Discover Your True Self – #Studyabroadbecause

From time to time I’m asked to do interviews about my travel or study abroad experiences.  In the past I’ve been bad about sharing those here on VirtualWayfarer.  These interviews surface a different side of my travel experience and offer me a chance to offer advice through a slightly different lens.  As a result, I’ll aim to be better about linking to the most content rich of these interviews when I do them. The latest of which was an invitation to weigh in on why people should study abroad while simultaneously sharing my own study abroad story. I’ve re-produced the first two questions in the Q&A here. Make sure to click over to Wandering Educators for the full interview.

What motivated your decision to go abroad? How/why did you choose where to go?

My story is fairly complex. As a kid, my parents homeschooled my brother and I in place of 5th and 7th grade. 5th grade was spent backpacking Europe. 7th grade was spent in a 32-foot 5th-wheel trailer as we took a year and drove across the United States. I did my first study abroad the summer of my Freshman year of College. I was incredibly nervous despite the childhood trips. It was a 6.5 week Honors study abroad program in the British Isles. I debated doing a full semester or year and really wanted to, but could never work up the nerve. The summer program ended up being a great experience. Despite loving it and really flexing my travel muscle, I still never quite worked up the courage over the remaining 3 years of my BA to do a full semester or year abroad.

When I graduated, I turned around and tossed caution to the wind. After 4 years of being worried about doing a solo semester abroad, I closed my eyes and jumped into a 3 month solo trip through Europe. I figured it was now or never. It was amazing. I returned to a full-time job in Mergers and Acquisitions, where I managed two 16-21 day trips a year for the next 3 years. Then, tired of Arizona and eager to return for a Master’s, I applied to a number of schools selected based purely on reputation, the appeal of their location, and if they had a communication program. My methodology? A list of the top 50 Universities in the world and an afternoon of research. I ended up with 8 Universities split between 4 PhD programs (trying to skip the MA) and 4 MA programs. Of these, 3 were in Europe. All of the PhDs rejected me and the MA decision came down to Georgetown in D.C. or the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Georgetown wanted $30k in tuition a year. University of Copenhagen offered me a complete tuition waiver…as well as a 2 year visa to live in and explore Europe. The opportunity to do what I hadn’t had the nerve to do previously was too enticing to resist (and that tuition waiver helped).

Despite having only spent 2 days in Denmark during a trip the year before, I relocated figuring I’d see what happened and give it a go. It was one of the best and most pivotal decisions of my life.

You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In A Dark Room By Yourself

Women Relaxing - Copenhagen, Denmark

It has been 22 months since I arrived at Copenhagen Airport lugging three over-sized suitcases and a backpack.  I arrived in Denmark with lots of assumptions and unknowns and very little concrete data.  The sum of my previous exposure to Denmark stemmed from meeting Danes abroad, reading about a quirky Utopian liberal paradise in the frozen north, and two glorious summer days spent in Denmark the year before. At the time I didn’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, though I had mastered the fact that Danes spoke Danish, Germans were Deutsche and the Dutch were from Holland.   I assumed that Copenhagen’s “difficult” housing market meant I’d have to look at 5 or 6 places and it might take a week to find somewhere – not that I’d spend four months searching, having to interview like I was applying for a job, to get a room. I also traded an extensive local social network in Arizona for Denmark, where I knew virtually no one.  When I arrived I intended to stay for two years, but told myself that if I didn’t like it or couldn’t cut it there would be no shame in packing my bags and heading back to the US where I had a deferred acceptance to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. waiting for me.

I remember the moment when I walked out of the airport, fighting with my bags, in search of a luggage locker to store two of the larger ones.  It felt like I’d just been smacked in the face with a fresh fish.  In part because of the light Danish rain that was falling, but mostly because that’s when it finally registered completely that I had conquered my fears, bypassed the temptation to self-sabotage myself, chosen a direction, closed my eyes and jumped…to a totally different continent.  It hit me then, completely, that I was now responsible for building the next stage of my life.  A two-year period, assuming I didn’t blow it, that would require me to re-orient myself from the corporate lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in favor of the lifestyle of a student.  That I would need to not only adjust to student life, but Danish student life, and the life of an expat. It was an incredible feeling…but it was also a fantastic amount of pressure. There was the pressure not to fail myself, my family, my friends, or my future.  It weighed on my mind heavily over the first few months as I fretted over how I would perform as a Danish MA student. I paused to ask myself if I was doing all I could to help myself succeed while doing a periodic gut-check to see if I was suffering from homesickness. To the first – I could have done more, but did well.  To the second – to this day I’ve never had a bad case of homesickness.

