Marie A, Denmark – Univ. of Copenhagen (Global Studies)

Copenhagen in the winter-Kongens Have

You will grow and your world will expand infinitely abroad.

1.What was your biggest fear about studying abroad that turned out to be no big deal?

To be honest, I didn’t really have any fears before I left–my problem was not anticipation of the problems, but the problems I realized I had when I faced them. I think part of the reason I didn’t anticipate them was because I never thought about the existential, psychological, spiritual challenges I would face–I was preparing more for problems like where to go for health problems, where to meet friends, how to learn the language etc–which are also important challenges to prepare for. Nevertheless, I would advise being prepared for those other changes as well.

2. What do you wish you had done to better prepare before going abroad?

If you are going for the year as I did, learning the local language is a great idea-it gives you a real advantage in terms of living less like a tourist, and really being a part of the city and the people. It is a time investment but so is going for a year, so I would really recommend starting to learn the language ahead of time, particularly in a conversational context. Force yourself to practice speaking the language and understanding it, because in terms of connecting with locals through the language, the main basis will be conversation. Also, if you are American, this will get you a lot of validation, and really impress Danes, because a) almost all Danes (especially in Copenhagen) speak great English and b) because stereotypes of English speakers, particularly Americans, is that they would never bother themselves with learning a foreign language.

3. What were your favorite classes abroad? How did they compare to UCSB?

My favorite classes abroad were Russian geopolitics and a course on Kirkegaardian philosophy. Overall, I would say the instruction and manner of the classes were quite similar to what I was used to at UCSB. They have great variety and quality of courses in English at the University of Copenhagen. I had some great professors who were very encouraging and open for office hours, especially if you contact them and ask to meet. 

 4. What is one of your best memories from abroad?

Honestly, I don’t know if I can even answer that question, because I have so many memories I will cherish forever. One of my favorite times abroad was the holiday season, celebrating Danish Christmas with the family of a dear old family friend in a small town. Christmas in California cannot compare. It is so cold and dark in the winter in Denmark, it feels like another world. Then subsequently I celebrated New Years with my friends who live in a commune in Aarhus–the fireworks are industrial size in Denmark and I have never seen that huge of fireworks right in front of me, standing on their patio at midnight. For me, spending the colder months of the year in Denmark felt like a journey through the darkness-in multiple ways.

5. What was your biggest challenge abroad?

My biggest struggle abroad was feeling alienated from the people and the culture, while struggling with my identity and how I fit in as a foreigner–how much my national identity, or otherness really mattered. This is partly because I made an effort to meet Danish and other European people, and subsequently spent a lot of time and became good friends with them. I didn’t spend as much time with Americans. This problem is a double edged sword, because part of the reason why this was a real challenge for me was because I really bonded with people I met abroad–they became a part of me, and I didn’t know how that fit in with my conception of myself. In other words it changed me and my perspective fundamentally–which was ultimately a good thing, and a really scary thing.  Understanding people from different places was more difficult than if I had just stuck to Americans. If I had spent my time with Americans it would have still been fun, and way easier, but you know what they say, you’ve gotta risk it to get the biscuit. For American UCSB students going abroad, just think–you’ve got your whole life to be surrounded by Americans in theory. Why be surrounded by Americans when life is giving you the perfect opportunity to do the opposite for once? Though, be forewarned–part of the challenge with Danes, and also less so with Dutch, German people is that they can be hard to get to know. Danes generally make new friends through friends of friends, and the population of the country is less than six million. You don’t smile at strangers or just offer up information about yourself to people you don’t know. This can be an alienating experience for Americans. When I landed back in JFK airport, I met 4 new strangers that night, some who just offered up help. One guy I met and shook hands with, and he vented to me about his stressful day. This was the weirdest culture shock, being super tired from travel, confused about what transport to take, and surrounded by these people after a year of being conditioned by Copenhagen culture. However–the bitter always comes with the sweet. The flipside, is that while Americans may be friendly at first and seem easy to know, just because someone is your “friend” doesn’t mean they’re really your friend. To Danes, the average American would just seem fake. I’ve heard the metaphor–Americans are like peaches, soft fruit with hard center. Danes (and similar cultures) are the opposite–they may be hard to crack, but if you become a friend, you’re a friend for real. I have really come to appreciate this difference, it’s refreshing. And you don’t have to fake a smile or tell the cashier you’re fine. In fact, smiling for no reason is regarded as stupidity. A relief for all parties.

Amsterdam with a dear Dutch friend

6. What is your favorite aspect of your host culture?

I love the communal aspect of Danish culture–it ties into the Laws of Jante, which are a cornerstone of Danish culture, and basically state, don’t think you’re above anybody else or really anything special. To an American perspective especially, this seems almost self effacing and sad. But, flipside–there is not really any pressure in Denmark to be exceptional or above average in any way. It’s really nice when the main goal of life is basically to exist and enjoy your life, and being pretty standard is accepted and encouraged. I think young Americans internalize a lot of pressure to be exceptional in some way or make it big or be famous–and if they fail, then it’s a horrible thing. Granted, this provides impetus for innovation and blah blah blah but at what cost? It was so refreshing to live in a culture that was basically like, chill. Another nice manifestation of the laws of Jante is less selfishness and more respect for the common good and common spaces. Being self centered, self important and selfish is not as prioritized and/or excused there. 

 7. Did you intern, volunteer, or conduct fieldwork or research abroad? If so, tell us about your experience.

I volunteered at the University radio, where I ran my own show. I interviewed a new guest every show about a difficult time in their life, and they shared their favorite music they listened to that helped them get through that time. The university radio is very nice, in terms of funding and events. I made some good friends through radio, and I also learned a lot from my show. Additionally, I got to go to two music festivals in Copenhagen for free, to cover them with radio-those were very fun experiences. If you are interested in doing radio I would highly recommend trying it. The radio is mainly comprised of Danish students, but international students are very welcome. 

8. What local food or drink do you miss most now that you are back?

I have to laugh. That is a funny question for Danish students. Denmark is, well, not exactly known for its cuisine. That said, flaeskesteg, a crunchy Christmas pork is pretty good. Remoulade is also pretty good (a condiment with onions and karry). Also, Danish pastries are no joke–they are delicious, and they will take all your money if you let them.

9. How have you changed since your time abroad?

I have never changed so much in any period of my life. Some periods of life feel like you are merely existing, floating and not really changing. This can have a peaceful lullful feel or a stagnant, depressing feel. What I must say is that my time abroad was the exact opposite of that. Living in a different felt like another, beautiful life I had no idea ever existed. Another way to put this, is that it expanded my consciousness in a way I could never have even conceived of before I left. It hit me like a sucker punch–like life itself, the whole experience evades value judgements. It was everything at once. It expanded the world in so many ways for me, and I am so grateful I had the privilege to go. 

10. What is your advice to prospective UCSB EAP students?

If you are questioning whether to go abroad, do it. If you are questioning whether to go for the whole year, do it. Be ready to accept and invite a whole new perspective and the changes in both your life and yourself. Boundaries are important to carry into unfamiliar situations, but don’t be afraid to become a bit of a “yes man” abroad. Jump into the unfamiliar and you will realize you are ten times more brave and capable than you had ever imagined. You will also come up with amazing stories if you do this. Good luck!

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