Five years ago this week, I arrived alone in a new city and was greeted by strangers. I had no idea that in getting off that train at Tilburg Centraal, I was stepping into what would form the most memorable chapter of my life to date. In the semester that followed, I would build strong, lasting friendships; fall in love; party to no end; and learn an infinite amount about myself and what I wanted in life. But my experience wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; this is just what it means to study abroad.
If there’s one piece of advice I can press on all young students, it’s to go abroad. Study somewhere new — somewhere that pushes your boundaries, that makes you feel uncomfortable and loved and at home all at the same time. It’s a choice that will mould your lifestyle, your friendships, and your values. Studying abroad will change you for the better.
10 Lessons Learned While Studying Abroad
1. Friendship can Cross Borders: One of the best aspects of studying abroad is the wealth of international friendships that you acquire. Make the effort to keep in touch. The way social media and travel works today, there’s no telling when you’ll have the chance to rekindle these relationships. More importantly, use these connections as a chance to learn about the world. I’ll never forget how the Colombians and Brazilians gave me my first glimpse at Latin dance at Intro Camp!
2. A Six is (Almost) Good Enough: The Dutch student mentality is that 6 (out of 10) is a satisfactory grade. It’s a passing mark, so why push for more? At the time I thought this was ridiculous, and it was a stark contrast to my A+ perfectionist attitude. But in looking back, while I think you should always make a great effort in whatever you do, it also doesn’t make sense to slave away just for the sake of getting the top mark. After all, once you’re graduated and in a job, who looks back on your GPA? Take some time to enjoy your student years as well.
3. Tuesday is the New Friday: Before I went to Tilburg, Tuesday was nothing more than a sensible day dutifully separating Miserable Mondays and Humpday Wednesdays. But the day took on another meaning when I entered international student life. Suddenly Tuesdays meant group dinners and partying at the LG until 2 AM, and the absolute certainty that I wouldn’t wake up before 10 on Wednesday morning. Now I’m not saying you should drink your weeks away by any means, but find a way to make every day something to look forward to. Don’t just live in anticipation of the end of the week. It’s great to be able to wake up with a smile and think “Yes, it’s Tuesday!”
4. The Queen of Romance Knows All: Throw a mix of international students in with some locals and plenty of gossip-worthy scenarios are bound to unfold. Tilburg saw its fair share of romances: some that have led to engagements, and others that didn’t make it past the doors of the LG. But if there’s one thing this type of environment teaches you, it’s that sometimes discretion is key. After all, you don’t need a permanent record of every decision you ever make.
5. Adventure is Only a Ryan Air Flight Away: We don’t all live in Europe and have access to incredible 1-Euro flight deals, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t explore a little. Whether it’s a weekend in your nearest national park, a day spent wandering a new town, or a night camping under the stars, there’s always something affordable within reach. Give yourself a change of scenery and add some adventure to your routine.
6. Driving isn’t Always a Necessity: I lived for six months with just a bike and access to public transit, and not once did I feel disadvantaged. I’m back at this lifestyle now and loving it. For the most part, driving is a lifestyle choice. Bitter cold weather and long distances can affect this, but remember that there are many opportunities in your life when you can opt for a healthier, environmentally-friendly transit choice.
7. Being the “Question Master” has its Advantage: Kings, known in Western Canada as Sociables, was the drinking game of choice during my semester abroad. What on earth can a person learn from a drinking game? Well, Kings taught me the importance of being the Question Master. Whether you’re trying to build a friendship, struggling through a first date, hoping to nail a job interview, or investigating a shady situation, you’ll always being at an advantage if you know how and when to ask the right questions. Show some interest, and see how far a simple question can take you.
8. Sometimes Drinking From a Shoe is Half the Fun: Dutch students in Tilburg indulge in what’s known as a biercantus: an enormous, organized activity that’s a combination of singing and beer-guzzling. There’s a strict set of rules by which to abide, and if you’re caught breaking them, you may be forced to drink out of a shoe or do something equally humiliating. But the thing is, the biercantus would be pretty darn boring if nobody dared to test the waters. So go ahead: break the rules. Sure, you may have to suffer the consequences, but sometimes that’s not so bad.
9. Remember that You’re Always a Child at Heart: You’re never too old to dress up in a silly costume, stand in a circle singing songs with friends and strangers, or eat greasy snacks from a wall. Lighten up sometimes and live like you don’t have a care in the world.
10. Alone is Never Lonely: No matter where in the world you go, you will only be alone if you want to be. There are always people there waiting to connect. Look for friendships, and you’ll have no problem finding them.