Spring in the Mirror

The First Few Months

The first few months were not easy. The Dorm offer I received from the University of Copenhagen’s affiliated housing program was dreadful: situated 40 minutes outside of town in a deeply residential area that was predominantly home  to other International Students. I refused it and casually searched for a more centralized housing option.  For the first month I had a place to stay because of an incredible referral that was a text-book illustration of Danish hospitality, and the power of my international social network. I looked for apartments but still didn’t completely understand how the Danish rental market worked. I resisted getting into a housing agreement because my Visa and Residence Permit was still being processed in what dragged along for a vexing and gut-knotting four plus month ordeal.  After a month staying with my first friend, he now had new renters moving in. He referred me to a friend of his who put me up for another two months.  I had arrived at the end of July. By late October my residence permit finally came through. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d found a place, only to find out six days in that my 42-year-old male roommate not only found me very attractive but was also extremely odd. It was very uncomfortable, but makes for a comical story. I moved out on the morning of the 7th day. When I told him that morning he cried. After a third month back with the friend who had been putting me up, I finally got frustrated by the apartment hunt and offered 200DK a month more than the asking price for a room. It worked. By December I had a furnished room at a reasonable price in an excellent location.  With a permanent address and my Visa/Residence Card, I was able to get my CPR number which is effectively the Danish version of a Drivers License and Social Security Card all rolled into one.  It meant I could finally register for a cellphone plan, get internet, and a bank account. In short, I could begin to settle.

The combination of visa and housing woes were partially compounded by a strange first semester as I re-integrated into the academic world. I can’t say that I felt like I was homeless for the majority of my first semester in Denmark, as that isn’t accurate, but I was in a transient state. It made settling nearly impossible and sucked up a lot of the energy I would have otherwise liked to have invested in meeting people and really hitting the ground running. Luckily my classmates were fantastic and we bonded quickly which did a lot to help offset the periods of fairly deep loneliness I felt during my first couple of months. This was a time where I worked to push my comfort zone and struggled to re-develop the skills needed to meet strangers and befriend them. During that time I grew a lot, despite it being fairly difficult and at times uncomfortable.  I would go to the local hostel bar and hangout with travelers, go to the movies alone, and at times head to the bars alone and force myself to meet random people. It worked, but was hard and draining. It was also made even more difficult by my lack of regular access to a Danish cell phone and the internet.  Things I needed a CPR for.

YGWA Conference 2013

Mentorship

During that first semester I participated in the Full Degree Mentor program.  My mentor was a Danish girl who introduced me to a local library where I could write my papers, talked with me about Danish lifestyle, and helped translate apartment listings and websites when I ran into issues. She was super busy but always available and helpful.  In retrospect I should have reached out to her far more often and felt less guilty about asking for general help and insights into social activities. At the time I felt somewhat awkward about being overly needy and like I didn’t want to bother her or intrude.  Over this past semester I had the chance to pay-it-forward and serve as a mentor for several incoming students. Now that I’ve spent time on the other side of the equation, I realize that I could have and should have gotten significantly more out of my mentor/mentee relationship – not because she failed me, but because I failed to realize the potential of the program. At the time I had trouble accepting that it was completely OK to ask simple questions and that as mentors we are not only there to help with small and big things alike, but also eager.   To make introductions, to facilitate meeting people, and to connect for coffee or social outings. At a certain level the mentor is often available and doesn’t know what you want or need help with until you ask.  To that end, what I got out of the mentor program was directly related to what I showed I needed.  I’m independent and self-directed. In this case, that go-it-alone approach undermined my success.  I’m a bit jealous of new students entering into the program because the mentor program is being significantly expanded and improved upon.  It will provide a lot of additional social and academic support – things that the early incarnation of the program lacked two years ago.  The new program also provides a lot of events which allow students to meet each other and connect – something that would have been an incredible asset for me when I was first adjusting to Copenhagen but which was lacking. I think these changes will make future Full Degree students’ experiences much smoother and significantly less stressful.

In tandem I also signed up for a professional mentor matching program which was run by the University of Copenhagen and operated university-wide.  The lion’s share of the programs were for Danes, but I made sure to dress in my suit and attended the information day.  The combination of my professional appearance and previous work experience as Research Director in the M&A industry led the Siemens representative to give me her e-mail and ask for my resume. I followed up, and based on her suggestion, listed Siemens as one of the three companies I applied for with a professional mentor.  Despite my inability to speak Danish, they chose to make an exception. I was later matched with their Communications Director in what has been a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship providing fantastic insights into the Danish workplace and professional landscape. Even though the program ended late last year we have continued to keep in touch.

