The night started at a grungy club.
My heart pounded in beat with the music blaring around me. Lights sprawled in spirals against the walls and the dark sea of moving bodies. Elbows were jabbing against my back, a shoulder knocked into my head, and I stumbled squeezing through bodies on the alcohol-drenched floor.
It was my second week of studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I was suddenly pushing myself way out of my comfort zone. I left, uncomfortable and too sober to remain. But I wanted a beer.
My intense fixation of wanting a refreshing beer compelled me to look past the familiar structures of Nørreport Station while walking to the bus stop. Deciding twenty minutes was too long to wait in the cold, I continued down random streets until I spotted the glowing neon Tuborg sign that indicated a bar.
A haze of smoke knocked me back as I opened the door. I pushed forward. I wanted experiences, to live, to learn. An integral part of studying abroad is being able to experience the culture in a country other than your own. I was here to have those experiences, but I needed a little push -- out of the club, down the street, and through the door to the bar.
A sense of open-mindedness, adventure, and opportunity had gotten me this far, despite the sense that my study abroad program was severely lacking in chances to experience Danish culture. My classes consisted of students from the same program who were, for the most part, fellow Americans. It was similar to attending college back home, except with different people in a different country. Our interactions with the Danes were mostly limited to Tuesday nights when most people went out to that grungy club for a rare ‘interaction’ with fellow Danes who loved nightlife.
This Tuesday night, however, I couldn’t get myself to conform. The cage-swinging, shot-taking norm for my fellow students wasn’t going to cut it.
When I first entered that Danish bar, I didn’t expect anything. I just wanted a beer, and to sit alone and mull in my thoughts. A Danish man greeted me while he waited for his drink. He invited me to sit with his friends. I could have said no, drank my beer, and went on my way, but I didn’t. In a moment of clarity, I realized my experiences abroad were what I made of them. They could be in grungy clubs or they could be in this bar, interacting with Danes in a meaningful and memorable way.
I took the leap, immersed myself with him and his friends, and stayed out until dawn in one of the most cultivating nights during my time studying abroad.
Keep an Open Mind and Positive Experiences Will Follow
In that smoke-infused bar, I, as an American, was an outlier among the Danes. Even though I didn’t smoke, I didn’t allow that to deter me. I didn’t allow my negative feelings about grungy clubs and drunk Americans to affect my attitude, and my friendliness with that Danish man opened a door into their world. It was a night full of drinks and laughter I will never forget.
That night, in that moment, I was a part of their group, not just a stranger from another country. We discussed politics, life in America, and life in Denmark. They taught me to play Liar’s Dice, a game of deception and chance. With each round of beers or licorice shots, I embraced Danish culture, clinking glasses and shouting “Skål!”
I will always be able to reflect on the night with fond memories, even if they are a bit hazy from the alcohol and the time that has elapsed. I could have sulked in a corner with my beer, leaving that night with only negative associations, but I didn’t. I embraced the Danish experience by entering unknown territory and allowing myself to be pulled into their lives.
Study Abroad is a Perfect Time to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
To be honest, change scared me when I decided to study abroad. Studying abroad in a foreign country where I knew no one beforehand terrified me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s felt that way once the decision was made.
One thing I learned -- through my study abroad experience and the years since -- is that fear hinders people from creating memories and experiences, from taking a leap of faith, and from discovering more about themselves. Encouraged by my memorable night in that Danish bar, I now strive to push past that initial fear and to not allow my experiences to be controlled by it.
If you don’t open yourself up and experience life, especially when studying abroad, what will you have from the experience? What stories will you be able to tell? Study abroad is the chance to create those stories, to learn from them, and to look back years later and share your insights with others.
Seize the Opportunities that Present Themselves While Studying Abroad
Traveling has taught me the importance of taking advantage of my life. When I was studying abroad, I made a continuous effort to not leave with any regrets or missed opportunities. Whether it was hopping on a train for a weekend trip to explore a new part of Europe or sticking around to build a bridge with my new friends, I found that seizing the opportunities in front of me was far more educational -- and enjoyable -- than not doing so.
The memories you reflect on from studying abroad aren’t the ones when nothing happened. To be honest, they aren’t going to be the ones that happen in the classroom. What you will remember from your study abroad experience are the moments you seized ahold of life, took chances, and experienced being abroad.
Think about that idea of ‘being abroad.’ Consider the privilege and opportunity you have. Take advantage of it to explore your temporary host country, immerse yourself in the culture, and push yourself to grow and discover. You’ll be surprised at the experiences you have, and which memorable ones end up staying with you for years to come.