Lessons Learned Abroad

My time in Sweden is coming to a close all too soon. How fast things are changing around me – the leaves, the sun’s time spent hiding beneath the horizon, myself. With each passing day the desire to stay grows stronger. I could see myself easing into this routine for many more months. But the world spins on, and I must continue on my journey. Studying abroad has taught me a lot academically and personally. Although I’m sad to say good-bye to this country that now holds such a special place in my heart, I know that someday I will be back to pay a visit to the family that so graciously took me in and shared their culture and life with me. Though it’s hard to explain the impact Sweden has had on me without sounding cliché, below are some lessons that I’ll be bringing home.

1. Be where you are

Being abroad, there’s so much to do and see in every moment. At times, it can get overwhelming. There’s an unspoken pressure to travel Europe, visit all of the tourist destinations, and check them off your bucket list. I wasn’t exempt from this pressure. I quickly, upon getting here, booked a weekend cruise to Helsinki with friends. While I don’t regret it for a minute (except maybe the karaoke song I attempted to sing), it reminded me how much I appreciate Stockholm and diving deeply into Swedish culture. It’s ok not to travel to a different country every weekend. Wherever you are, just be there fully. You don’t necessarily need to jam pack your itinerary to ensure a good time. Instead of rushing from place to place, not having enough time to take in the details, explore a new street maybe in a neighborhood you’ve been to many times. Sit, breathe, close your eyes, open them. Look for the sacred in the everyday. You’ll be surprised by what you find.

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A spontaneous walk along Monteliusvägen last week

2. Do not compare your experience to others

A lot of my peers are also abroad right now, and I can get caught up in representations of their experience. We all put our best face forward on social media. It’s important to remember that study abroad experiences are often not comparable. My experience in Sweden will inevitably be different than my friend’s in Italy, or Spain, or India. And that’s ok. When we all come together at the end of the semester, we’ll each have something different that we got out of our time abroad. Even people within your program might have a different experience than you. There’s no single study abroad narrative; let your experience be your own, and revel in the multiplicity of meanings that one single place can have to different people.

A sign in one of the offices we visited for positive psychology; a good reminder for those of us who tend to over-analyze and evaluate

3. Take chances, especially if they scare you

This is a semester of taking chances – going abroad is a chance, as is living with a host family. But beyond that, there are so many moments within a day to move outside your comfort zone. Coming here, I joined the Stockholm University student fotboll club. Was I intimidated that first time walking into a gymnasium of Swedes much taller and more skilled than me shooting and passing a soccer ball? Yes. I haven’t played soccer since my freshman year of high school. Much to my surprise, my worst fears and anxieties (that I would be laughed at and/or kicked out for being bad) were never realized. Even keeping a blog and just sharing my writing with the world has been a step outside my comfort zone. However, perhaps one of the most worthwhile and hilarious chances I’ve taken is trying to hold a conversation in Swedish with a Swede. It’s easy and comfortable to retreat back to English, but where’s the fun in that? I’ve certainly amused my fair share of Swedes with my attempts at their language…

My IM fotboll league (Sorry Reed I stole this picture from you)

4. When the unexpected happens, go with it

DSC01513.jpgThis, I would say, is the most important thing I’ve internalized so far. I’m someone who thrives on planning, so when things happen that are out of my control or that I wasn’t expecting, I tend to get disoriented. I had my heart set on going to Copenhagen. I was originally disappointed when I thought I would be in Stockholm (that’s embarrassing to say now) because I hadn’t heard as much about it as I did about Copenhagen. Now, I realize how lucky I am to have ended up in Stockholm. Sweden is a unique country that I’ve gotten such incredible insights into; if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

On a smaller level, one time I got lost and decided just to follow the sound of music. I stumbled into someone playing the electric violin, and I sat down and listened for who knows how long. Sometimes it is these unplanned, unexpected moments that have the greatest potential to change us because we are freed from our rigid conceptions of how we think the world should be and instead allowed to experience the world as it is. The following line from my positive psychology field study to a mindfulness clinic has stuck with me, serving as a mantra I repeat often:

Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.

Funny how the song playing was “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” because Stockholm, I might be falling in love with you. Thanks to Sweden, my host family, DIS, my classmates, and everyone I’ve run into along the way for making this place so hard to leave. Sweden, hej då until next time 🙂

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