The Hill - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Education

Earlier I mentioned that my first semester was strange.  In truth, I was terrified that the Danish University system would be brutally difficult.  That, despite graduating from Arizona State University’s Honors College and a solid academic background, I would be generally outclassed by my classmates – the best and brightest from everywhere from Denmark to China to Germany. What I found instead was a comfortable program that was still young and experiencing significant growing pains.  Created two years before as a new initiative, the program was full of challenges.  Challenges that were compounded by a number of significant administrative issues, including having one of our professors deported to Australia two weeks before our final exam was due.  These flaws generally impacted class morale across the program and left many of us frustrated.  The upside was that the Danish system is heavily paper oriented with the primary method of examination in most of my classes consisting of either a final 20-25 page research paper, or 10-15 page paper with a 30 minute oral defense.  The remainder of our course work was relatively easy to handle and played to my strengths.  As a native English speaker, I also enjoyed the advantage of writing in my mother tongue. Beyond that though, I realized why American universities, despite their many faults, are some of the best in the world. They prepared me, and drilled into me habits and protocols which have allowed me to excel within the Danish academic environment.  Where I initially thought that the program itself was  easy, I’ve come to realize that it was actually quite difficult by traditional standards. It played perfectly to my strengths, abilities and existing knowledge base.

Now that I better understand the Danish academic landscape, I’ve come to realize just how varied the different programs and universities are. Where I initially thought that the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) was a subset within the University of Copenhagen (KU) just as the W.P. Carey School of Business is a college within Arizona State University, I now know that the two operate independently but still maintain the opportunity to take transferable courses.  I now also know that CBS tends to be very practically oriented while KU tends to be much more heavily focused on a theoretical and academic approach to a university education.  Both contrast against Roskilde University’s heavily humanistic approach, and differ from the Danish Technical University’s (DTU) hard science and math-based approach. If I had taken more time to learn about the different universities and had better understood the differences early on, I believe I would have been much better positioned to custom-craft my education and take full advantage of the highly flexible nature of the Danish university system.

Another key consideration that I wish I had known from the start is the difference in definitions and organizational structure. While the Danish University system is deceptively similar in many ways to the American university, there are basic differences in how material is classified and what material falls under what category.  When I applied for the Communication and Cognition program, I anticipated that the communication component would build heavily upon my bachelors degree which was focused in Human Communication with Mass Communication influences as well as some Journalism cross-over.  What I found instead was a program that was more heavily oriented towards communication theory and communication philosophy with an even greater emphasis on cognitive philosophy and cognitive theory mixed in with lightweight neuroscience.  Programs that I initially assumed would have fallen organically under the Communication category within my program were instead set up independently as different departments such as Film Studies, Media Studies, Rhetoric, IT and Cognition.  While not directly related to my studies, a poignant example of this is the difference between University of Copenhagen’s Theology Department and Religionsvidenskab or Religious Studies Lab and other specialized programs such as Arab Studies in the Cross Cultural and Regional studies program which are spread across three very different study areas.  An international looking to study religion and religion(s) might assume Theology would be the obvious landing place for them, but would quickly discover a program structured and designed for the education of Christian Clergy. These subtle organizational differences were deeply confusing initially.  Ultimately, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration, and misplaced discontent, if I had realized the need to do less narrow research and to take into consideration that these structural and definitional differences might exist.

One final academic takeaway is the difference between ECTS points, the Danish 7 point grade scale and their American alternatives.  While the US operates on a credit hour-based system with the average bachelors degree semester consisting of around 15 credit hours at 3 to 4 credit hours per course, the Danish system utilizes ECTS points which roughly equate to expected time investment for a given course.  At KU my courses have mostly fallen into a 7.5 or 15 ECTS point category depending on anticipated scope and involvement with a typical semester ECTS load of 30 ECTS (equiv. to 30 hours of work per week) viewed as normal and on track.    While somewhat difficult to translate across, the ECTS system is relatively straight forward and used across Europe.

On the other hand the Danish 7 point grade scale is an absolute disaster.  The Danish grading scale was re-structured several years ago in a process similar to the US’s switch to the + or – A, B, C, D, E/F system.  The Danish switch was made in an effort to simplify the old 13 point system while creating a new system that better translated to international systems such as the US’s.  In addition to widespread confusion about the new scale, it is extremely counter-intuitive.  While called the new 7 step scale, it actually ranges from -3 to 12.  To further muck things up the scale has gaps and the 7 steps are actually 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, -3.  The scale officially translates differently to the ECTS based scale and the US grade scale.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that there is massive confusion over what quality of work a 7, 10 and 12 equates to.  Danish transcripts utilize the ECTS conversion which maps a 12 to an A, a 10 to a B, and a 7 to a C.  The way the Danish professors grade, however, translates more accurately to the US version which maps a 12 to an A+ (near perfect/perfect), 10 to an A and A-, and a 7 to a B or B+.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the passing scale a 02 or “adequate” grade awarded in Denmark registers as an E on the ECTS scale (and the official transcripts) which signifies a fail or incomplete in the U.S. system. This despite a 02 actually reflecting a D, D+ or C- by US standards.  Given that most international employers and Universities aren’t regularly exposed to Danes and the Danish education system, I feel that this is likely a significant source of mis-communication.  I know that within our department, at least, it is only now after two years within the system that I’ve started to fully understand it.

