they can’t afford it or don’t have time, or would be too scared. These are things you can often work around. The exchange program at Truman actually costs the same amount it would cost you to spend a year in Kirkville no matter where you go. You just need to pay for your plane ticket and extra expenses while there. There are a lot of scholarships available including the foundation study abroad scholarships. There are many ways to fit in time abroad too. If a semester or year won’t work, there are summer programs and varying lengths (and cost). I took out a cultural loan to spend two wonderful months in Costa Rica two summers ago to finish my Spanish minor. And yes, it can be scary going abroad, but if you are willing to push past that just a little bit, you can have a once in a lifetime experience. At least research your options before giving up on the idea.
I remember that before I left for Sweden I started worrying that I had set my expectations too high. I felt like I was going to end up disappointing myself by hoping all these amazing things would happen. But in the end, this time abroad met and exceeded my expectations. It was just such a wonderful experience. I hate to be corny about it, but my time abroad meant so much to me. I made great friends, learned so much about different cultures that I would never have fully grasped staying at home. I saw and did amazing things and learned something new everyday. Although I just returned home about a week ago, I can tell that I am more confident, more active, and more interested in trying new things. I hope it stays that way.
written by Rebecca Harbison (Fall 2015 Study Abroad Ambassador)