They say that what does not kill you only makes you stronger. For me, that describes my time in Utrecht, Netherlands studying in an exchange program at Universiteit Utrecht. It was my junior year, and I was dealing with major culture shock, the 9/11 tragedy, and a broken heart. The original plan was to spend the year in Utrecht, take classes that actually counted towards my major, improve my Dutch language skills, and see as much of mainland Europe as my studies would allow. Then things took a turn south.
Classes started and I found out the communications courses offered were more introductory than previously thought. They would no longer count towards my major as I had already fulfilled their equivalents. A last attempt at reconciliation with a boyfriend ended in many tears and my heart re-broken. And then the world I knew changed on September 11, 2001.
The severity of my culture shock was something I hadn’t anticipated. I had taken two semesters of Dutch before heading over to aid in the transition. The pressure I put on myself to speak often and well (“well” meant not being wrong) was completely out of proportion with my skill level. Any potential interaction that required me to speak Dutch threw me into a tailspin.
I retreated into myself. I began to have anxiety attacks, which I had never experienced before. When at the apartment I shared with two Dutch students, I rarely left the perceived safety of my bedroom. I felt like everything I did was wrong: how fast I rode my bike in the heavy traffic of the bike lanes to how I ordered a meal to how I dressed.
I would stare out my bedroom window at the sidewalk below. I knew that if I could just get myself out there, I’d be okay. The phantoms my brain had conjured would retreat. I had a hard time at first but I knew I had to make it out to that sidewalk, breathe in the fresh air, and just go.
I remember a phone conversation I had with my dad. He said he would come over and get me if I wanted him to. I did, but I knew I’d regret it. I had been talking about wanting to study abroad for so long. I had just come off a fantastic summer abroad in Ireland. I had proven to myself that I could do it then; now I had to prove to myself I could do it again – in tougher circumstances. Walk the walk, if you will.
So I made myself walk out of my room, down the two flights of stairs, get on my bike and ride. The fact that I am a person that doesn’t like to miss school probably saved me because it pushed me out the door those days I really wanted to stay in bed. Being on campus and in the classroom, I was in my scholarly element and could relax. This unavoidably led to meeting people, and, ever so fortunately, some of those people became friends.
My best friend on the program was a girl who, shockingly to both of us, went to college with and knew well one of my good friends from high school. The reminder of what a small world it was went a long way. I also befriended the rockin’est mix of ladies I’ve ever met. They helped me through what was the toughest time in my life. And actually one of those ladies was there for me again five years later when I was going through another tough time. (Thanks Allison!).
In the end, I did decide to only stay for one semester as the credits towards my major were no longer an option and I wanted to graduate on time. It was a very difficult decision to make as I didn’t want to feel a failure. But I knew it was the right thing for me to do, for myself and my schooling.
When I think back now there is a bit of a dichotomy in my memories. On the one hand, I remember all the “dark days” of dealing with my culture shock. On the other, I remember all the awesome people I met, all the traveling we did together, of my favorite spots in Utrecht, of smiles, music, and laughter. Getting through that time has definitely made me stronger and the good memories all the sweeter.