The Largest Tuborg in Copenhagen

Social Reflections

A lot of people fail at prolonged study abroad/exchange/expat life. Ultimately, one of the primary reasons is an inability to successfully socialize and adapt to their new living place.  This post is titled, “You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In a Dark Room By Yourself” because at the end of the day the benefits from study abroad are more experiential than academic.  The lion’s share of the experience, the learning, and the incredible moments I’ve had over the past 22 months comes from hands-on learning and growth.  It has been a wonderful learning opportunity  for me and a time for fantastic introspection and self development. I would have missed out on the vast majority of that if I confined myself exclusively to my studies and severely limited my social involvement or confined it solely to expats.

It took me about 8 months to start to feel settled. The first three months were the hardest and it progressively got easier from there.  BUT, those first three months would have been significantly better had I socialized differently.  In many ways, outside of networking and socializing with the people from my program (about 90% of which were international students) most of my interactions with other people were 1-offs. The common advice given to most new arrivals is to join an association or to pick up a sport.  I find watching sports to be painfully boring and outside of ballroom and salsa dancing, have a general dislike for playing most sports bred by years of dealing with fantastically bad coaches.  To make matters worse, outside of Risk and Monopoly ,I find board games and card games similarly dry and painfully uninteresting.  It generally takes friends to make friends while going drinking, and many of my other interests – travel, photography, space, philosophy, and topics such as business and politics aren’t the type of thing that are easy for casual socializing.  My solution? To push myself periodically to get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s draining, stressful, and daunting. So, far more often I stayed home, logged on Facebook late at night and chatted with my friends back in the US.  While this helped me offset the feeling of loneliness, it did little to help me properly integrate or connect with people here in Denmark. The fact that my housing, cell phone and internet access were all a mess for the first 5 months made it worse, but did not need to be anywhere near as prohibitive as I let them be.

What I should have been doing was attending faculty Friday Bars, signing up for Couchsurfing meetups, finding and attending groups on Meetup.com, and tapping into a wealth of fantastic expat (and non) networking groups and events through Facebook.  It took me almost a year to start to get introduced to things like Science and Cocktails – a bi-monthly meetup which is free, and provides a wonderful evening drinking old-fashioned cocktails overflowing with dry ice, served up by Danes in lab-coats  – all while listening to brilliant scientific minds give a casual introduction to things like CERN or Super Volcanoes.

I also should have been working to organize things instead of allowing myself to wait and hope for invitations to events. Over the past year I’ve learned and realized something I already knew but wasn’t acting upon. As an international, the way you make local friends is by inviting locals (in this case Danes) to interesting events. It’s something I’m still horrible about.  The other realization I’ve had is that while it’s great to make social friends while drinking, if you want to convert those into more general day-to-day friendships you need to diversify when you do things.  That means other activities during the week – catching concerts, going to shows, or getting together for dinner or a coffee on a semi-regular basis.  Also, yes, sports do help.  After an initial series of salsa evenings that left me with a less than complimentary view of the local Copenhagen Salsa scene I took a four-month break and gave up on it as a local way to network.  Luckily five months in a friend dragged me out to a new place.  The new venue was everything I thought Copenhagen was initially lacking.  Through it, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with a lot of wonderful people – both Danes,and Internationals.  Many are students, but many are also business professionals.  Over the last year I’ve also gotten more involved in the local University culture – the highlight of which was joining the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. A group of wonderfully motivated and like-minded international students. The program has created great connections, while also introducing me to fantastic opportunities such as the recent chance to meet HRH, Prince Joachim of Denmark.

Which leads to the next point.  Students are great, but to build long-lasting connections to a place you need to diversify who you’re connecting with. Students, especially international students and expats, are in transient stages in their lives. The average professional expat stays in Denmark for 3-5 years.  The majority of the international students in Copenhagen are on Erasmus or semester exchanges which means they are in Denmark for four to six months. These relationships can be excellent and I’ve developed a truly global network of great friends as a result, BUT for someone in my position doing a two-year program it has meant that a huge chunk of my social network leaves within two to three months of our friendship’s maturing.

Ultimately, time and money are the two biggest challenges I’ve run into.  As my two year program winds down and I reflect on my time here in Denmark there’s a lot more I could have done (there always is) and that I could have done better. I got a lot out of my time at the University of Copenhagen but the reality is that I could have gotten more heavily involved, attended more social events, and connected in a much more extensive way with the Danish students. I also have a lot of wonderful casual friends/acquaintances that I am confident would be fantastic friends if I just had, or made, the time to be more pro-active in spending time with them.  Nothing simple, nothing complicated, just inviting them for coffee, a drink, or to catch a show a few times a month. I know this, and yet it is challenging. In part because I still find myself slipping back into that dark room, content to chat with friends 3,000 miles away on lazy evenings.  Beyond that though, there is a second room that is deceptive.  The friends I’ve made through my program and which I hang out with regularly are fantastic. So much so that it is easy and comfortable for me to spend all my time with them, or working on my personal projects (eg: this blog). The reality is, however, that crutch also prevents me from properly responding to and realizing the invitations that potential friends and casual acquaintances send my way. It is also expensive to socialize. Even when the time for a coffee with a different friend is available, the $5-10 required for a coffee or beer  adds up quickly.

