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How Does Studying Abroad “Change You?”

“But, did abroad change you?”

I’ve gotten asked this question almost every day since I’ve arrived back at Northwestern after spending four months studying in Copenhagen. Yes, it was an amazing experience. Yes, I did pick up some Danish (although my Danish teacher may disagree). And yes, I do feel changed. Maybe I’m a little more cultured, and yes I am more well-traveled, but when I say abroad changed me, I am talking about how it helped me become more independent. How it taught me to grow, adapt and make the best out of any situation. How it taught me to stop caring about what people think of me.

After spending two years living on my own at Northwestern, I thought I was prepared for anything. I could do my own laundry, make a mean grilled cheese and have almost perfected my knowledge of Chicago public transit. Yet, nothing could prepare me for life in another country. I still knew how to do laundry, but the instructions to the machine were in Danish. I still knew how to make a grilled cheese, but I spent hours in Danish grocery stores trying to find the right ingredients. And let’s face it… the Danish public transit was an entirely new world for me. I knew I had to adapt, but at times it was frustrating. I messed up my laundry, Danes did not want to help a confused American navigate a grocery store, and I took the wrong bus more times than I can count. After getting lost for what seemed like the thousandth time, I called my mom crying. I’ll never make it here, I’ll never fit in.

Yet, as the weeks went on I proved myself wrong. I needed patience and I needed more faith in myself. Soon, I knew my way around Copenhagen and was even giving directions to a tourist. With my newfound independence, traveling to other countries was not as scary as it had once been. I learned to laugh when I hit a bump in the road and I learned to ask for help when I needed it. Some people just feel really bad for the confused, lost American girl.

Now, I’d like to share my most important abroad takeaway: what you see on Instagram is not always what you get. I tried so hard to make my abroad life picture-perfect, but as you now know, it certainly was not. I shared glamour shots in Iceland and pictures of delicious pasta, but I never shared the time I cried on the bus or the time I sat alone in my room because I was homesick. There were so many amazing moments from abroad, but there were also some tough times as I struggled to adapt to life outside of America. Looking through social media every day certainly did not help. My “friends” and “followers” seemed like they had it down pat. They seemed like they were making new friends so easily, like Europe was already their home, like they never had any bad days in such a perfect country. So, I decided to post on social media to make myself happy. To stop comparing myself to others and to enjoy my own unique abroad experiences. Everyone spends their time across the Atlantic differently.

So yes, abroad changed me, but I’ll always be that clueless American girl who took the wrong bus and had to walk a mile to find her way home. I’m still me, just a more mature version. And OK, yes, I will stop talking about abroad now (well, maybe just for today).

Emily Chaiet

Northwestern '20

Emily Chaiet is a senior from Fort Lauderdale, Florida studying journalism at Northwestern University. She is also pursuing a minor in sociology and a certificate in integrated marketing communications. In her free time she likes to rewatch the Office on Netflix and go to CycleBar. 
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