By: Alison Sutton
When I first imagined my time in Europe I saw myself travelling non-stop, seeing at least two new countries each month I was there, and constantly seeking new adventures and experiences. I saw myself living wildly outside my comfort zone, constantly thrill seeking or living on the edge. I envisioned myself being fashionably photographed in beautiful places, like a travel blogger – essentially, I envisioned perfection. What is important to note here is that perfection does not exist and, realistically, most students going on an exchange will not be able to afford to take luxury trips – likely you’ll be staying in hostels, booking the cheapest flights, trains, or buses, and trying to save money any way you can. It is important to note that this is okay! Exchange is not about how many places you have visited, but the experiences that you had there.
I was lucky enough to study in Amsterdam at the University of Amsterdam, a central hub in Europe. However, due to my restricting class schedule, I was left unable to travel to places farther than a couple of hours unless I had time off of school. Something that initially broke my heart and made me so upset, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I was able to get to know not only the city of Amsterdam (So well that I could get around without Google Maps at the end!) but also the Netherlands as a whole. I was able to become deeply connected with the country and the people. I really feel as if I lived there, rather than an extended visitor as many of my peers felt when their time to leave the country came. I was told by many of my friends abroad that they were actually jealous of my exchange experience because they ended up spending very little time in Amsterdam and even less time travelling around the Netherlands.
I chose to share this story because I think that this really demonstrates how differently we think of ‘success.’ I was disappointed and disheartened for months because I felt like I would be wasting my exchange in Europe by not travelling to new places constantly. While I was feeling this way, my friends who were travelling non-stop were thinking the same thing about themselves when comparing their experiences to mine. I realized about seven weeks in how truly lucky I was to even be able to go on exchange and how the only thing that was standing in the way of success and happiness on exchange was my attitude.
Success is different for each of us – what I did on my semester abroad and what I found success in, will likely be totally different than your experience! It is important to remember that this is to be expected and is absolutely okay. What you want to avoid is wasting precious time abroad dwelling on things you cannot change. Finding yourself, discovering new likes and dislikes, developing a unique sense of independence and confidence, and learning to trust yourself and your instincts 100% are just some of the aspects that you will find success in, without even trying while on exchange. The rest of the story and the successes are up to you!
Alison Sutton is a student in Communication Studies and Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences at McMaster University. She studied for a single term at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.