Relaxing in the Park - Copenhagen

Will I Stay?

As I work on completing my thesis and winding down my MA program I am incredibly happy with my choice to come to Denmark.  While this post focuses predominantly on things I’ve learned or could have improved upon and want to share with other potential study abroad students, I have fallen in love with Copenhagen. The people are spectacular, the history fascinating, the culture engaging, and the city deeply charming.  Denmark, and Copenhagen more specifically, is doing a lot of things right. While it has its moments of tomfoolery common sense is present here in a way I always found deeply lacking in Arizona.

I am currently in the process of transitioning from academic life back into the professional world.  As I do so I am working towards a skilled worker visa and full-time position in Denmark.  As I make that transition, I am reminded of the absolute power of a vibrant social network and the pivotal role it plays in launching a successful career.  While this is a period for reflection, I also plan to take the lessons I’ve learned over the last 2 years and work to more aggressively implement and act upon them moving forward, particularly if I find myself presented with the opportunity to stay in Denmark for several more years. I feel as though I am well on my way down the path toward comfortable integration.  Moving forward it is just a matter of continuing to overcome bad habits while building upon good ones.

This post is part of a series of pieces I have written reflecting upon my time in Denmark, Danish culture and Study Abroad.  Please consider searching the archives for previous posts related to Denmark.

Avoid Wrecking Your Study Abroad Experience

Mickey_Mouse_Graffiti_War

The bartender leaned across the dark stained wood that marked a bar that had heard and seen the drunken adventures of revelry makers for decades.  In a thick Irish accent he rambled off, “What’ll ya’ take darlin?” with the practiced look that demands a quick and well-organized response.  The young American girl – in her late teens or early twenties  – quickly shot back, “Two Guinness and two Irish Car Bombs”.   The bartender paused and a quick shadow of annoyance swept across his face.   My brother and I, both leaning lazily against the bar a few steps away watched in silent amusement.  We were in a well-known tourist watering hole in the Temple Bar district of Dublin with a reputation for sassy staff.  The crowd was starting to thicken and the din of drunken antics was loud, but not so loud that we couldn’t overhear the conversation.  Earlier we’d had a good laugh with the bartender exchanging friendly jabs and stories and now we found ourselves trading a small smirk with him.  This promised to be interesting.

He leaned in to the girl willing to give her a chance to reconsider and catch her mistake, “What?”  She pressed on blissfully unaware of the nasty faux pas she’d just committed. Annoyance scrunched her face as she re-stated her order, only this time in an even louder, sharper, and somewhat slower American accent, “T-W-O Guinness and T-W-O Irish Car Bombs”. Obviously not impressed he frowned, stood up straight and in one motion rolled his eyes in our general direction. He shook his head and pointed at the next person waiting to place their drink order.  My brother and I shot each other knowing looks.  We were tempted to jump in and explain the situation to the girl but were curious to see if she’d piece it together herself. We decided to wait a bit longer.

Her face contorted in a mixture of frustration and casual rage. From her point of view the bartender was being an ass and no doubt hated her because she was an American.   To make it worse you could see she’d already concluded that part of the problem was that he must not understand her sharp “American” accent.  She fidgeted for a minute or two and then pulled out a 20 euro note which she prominently displayed on the bar while the bartender filled a few more orders.

Now some of you may have already identified what’s wrong in this story.  For those that have not, the Irish Car Bomb is a type of American drink that consists of a half pint of Guinness, and then a shot mixed with Baileys Irish cream and Irish whiskey.  The shot gets dropped into the Guinness and quickly “explodes” or at the very least begins to curdle while you quickly guzzle it down.  By itself a somewhat harsh but not overly offensive drink.  The trick comes in the name.  As those familiar with Irish history might recall, they’ve dealt with decades of violent conflict which in many ways tore areas of Ireland and Northern Ireland apart.  If wikipedia is to be believed “The Troubles” as they’re modestly referred to left 3,529 dead and more than 45,000 injured – many by way of brutal car bombings. To this end, walking into an Irish Bar and ordering an Irish Car Bomb is similar to ordering a Black and Tan in other parts of Ireland and tends to be poorly received and in culturally insensitive.

Eventually our very Irish bartender decided to give her another chance and returned to her place at the bar.  He leaned in and said, “Try again. What’ll it be?”.  Now thoroughly annoyed and convinced he was picking on her for being American she repeated her order. This time even slower and louder than before making the mistake many travelers make. Let’s face it, speaking louder and treating the other person like they’re stupid isn’t going to help them understand you one bit…especially when they very likely already understand you perfectly.

