I was required to complete an online writing course for Pitzer while abroad, and finished the course a few weeks ago. It is designed for students studying abroad for only a semester, so my final assignment which reflects on how I’ve grown abroad and such only covers my first few months. I decided to post my final portfolio statement on my blog for a more overarching picture of what my first semester was like. Enjoy.
As an exchange student in Amsterdam, I experienced a range of pressing moments where I felt myself grow as an individual, as well as a student. I was able to reflect on my cultural understanding and challenging experiences through a variety of writing exercises including the topics of minority perspective, cultural sensitivity, and global-local relationships. My reflections on the experiences I have had in Amsterdam as an American exchange student prove my ability to survive in a foreign environment without the temptation of judgment or attempts to preserve my home culture. While I can compare experiences in both American and Dutch cultures, I have grown to appreciate both in their uniqueness, and apply a combination of morals and customs to my life post-travels abroad.
My intercultural maturity and growth is visible in my writings as they transform from simplistic cultural and site descriptions to fuller analysis of Dutch customs. These writings, therefore, conceptualize how an environment, combined with its inhabitants, contributes to solidifying these customs, values, and stereotypes. While my initial understanding of Dutch culture was relatively correct, the assumptions were shallow and based on surface-level research. My first portfolio pieces focused on the environment of my neighborhood and school, and experiences that any newcomer or visitor might have. This included language barriers while trying to ride the bus, or riding a bike around the city for the first time. As my first semester progressed, I began to write about the national attitudes and cultures of the Netherlands, and eventually brought my small-scale observations to a global context. By the end of my portfolio writing, I was discussing how a Dutch individual might interpret a classic American poem by Walt Whitman based on what I have learned to be their values. I also was able to write a knowledgeable account on the controversial topic of legalized prostitution in the Netherlands, and argue how such an action fits into the traditional aspects of Dutch culture and society.
I believe that I have met Pitzer’s and the course’s educational objective during my time in Amsterdam, and meeting these objectives is evident through my writing. I have established intercultural understanding through thinking critically about my new culture and environment. Recognizing cultural differences and not using judgment is only possible by demonstrating self-awareness; I believe to have done this during my reflections on minority perspectives and evaluating challenging personal experiences. I also investigated social responsibility by writing about environmental issues in the Netherlands, which was the purpose of my trip abroad. My writings, finally, teach a lot about my host culture that many people refuse to acknowledge. This was particularly important for me, as Amsterdam has achieved the reputation of a marijuana-smoking party city. My goal through my writing was to introduce Amsterdam as the city it really is, which is conservative, conforming, and socially responsible. While it enjoys liberal thinking in some aspects, there is much more to Amsterdam than stereotypes leave room for. My reflections shed light on this issue while simultaneously exhibiting how the true Dutch characteristics have shaped the country into one with high standards of respect, efficiency, and appreciation for the environment.
My time abroad in Amsterdam—although only halfway over as of now—forced me to grow and inspired me to flourish in ways unanticipated. While I came to the Netherlands with the intent of studying environmental sustainability, I will be leaving the country having assimilated to a responsible, efficient, and conscious culture as a whole. I have not picked up transcripts, as I have five more classes to complete before my semester terminates. I do intend to clean my apartment and sufficiently check out of my housing situation. I will keep Pitzer updated on all of these actions that will be taken care of at the end of May.
Travelling to Western Europe from a small liberal arts school might not initially be regarded as the most intensive study abroad experience, but I took the task upon myself of creating daily challenges that would test my patience and acceptance of difference. Firstly, my decision to spend a year in Amsterdam surpasses the comfort of returning to the United States when most students reach their threshold after four months. This decision also encouraged me to take Dutch language courses. Second, the lack of a homestay option forced me to live in apartment-style housing and have complete responsibility over myself; this entails grocery shopping for Dutch ingredients, independent travelling around the city, forming bonds with other international students, and communicating with the Dutch government as a resident. Lastly, I chose to write about topics for my portfolio pieces that varied greatly from what I usually research in college. These topics ranged from the presence of Moroccans as a minority group in Amsterdam, prostitution as a legalized activity, and even the sticky situations one can get into due to language barriers.
I, without a doubt, got what I anticipated out of my study abroad experience and then even more. My education in Amsterdam was superb as I took specified classes on sustainable food production, world food systems, and water governance and resource management, all of which were not available to me at Pitzer. On top of these courses for my Environmental Analysis major, I was able to take Dutch culture classes and a language course. As of right now, I don’t believe I would have done anything differently. I travelled as much as my schedule allowed for, I made lifelong international friends, and I was successful in my studies. I would have perhaps liked to make stronger connections with Dutch students, but this is hard to come by as many commute and do not have a strong desire to befriend exchange students.
Each and every one of my experiences in Amsterdam was educational and memorable. Most were also surprising. I will always remember the feeling of riding my bike through the city, along the canals, with my best friends beside me. I will remember my first conversation with a clerk in a store where I didn’t need to tell them I would prefer if they speak English. Most importantly, I will never forget the feeling of being completely new and lost in a city, of being a new student once again and feeling foolish to be nervous because you are twenty years old, and then finally the feeling of pride the first time you call it your home. I would advise students travelling abroad to take the road less travelled and stay for a full ten months. You will have the time to not only become accustomed to living in the city during the first semester, but to feel comfortable enough in your surroundings during the second semester to focus more on growing as an individual, as a student, and to dig deeper into the opportunities the city offers. Living on your own, while intimidating, forces you into so many situations that having a caring parent in a homestay might allow you to avoid. I enjoyed my housing situation, although it was less comfortable than I expected. You have the responsibility to make it how you want it. Studying abroad will be some of the best and worst moments of your life; you will be overcome with happiness most of the time, but sometimes homesickness and exhaustion can take a strong toll on you. I came abroad with a long distance boyfriend, a wonderful and comfortable family life that I didn’t want to leave, and from the warm state of Texas. My drive for adventure, however, kept me going. If I survived and maintained my mental state in cold and rainy, sometimes lonely, Amsterdam, anyone can.