The ups, downs, and beautiful epiphanies of my experience studying abroad in the Netherlands
I recall the exact moment when I decided that I wanted to study abroad. It was in my second year after speaking with an old classmate about his experience studying in the Netherlands a couple years back. The idea that I could experience a culture outside of what I knew was invigorating.
I also remember feeling like it was incredibly out of reach. The possibility of going overseas during university felt beyond my comprehension since studying abroad isn’t a common activity among most Canadian students.
I spent weeks to months perusing MacEwan’s Education Abroad website and using their search engine to see which campuses I could attend. As a communications student, I could choose between studying in Ecuador, Scotland, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Japan. I dreamt about what my life would look like in each country. In hindsight, I’m not really sure what drove me to choose the Netherlands as my destination. I just liked the idea of having the ability to travel to other European countries easily. I applied to study in The Netherlands for the 2023 winter term. During the application process — which took a couple of weeks, involving meetings with my program advisor, writing cover letter drafts, and gathering proper documentation — I completely blacked out. I knew that in order to really go through with travelling abroad, I had to shut out the overwhelming noise of my own doubts and fears. This was the first decision I had really put my mind to and laser-focused on by myself. Any other decisions before that, like applying to university or my first job, were influenced by my parents or peers who told me what was “best for me.”
I had really set a requirement for myself this time. I was already aware of some of the surface-level benefits that came from studying abroad, but I couldn’t possibly predict all of the blessings, critical life lessons, and epiphanies that would come out of putting myself in an entirely new country for six months.
It’s true what they say about going abroad for your studies. In the most obnoxious-exchange-student-girly way possible, it forever changed me.
I won’t sit here and waste your time by writing about the basic stuff that you need to know before studying abroad, like budgeting and finding housing. If you’re interested in studying abroad, please do your research.
Instead, I’d like to share some valuable lessons I formed from personal revelations I had on my trip that I’llbe sure to pass down to my kids.
Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable
It’s worth noting that before embarking on this life-changing journey, I had never set foot in an airport without my parents or my dance teachers and peers at my side. I had zero experience with booking a plane ticket, accommodations, or anything of the sort. Before my trip, I had only been away from my parents for two weeks when I was a camp counsellor two summers ago.
It took me three months to finally adjust to living alone in another country. In those three months, my bike broke… twice! I had some banking issues and was let go from the Griff prior to my trip because I found out I couldn’t work for them if I was living out of province. It was taking forever to get my residence card, and the lock on my dorm door stopped working. To top it all off, I wound up in the hospital for a severe allergic reaction to peanuts.
All of these events had me questioning whether I made the right choice of being here or not. I felt guilty for not immediately having the fun that I thought I should be having, you know, being abroad and all. I had to accept that feeling uncomfortable and dealing with unpleasant experiences was a new reality that came with becoming an adult. It was just fast-tracked because I was in a new environment.
Sometimes, in order to survive, you have to be painfully delusional
Studying abroad might have cured my anxiety. Having to suppress the fear-filled thoughts that usually bounce off the walls of my mind might have silenced them completely. If I actually sat and thought about everything that could go wrong on a solo trip — like grocery shopping when all the aisles and ingredients are in Dutch — I might have melted into a puddle within the first month and returned to Canada with zero positive experiences to report.
I’m a planner at heart, but I had to let go of my many worries in order to actually enjoy myself. I was living in a new country, trying to navigate a social scene that used a language I didn’t speak a lick of. There were alarmingly very few bike traffic rules. Everytime I left my house, I had to leave my life to chance in hopes that I wouldn’t get flattened by the bike tires of 8-year-old Dutch boys who were better cyclists than me.
Ironically, in order to feel sane, I had to block out levels of reality. This is probably why I still feel like I was living in a dream for those six months.
After those three wretched months of harsh transitions and misfortunes, I made a decision that April was going to be different. On April 1, I wrote in my journal that I would no longer let what happened in the first three months dictate whatever happened in the last three. I wrote about claiming positive experiences, feeling settled, not losing or breaking belongings, attracting meaningful friendships, and feeling confident in my own skin.
As my mindset shifted, so did my circumstances and everything I claimed in that journal entry began to unfold beautifully, making the rest of my stay much more enjoyable.
Do it by yourself for yourself
I wasted months waiting around for people to be ready to join me on my adventures. At this point of my trip, I was still nervous about travelling solo for safety reasons, but also because I wanted to experience these new sights and sounds with someone else, and reasonably so.
Alas, another epiphany: I didn’t travel all the way to freaking Europe to not take advantage of country hopping. The flights were cheap, and I had ample time in my university schedule; so, what was stopping me? Solo travel was just what I needed in order to level up my independence, decision-making skills, and to learn how to be okay with feeling lonely.
My solo travel experiences pushed me to strike up conversations with strangers, learn new languages, and spark the spontaneity within me. Through this, I no longer feel obligated to wait on friends to experience something great with. I can do it on my own and grow.
You CAN trust strangers (embrace the chance encounters)
While I had the opportunity to travel with friends, I went to three different countries alone. When you’re a solo traveler, you’re kind of at the mercy of strangers, as scary as that sounds. I relied on locals for directions and restaurant recommendations. I mean, during my stay in the south of France, I stayed in an Airbnb with a French family I’d never met and had to trust that they were decent people.
In order to squeeze every ounce of enjoyment out of my six-month journey, I had to learn to embrace random encounters.
During my many solo trips, free walking tours became my best friend. I spent a weekend alone in Hamburg, and on my second day, I went on a free walking tour surrounded by tourists from all around the globe.
Our tour guide had halted our stroll to tell us about the wide port of Hamburg which we stood in front of. One girl was dressed in bright, eccentric clothing with a peace sign sewn into her baseball cap. I thought that she seemed like a bright ball of energy and decided to introduce myself.