He paused. We waited. He sighed. Then leaned in and said, “Deary, we don’t sell those here but tell you what. I can whip you up two 9/11s”.  Very different types of shock blossomed across our collective faces.  It was obvious she was about to burst into tears. The look on her face said it all – now she knew the Irish hated Americans.  Not only was it confirmed, but apparently he was reveling in one of the worst disasters to strike America.  We erupted into laughter. Not because making light of Sept. 11th is any laughing matter, but because of how brilliantly it turned the situation around. Ordering a “9/11” in parts of the US would likely get you sent to the hospital.  Yet, that’s essentially what thousands of young Americans on study abroad do on a regular basis in Dublin. If we’d left it there she would have no doubt gone back to her friends in tears, shared the story of how the Irish hate Americans, how they joke about American’s darkest moments, and then carried those stories on to Facebook and back to the US with her. Not only might it have ruined her night, but in many ways it likely would have flavored her entire stay in Europe. It’s something I’ve seen countless times and for a variety of reasons.

Still obvious that she had not, and now clear that she would not make the connection between Irish Car Bombs and September 11th, we decided to intervene. We tapped her on the shoulder, and quickly explained what some might consider a mild, and others a rather grave cultural misstep she had just made.  As we explained the connection recognition blossomed across her face. Offended rage transitioned quickly to embarrassed annoyance. Collectively we all had a good chuckle about it, she got her drinks, and we learned a valuable lesson.  Now, to be fair, the bar tender WAS being a bit of an ass about the whole thing and the vast majority find it more amusing than offensive. Still, to this day it stands out in my memory as a powerful illustration of how easily things can go wrong when you’re operating on a limited set of assumptions.

I see things like this happen all the time.  That one experience might have been enough to poison her experience both that evening and during the rest of her stay.  But it likely would not have ended there. The story would have spilled back to the US, and been repeated to every student she talked to who was considering studying in Europe. Why?  All because she was blissfully unaware she was making a culturally offensive error and couldn’t be bothered to connect ordering an “Irish Car Bomb” in a country wracked by terrorist attacks with the situation she found herself in.

Now, as a traveler or study abroad study consider how often you may have had negative experiences that were similar in substance to my Irish Car Bomb story.  Consider how those experiences may have shaped your views on people, your experiences, and how you enjoy your over all program.

Error #2 – Creating Bad Luck By Being Stupid

In addition to blogging about topics related to travel and study abroad here on VirtualWayfarer, I’m also active across the web in a number of forums where I try and respond to people’s questions about travel, study abroad, solo travel, and expat life.  Over the years I’ve observed a lot of travelers and a lot of students.  I’ve seen them make mistakes and I’ve made more than my fair share in the process.   As a new semester starts up here in Copenhagen, a small army of new students has descended on Denmark eager to kick off what for many is their first study/living abroad experience. For many it is also likely their first time in Europe and/or abroad in any way/shape/form.  It’s a process being duplicated in cities around the world and it really is a wonderful thing.  Especially for young American students since we typically don’t partake in the traditional gap year that many other western countries view as a natural part of the learning process.

I see and respond to a lot of threads on basic (and not-so-basic) concerns.  Most of these are great questions and relate to concerns and frustrations that go with the territory.  They’re the fabric that makes travel, study abroad, and life abroad such an incredible growth and learning experience. I enjoy joking about the times I’ve been lost, felt overwhelmed, or in over my head. The little moments – like when I bought a 2kg bag of beets thinking they were sweet potatoes – are humbling, frustrating, humiliating, and deeply beneficial all at once.  However, I also see other stories and types of students on a semi-regular basis that I have learned to avoid. These are the individuals that will either have a grand epiphany somewhere during their trip, or – far more likely – will return home with stories of their nightmare experiences that intimidate and discourage other potential travelers from taking the road.

I recently found myself reading through a posting by one of these individuals on a popular discussion board.  While I won’t pretend to know the exact specifics of her experience, it became apparent that she was the type of individual that subconsciously did absolutely everything in her power to sabotage herself while being completely oblivious to what she was doing and blaming everyone else in the process.  You know the annoying blond girl at the start of the movie “Taken” that gets them both abducted?  Yeah. That type of person.

I find this bothersome and unless they’re in desperate need of immediate help, I refuse to engage. In fact, it can actually be somewhat dangerous to do so as these individuals quite often manage to bring all their bad behavior and bridge-burning with them.  However, while I opted out of responding there were many others who did with a wealth of help and advice. They were being polite, friendly, and sympathetic.  This is a wonderful, beautiful thing and really embodies the warm nature of the international community.  However, experience has also shown me that this will do very little to help her change her behavior. Unfortunately, it likely just reinforces and reaffirms it.

For the sake of this post though, let’s all be honest with each other:  If you find that you’re “disaster prone” or have “terrible luck”, there’s a good chance that you’re at least partially responsible.  You’re likely putting yourself in situations that are conducive to bad things happening, sabotaging your relationships, failing to take accountability for your actions, being mind-numbingly culturally insensitive and/or just generally being a putz.

