Recently, one of my Zeta sisters reached out to ask me about studying in Amsterdam. Usually, I respond with, “OMG it was great blah blah blah you’ll love it blah blah blah go do it!”
But as we kept talking over Facebook, she asked questions that no one has asked me yet. She asked about being comfortable in America, making friends, long-distance relationships, being homesick. And these all got me thinking…
What do I wish I had known before studying abroad?
I feel like this doesn’t get discussed very much. I see a million articles about what to pack, places to visit, how to get around (I’ve written a few of these myself). But when I was studying abroad, all I wanted was to sit down with someone who had gone through that experience and really pick their brain. I feel like I went in blind, and had so many questions despite all my research.
I wish I had known how hard it was going to be. How much I would miss home, how badly I would miss Zac, how I would miss the convenience of everything in America, how I would miss Hofstra and how familiar I was with the school system.
Universities in Europe are set up completely differently. I didn’t even have a campus, we were spread out across Amsterdam. I felt like a true exchange kid- I was only there for a few months, and school wasn’t a top priority. I knew where my classes were and what to do, but other than that, I have a very vague idea of how Dutch students experience university.
She asked about making friends; I became very close to a small group of people, which was perfect for me, but others chose to be friends with literally everyone they met. Do what makes you happy. You have to make friends- luckily my roommate and I got along and were able to do fun things together and enjoy our time. I still talk to some of the people I was friends with- it may not be more than a comment thread on Facebook or a throwback Instagram, but I will not forget the memories we all made together, and I want to always stay in touch.
One of the biggest things no one really talks about is being homesick. When I was asked about it, this is what I told her: “YES. It seems like people are all happy and whatnot when they’re abroad but it is really, really hard. I had just started dating my boyfriend 2 months before I left (we had been friends since freshman year but were newly dating) and that it made it hard too. I missed how convenient things were in America, I missed knowing how school worked, I missed all my clubs and friends. Usually I would try to talk to my mom or Zac or Emi. But honestly the best cure for being homesick is to get out and do stuff and remind yourself how great it is to be abroad.”
She then asked if it was worth it: “It IS worth it! It is really hard but after you will be really glad you did it! For all the days when I was sad there were days where I was kayaking in Santorini or seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland or kissing my boyfriend in front of the Eiffel Tower and having a picnic in front of the Louvre. There is no replacement for this experience!”
This is 100% true. Yeah, I was super homesick somedays and all I wanted was to go home. But other days, I got on my bike and I realized that I was in the most beautiful city in the world.
There was one day where I woke up early and biked to the opera house, where the orchestra performed a free lunch concert. I sat on the steps of the opera house (with mostly elderly people) and listened to a beautiful performance. Then I biked around, and ended up sitting at a cafe for hours, watching the Amstel River float by, people watched, and wrote in my diary. It was one of my favorite days.
There was another day where I got up and biked (in the rain!) to the Rijksmuseum, where I wandered around for hours by myself, taking everything in. There were so many days where I just could not believe my luck and I never wanted to leave Amsterdam.
This is what I truly wish I could get across to people who are heading off to study abroad: for every day where you are sad or crying or homesick, there will be 10 more days where you are having the time of your life and seeing and doing things that you cannot do anywhere else. When else would I have been able to bike to the Van Gogh museum just for kicks? When else would I have been able to jet off to a new country every weekend?
It will be hard. Very hard. You will be totally thrown from your comfort zone, and no matter what you have done before in life, there will be nothing that can prepare you for this. I had traveled, I had moved halfway across the country for school, and it couldn’t even compare.
I was in a new city/country, living with a stranger in a city where I didn’t speak the language (thank goodness Dutch people have excellent English) and I could barely figure anything out. I had to bike everywhere, I had to attend classes where I was one of the only non-Dutchies.
But despite being out of my comfort zone and having hard days, I DO NOT REGRET IT. I cherish all the memories I made in Amsterdam. I made some amazing friends, did so many cool things, visited 13 countries, 2 continents, and had countless moments where I had to stop and think, “This is my life, and this is insane.”
I truly loved studying abroad, and I think everyone should do it if you are able to. I don’t think that it will make you a better person or suddenly make you this cultured person who is better than those who did not spend a semester abroad, but you will learn so much about yourself and you will come away with a new perspective. Yes, I was ecstatic to go home and landing in Dallas gave me so much relief. But at the same time, when I took off from Schiphol I was sad, and I want to return so badly.
Studying abroad is weird. It is amazing and frustrating and beautiful and stressful, but in the end, no matter what, I promise that you are going to come out of it with a wonderful feeling and a million memories. So here is my advice to everyone: do your research, ask questions, find out what other peoples’ experiences were like, and then get on that plane and do it.