Her name is Roxane. I learned that she’s from Toronto, and was taking a one-month tour around Europe. Hamburg was the first stop on her trip. We quickly bonded over the fact that we were both Canadian and spent the rest of the afternoon, evening, and the following day together.
A month later, on my last solo trip before returning to Canada, I went to London. You’ll never guess who was there at the same time. Roxane! She was touring the last city on her trip with her two sisters, so we all met up to dance the night away at a clubbing event. I met her at the beginning of her trip and got to see her once again on the last leg of her trip. None of those things would have happened had I not booked a solo trip to Hamburg and gone on that same exact walking tour. Things happen for a reason, folks!
I realized that being temporary is freeing. I only had one month left to go, which meant I had no reputation to live up to and uphold.
I had many chance encounters like this. In France, I went on a bus/walking tour from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer. On the tour, I met a Norwegian girl my age who was also travelling solo. We enjoyed lunch together on the coast and spent the remainder of the afternoon on a small beach that only the locals knew about. I’m telling you, don’t be so apprehensive about solo travel. Just book a free walking tour, and I promise you’ll emerge with a new friend, even if it’s just for the rest of your stay.
One of my favourite memories of being abroad was being in Barcelona for San Juan, a Spanish celebration of the summer solstice. A large group from my hostel planned to walk and take the train from the hostel to Barceloneta beach, where locals would set off fireworks and host barbecues. On our way there, one of the hostel employees whipped out a giant bottle of Sangria and offered me and the others a sip. Before I knew it, all of us were in the cobblestoned streets, buzzed off a bottle of Sangria, and on our way to one of the biggest festivals in Barcelona. Yes, it was unhygienic and very unlike me, but I was having a blast and was in disbelief that this was my life.
Learn to self-soothe
My time away wasn’t all filled with highs. Studying abroad comes with loneliness and homesick-filled moments, and I had to learn to rely on myself for comfort.
During my six months away, I went through a lot emotionally. I grieved the loss of a family friend, went through a breakup, endured facial acne that hindered my confidence, had to cope with having the world’s messiest housemates, and was still navigating a way to make the Netherlands feel like home.
I’m used to depending on my immediate support system, like my parents and closest friends, for advice, but the eight-hour time difference made reaching out quite difficult. Those moments forced me to reassess my coping mechanisms, and I soon learned how to self-soothe to talk myself off the ledge, so to speak. I learned what types of things comfort me, such as certain songs, a warm shower, and walking in nature.
It was a necessary maturing process that I’m forever thankful for.
Appreciate the beauty of being temporary (embarrassment is subjective)
In June, I realized that being temporary is freeing. I only had one month left to go, which meant I had no reputation to live up to and uphold. I knew many of the people that I would encounter in the last month of travel would likely never see me again. From June 16 to July 19, I travelled on-and-off and visited Spain, France, Northern Ireland, Portugal, and London.
Before I headed off to Barcelona, I wrote this in my journal:
“I’ve been growing in my confidence through my conversational skills and making friends. It’s not so scary. In the past two weeks or so, I have been actively practicing being fully me and not being afraid to look ‘silly.’ Embarrassment is subjective. Life is far too short to stay stuck because you’re worried about how others perceive you. Who cares! We are all temporary. So, dance at random. Crack jokes, be loud, skip around in busy streets, jump up and down with excitement, and play. From now on, I’m choosing to let go because life on Earth is limited. I might as well spend it uplifting and being a light for others, and I can only achieve that by being my most authentic self!”
Not only was I a temporary resident in Europe, but I am also temporary in this life. In June, I decided that I wouldn’t spend the remainder of my life paralyzed by what others dare think of me. Instead, I chose to live boldly.
Resist the urge to shrink (become You 2.0)
A couple of months after returning to Canada, I entered what is known as reverse culture shock. This is the feeling of disorientation, anxiety, and depression that comes with returning home after spending some time in a foreign country. I felt like I had changed in so many positive ways and feared shrinking back into the box that pre-Netherlands Aajah lived in. It seemed that the only way to prevent it was to forever live in Europe, escaping the things at home that grounded me.
“The great thing about living abroad and returning home is that I gained perspective of the potential I had inside me all along that I actually fulfilled.”
Aajah Sauter, opinion and culture editor of the Griff
The great thing about living abroad and returning home is that I have gained perspective of the potential that I had inside me all along and actually fulfilled. I have the capability to now fuse pre- and post-Netherlands Aajah together into the new and improved version of me — Aajah 2.0. Studying abroad helped me gain a clearer perspective of what I want out of life: newfound goals, values, and a preferred lifestyle. Now, I can take what I learned abroad and use that to improve the quality of my life in Canada.
The End… or is it?
I’m eternally grateful to have made such deep connections while abroad, so much so that it physically hurt to say goodbye.
I still talk to my dear friends Maria from Sweden and Sheila from Spain on a weekly basis. The three of us often daydream about living together in an apartment in Barcelona in the near future.
I found a sister in my best friend, Luna. We met through a group chat of Black women living in the Netherlands. In January, we started following each other on Instagram, and a month later, I awkwardly asked her to go out for coffee. We instantly clicked because we had various things in common. Our friendship blossomed over the months, and I counted myself lucky to have made such a strong connection with someone from a different country and cultural background. Our friendship is so dear to me that I have already booked a plane ticket to go back and visit the Netherlands to see her again!
I really hope that bearing my soul to you in the last 2,000 and some words was worth the read.
If you’re interested in studying abroad, you can visit MacEwan’s International office on the first floor in Building Seven, or visit their website.
Photos by Aajah Sauter