If you find that your purse, phone, wallet, or passport repeatedly gets stolen or lost, it’s time to grow up and accept the truth of things.  It’s not because you have bad luck. It’s because you are being a moron. In addition, if you don’t know how to handle alcohol, then either stop drinking in public or do what the rest of us do and stop behaving like a drunken buffoon.

Similarly, if you find that “everyone hates you and you just don’t know why” it’s probably because you’re an asshole. Well, that’s unfair.  You and I both know that you’re probably not an asshole at heart (after all, you were cool enough to decide to study abroad!) but chances are some of your behaviors are driving other people away.

So, if you find yourself preparing to embark on a study abroad trip, traveling abroad, or as an exchange student I encourage you to be extremely mindful of where you are, of how you engage and interact with people, and above all that you not only take accountability for your actions but also for your own behavior and the ramifications of that behavior.  At the end of the day you are not helpless.  You are not abandoned. The system is not out to get you. The locals are not at war with you.  You WILL face challenges and setbacks…but how you respond to those when they do occur will shape the nature of your experience and the willingness of people to help you.

Let me be clear: YOU are the greatest threat out there to having a safe, enjoyable, social, and wonderful learning experience.

I encourage you all to enjoy every moment of your trips and hope that moving forward we’ll see fewer and fewer people sabotaging themselves and their experiences.  It’s the little things that add up. Change those, re-frame them, and push yourself to be more than you were yesterday and you’ll do great.

Have fun and safe travels!

Hopefully this post was something you knew already, but perhaps you know someone who needs to read it.  If you do, send it on to them and let’s all push for the best, most enjoyable study abroad experience possible!

Oh, and for the love of all things decent. Please, please, please remember that most people DO understand English and likely CAN understand you and they probably DO hear you.  It’s amazing how many people seem to think its acceptable to comment about people sitting right in front of them (often in less then complimentary terms) simply because they’re not in a native English speaking country.

Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

When I first arrived in Denmark I was gung ho about learning Danish.  I felt that as an incoming resident who would be spending two years in the country it was the least I could do to learn Danish during my stay.  To my surprise the majority of my Danish friends appreciated the sentiment but discouraged me from learning Danish – the common statement went along the lines of, “Only 6 million people speak Danish and it is a terribly hard language that is almost impossible to master, besides we all speak English”.  I can’t imagine a similar sentiment being expressed about English back in Arizona.  Granted, it’s a very different situation, but even if it were not, I just don’t see Arizonans ever voicing similar advice.

Eager to expand my horizons and truly immerse myself in Danish culture I decided to take their recommendation under advisement, but push ahead with learning Danish. Now, several months later I’ve had several realizations that have re-shaped my relationship with the language.

The first is that most Danes really do speak excellent English.  It’s almost impossible to find a Dane here in Copenhagen under the age of 40 who doesn’t speak fluent English.  It’s taught in their schools, most of the movies shown in theaters are English with Danish subtitles, and about 70% of the movies and shows on TV are presented in a similar way.  Of those over 40, most speak at least some English.

Danish is an incredibly difficult language. Now, I don’t consider myself a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite actually, but based on my experiences with Spanish I feel as though I have at least a general baseline to compare against.

The thing about Danish is that it is a fairly guttural/throaty language, it is very general and re-uses a wide variety of words which makes it very contextual.  The words in Danish are also some of the longest I’ve ever encountered which I’ve found challenging as I’ve yet to learn where to pause and what to omit.  In addition to having incredibly long words, many letters of the alphabet in words are actually silent which makes hearing it and reading it phonetically extremely difficult.

The most difficult part of Danish for me, so far, has been the guttural enunciation.  Danes commonly joke that as a non-dane the best you can hope for is to get close. Unfortunately, so far even the simple three or four letter words have largely escaped me. As it turns out, my version of west coast, slightly southern English uses every part of my mouth EXCEPT the parts used in the guttural aspects of Danish. In general the way I’ve learned to talk is with crisp – perhaps harsh is more accurate – vocalizations.  The result is that I can’t even make many of the sounds used in Danish, let alone hear them.  For those of you that battled with the rolling R in Spanish, this is similar, but across the entire language.

On the upside, while I have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the more subtle aspects of the language the one area my English background helps with, is the cross over and use of words which have their roots in Old Norse and the Germanic languages. Words like hour (timer), etc. are clear cut enough that I can make contextual sense of them when reading websites, menus, etc.

The Danes are also very finicky about the pronunciation of words.  What sounds identical to a non-native speaker is often a significant enough difference in pronunciation that the Danes have difficulty recognizing and understanding the word(s) being spoken. I know that for some people, this has been mistaken as being unhelpful, but the more I’m exposed to it, the more I’ve come to realize that it’s deeply ingrained in the complex structure of Danish and the key importance of subtle emphasis and not done out of any sense of elitism or stubbornness.

