Last fall, industrial engineering major Nathan Hemby spent four months studying in Sweden, where he was initially overwhelmed by…well, by almost everything: the different learning styles, the cold, dark winters, the unfamiliarity of the place. But he soon learned that for every valley you hike through, there will be a peak, and like as not, that peak will offer an incredible view. Here, Nathan draws parallels between his study abroad program and an adventurous October hike in Norway.
It’s hour five and kilometer 12 as we crest another hill. My friends and I gaze off into the distance, looking for any sign that we are near the edge, but only seeing more undulating hills covered with a blanket of snow. We are near Trolltunga, one of Norway’s national landmarks, wondering what we were doing on a hike of this magnitude. A day earlier, we were standing in the tourist office of the nearby town of Odda, seeking shelter from the rain instead of hiking as we originally planned. We listened as the local guide told us that they didn’t recommend hiking this time of year. We had convinced ourselves we had driven 12 hours for nothing, only to have a friendly stranger from California embolden us and convince us otherwise just minutes after leaving the office. Determined to see our trip through, we trudged on toward our destination, 14 kilometers from base camp. Marching on, a mix of emotions boiled up within me. On one hand, an ever-growing anxiousness and excitement to see one of the most stunning panoramas in the world. On the other hand, a growing exhaustion from trudging step-by-step through the early October sludge.
Looking back, that arduous trudge toward Trolltunga draws a parallel to my study abroad experience. From the beginning, I was a bit apprehensive about going. There always seemed to be a reason that I could use to talk myself out of going, whether it was money, leaving friends or the uncertainty of stepping into a society that I knew so little about. However, barrier after barrier fell and it became more certain that I was meant to go on this program. Much like the friendly stranger who emboldened us for our trek, I was encouraged by friends and family to take advantage of a great opportunity to explore the world. My schedule fell into place, funding became available and I learned more about the Swedish way of life. Everything went smoothly until I arrived at my departure gate in the airport, where I found myself asking: “What am I doing??”
The initial shock of finally realizing that I was leaving all my friends and family for four months was the first of many peaks and valleys that I walked through on this study abroad program. Highs such as making new friends, taking road trips and learning valuable lessons about myself were contrasted by challenges such as feeling like a freshman once again, struggling to adapt to a new learning system and coping with the long, dreary, dark Swedish winters. What I learned through the process, though, is that the struggles and challenges make the best parts of the program that much sweeter in the end.
Far and away the best part of my program was the people that I met and the lessons that they taught me. I made friends from all over the world, including Germany, India, Canada and Sweden. Through spending time with them working on projects and exploring Europe, I learned valuable lessons that I will bring home with me. The lesson that resonated most with me is that no matter where we come from and no matter what our life goals may be, we will always be more similar than we will be different.
In between meeting new people and going new places, I did find some tough challenges throughout the semester. The first was the frenzy of starting school all over again in an unfamiliar place. Memories of hectic days as a freshman flashed through my head as I walked into my very first class late, fretted over where to find course books and struggled to adapt to a new style of learning. (My first class was something straight out of a movie. I got lost and ended up walking in late, only to find that the only seat available in the whole room was in the front row, directly in front of the professor.) I learned quickly that the Swedes value group work more than homework, so I had to adapt my study habits to learn the material and excel in my courses. Finally, I realized just how dark and gloomy it can get in Sweden. With the sun setting at 3 p.m. and most days being overcast, it can be an uphill battle trying to stay upbeat and motivated with so little sunlight in the midst of finals week. On the upside, I’ve never experienced quite so much joy from seeing the sun as I did when I saw it break through the clouds for the first time in nearly two weeks.
Ups and downs seemed to be the theme of both our cold October hike and my study abroad semester. There were times when I was at a peak, enjoying the view and the experience. There were times where I was frustrated in a valley, wondering what I was doing there and looking up at the road ahead. But after it all, I get to look back and appreciate what I accomplished and the effort it took to get to the end, and take in a beautiful view and a lifetime’s worth of memories.