An additional point of interest has been Dane’s use of English in the midst of general conversation.  As I understand it English (in part because it is a new language) has much more descriptive words for a lot of actions and things than traditional Danish.  As a result it’s fairly common for Danes to supplement Danish with English during the course of their conversations.  Sometimes only using a word and other times switching to English for a sentence before diving back into Danish for the remainder of the conversation.

I’ve been very surprised by the Dane’s willingness to switch entire discussions over into English if an English speaker is present without complaint. I’ve even seen a number of Danes switch from Danish to English when ordering in ethnic restaurants without a hint of complaint or annoyance.  That said, despite English’s generally widespread use in Denmark, the social language barrier you would expect elsewhere between Danes and non-danish speakers is less visible but still present.

I share the above because I’ve been forced to adjust my approach to learning Danish. My previous goal was to be able to speak, write, and read Danish by the end of the year. While I’ve realized that given enough time it’s certainly doable, the reality is that I’m not likely to attain that level of mastery over the two year period I’ll be here.  From conversations, this realization inspires many long-term visitors and expats to abandon Danish all together. Which I also don’t find to be the right approach.

My revised goal is to learn enough Danish that I can hear and understand spoken, conversational Danish when it is occurring around me.  From there, though I’d like to be able to (and hope to in time) respond in Danish. For the time being I’ll focus on responding in English.   This should allow me to participate in many of the conversations that I might otherwise accidently be excluded from without forcing everyone I meet to constantly speak English, just because I’m in the general area.

It is going to be a challenge. The re-training of my ear has already been a surprisingly difficult task, but it’s one which I’ve already found to be quite enriching and informative.  The role of language in learning more about culture, myself, and in shaping this experience has been a significant one, even with my current limited vocabulary of about 5 spoken Danish words.

For now, I’m off to ride the metro, silently mouthing each station name and announcement as I work to acclimate myself to a new world of sounds, words, and grammar. Looking like I’m talking to myself is a small price to pay for the chance to learn a fascinating language with a rich and storied history!

Students Only: Partying in the Black Diamond Library in Copenhagen

Black Diamond Student Party

While Copenhagen is famous for its architectural flare, one of the city’s famous landmarks is the “Black Diamond“. Built as an extension to the city’s ancient Royal Danish Library, the Black Diamond is a neo-modern 7-story addition which extends from the old library building to the city’s harbor/waterfront. It was finished in 1999.  Granted its nickname due to the polished black marble and dark glass used to design the building, it houses a theater, armies of book shelves and a classy waterfront cafe.

Black Diamond Student Party

The library holds a yearly event with a local students group which puts on a fantastic evening of music, drinks, and social mingling. The event is limited exclusively to students and their guests. This year it showcased a variety of wonderful musical performances ranging from a lone cello performance to well known hip-hop artists.

Black Diamond Student Party

While the individual library wings were closed (understandably) to the general audience, all of the open spaces were made available and filled with wild lighting, musical performances, and space to mix and mingle.  With large open halls and an acoustically friendly atrium crisscrossed at different points by flying bridges it made for a delightful experience. It is also interesting the difference a legal drinking age of 18 plays in enabling these sorts of events.  While still possible in the US, the lack of a need to ID, wristband, and police the event as well as the more responsible drinking behavior among undergraduate-aged students that results from the lower drinking age makes a huge difference. While you could hold a similar event in the US, it would definitely be far more challenging logistically and have a different ambiance as a result.

Black Diamond Student Party

The main performers were set up on the flying bridge that cut across the center of the atrium at the 3rd story.  It served as the perfect stage as the rest of the atrium consisted of wrap around, open air causeways which formed a large U before giving way to the ceiling to floor glass windows.  The main windows which stretched from ceiling to floor before warping into a large skylight offered a charming view of the harbor at night.

Black Diamond Student Party

A group of students from the Communication, Cognition, Film and Media Studies programs met up before the doors opened for a relaxing drink along the harbor waterfront. As the sun set we made our way into the Black Diamond.  It set the mood for the night.   Once inside we split into smaller groups as we explored the library (for most of us, it was our first time inside) before re-connecting to catch up on the week’s events and antics while listening to the various music performances.   The entire event was more than just music or drinks.  It was a beautifully executed experience and definitely ranks as one of my favorite events in Copenhagen so far.

Black Diamond Student Party

There’s something truly magical about a great concert series in a captivating venue.  The added effort the organizers put into building on the library’s native ambiance also made a huge difference. One surprising aspect of the evening was the number of international students in attendance.  Though University of Copenhagen has a relatively small international student population (in comparison to its size), the event was very foreign student heavy which offered a fun mixture of accents, cultures and personalities. Holding the event as a students-only event also ended up being a great thing.  It eliminated the potential social discomfort that often goes with attending a formal event and served as a fun way to bridge the gap between a more traditional event and student life’s informality. The event was an absolute delight and one I hope to participate in again next year. Have you enjoyed a concert or event in a particularly unique venue?  I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

**I didn’t take my camera with me to the event so the photos in this post were taken by Frida Zhang and are used/hosted with her permission.

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!