Keeping an Open Mind While Studying Abroad

Keeping an Open Mind While Studying Abroad


Danes communityDanish words are having “A Moment,” with their ability to describe grandiose concepts in a few letters. When I was preparing to study in Copenhagen, “hygge” had just burst onto the scene. Most closely translated to “coziness,” you can now find hygge plastered onto a wide variety of floral candles and fuzzy socks, as I fearfully predicted from my room in Denmark while scrolling through profile after profile on the concept’s ingenious. The New Yorker even declared the year of my study abroad “The Year of Hygge.”

If coziness must be purchased, however, it is not truly hygge. For the Danes, hygge is a reflex: some lit candles here, wearing a warm sweater on a rainy day there, all topped off with making time in your day to do a little something that brings you peace. My host family practiced hygge through nightly family dinners, with lit candles at the head of the table each night. These dinners were the highlight of my evenings, full of conversation sprinkled with wit and wisdom to transition from the hectic day into a hygge night.

Often, we’d talk politics: the 2016 presidential primaries were beginning in the United States, which provided plenty to talk about. Describing his leanings, my host brother said he was considering switching political parties. “Why’s that?” I asked.

“Mine has become too feminist — they’re so radical.”

My face furrowed. My host brother, from the country lauded for its equitable policies, didn’t consider himself a feminist? It was a radical ideology to my host brother, who couldn’t see past its man-hating stereotypes even as Donald Trump demeaned women on live TV and continued to be taken seriously. Infuriated and insulted, I excused myself from dinner to go running, during the night in the middle of Scandinavian winter. Frostbite might be a nice distraction, I figured.

Culturally, coming to Denmark had been an easy shift for me. It was beneficial even: in a country that prioritizes work-life balance, I could easily put my racing mind on pause and focus on myself, rather than making comparisons to others as is inevitable at an ambitious university.

rooftops denmark

Designing Projects Abroad

My classwork at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad was different too. In lieu of nightly readings and papers, students received large-scale projects to focus on for the entire semester. Some of mine included designing and carrying out an activist campaign and conducting a mini-photo display crafted from three shoots of the same stranger. We were far from home. Our studies ensured we were digging deeper into our strange new surroundings, rather than simply collecting surface-level shots of them for social media.

Interacting and Learning about Locals

This philosophy included people as well. Each of my classes had me interacting with Danish strangers. Whether it was extensively as a focal point for the final project or quickly as a random interview subject, we were constantly interacting with the locals. We also met directly with primary sources for class themes through field trips across Europe. For my migration sociology class, one of the trips was to meet with the Sweden Democrats: a political party best known for their unapologetically nationalist stance on immigration with neo-Nazi influences. I felt appalled by their existence, let alone their growing support in Sweden. “Remember, deep breaths,” my host dad said, reminding me to keep a little hygge around before flying into an international incident-creating rage.

Those breathing exercises weren’t necessary. After the Sweden Democrats presented their party platform, my class and I burst into action with questions that dissected their views. We armed ourselves with passion reinforced by the statistics and stories we’d encountered in class. Although no minds changed that day, I left the meeting feeling satisfied. I could hold my own while speaking to someone with whom I so vehemently disagreed with without sacrificing my values.

Sweden Democrats Keeping an Open Mind

Building Communities and Having an Open Mind

My class spent the rest of the time in Sweden with groups doing work that I dream to one day be part of. It included integrating migrants into their communities, building connections between natives and newcomers, and providing legal support for refugees. However, after three years, coming face to face with the Sweden Democrats remains the most impactful part of my time in Copenhagen. With these other groups aiding migrants, our conversations were ones of admiration. To accomplish their missions, however, they need to thrive in a country where the Sweden Democrats had substantial support. They cannot crumble in the face of contradiction.

My Danish professors understood this. In most of my classes at my stateside university, students came together in railing against such viewpoints. However, we rarely discussed how we would respond to someone who held them face-to-face.

In Denmark however, one of my professors in particular embraced differences in opinion as an educational tool. Even though he made his leftist political views clear on the first day, he briefly wore the mask of a right-winger to incite conversation in class. “But what if I thought the migrants were stealing our jobs? What would you say to me?” he would ask, biting back with even more right-wing talking points when we’d answer him. In his class, I learned how to strengthen my ideas through putting them through the test of disagreement.

Prepare for Contradicting Ideas

Knowing how to confront disagreement is also vital to studying abroad successfully. Among all of my pre-departure meetings and checklists, I had failed to prepare for encountering ideas that contradicted my own beliefs. Even in my comfortable homestay, my first reaction to disagreement was to run away. Stereotypes of Denmark trapped me in a bubble that offered a faux-hygge, like that which is currently on-sale at some big-box suburban store or another across the US, that popped as soon as I was faced with something that contradicted it. I feel lucky to have participated in a program that pushed me out of my comfort zone in harmless situations and taught me how to thrive outside any sort of bubble. This is where true hygge begins to grow.

Deconstructing discomfort can begin at home, by learning more about the country where you will spend the next few months. Read the news, speak with natives of the country and with students who have recently returned. Take classes on topics that interest you. Prepare to hear answers to questions you may not like. Above anything, know yourself. While I can preach about my own experiences, everyone’s comfort zone is as different as their own experiences. Knowing where your comfort zone’s boundaries lay is understanding how to engage your surroundings. Know who and when to engage, and most importantly, from whom and when to step away. Protect your well-being above anything.

Ellen Hietsch riding a bike in CopenhagenIntentions Get Lost in Translation

Intentions lose themselves in translation as with any linguistic misunderstanding. Just as studying the language prevents you from constantly searching for the correct word, having a more complete knowledge of your host country can help separate the malicious from the miscommunicated. When my host brother talks about feminism, he does so having grown up in a country that has made greater progress than the US on more visible feminist issues, like equal pay and representation in government. I still disagree with him that Denmark has reached the feminist finish line. However, I now understand where his opinions come from. This opens the door for clearer, calmer conversation.

Keeping an Open Mind While Abroad

Knowing how to understand without justifying has helped me thrive in Denmark and beyond. I’ve continued navigating disagreement while living abroad in Madrid. It’s opened my mind, broadened my friendships, and strengthened rather than morphed my own beliefs through debate. I feel proud to say that I no longer run away from them through the park without gloves on cold winter nights: frostbite isn’t very hygge, after all.

by Ellen Hietsch


22 thoughts on “Keeping an Open Mind While Studying Abroad

  1. Prior to marriage, I wanted to go abroad for studies. Unfortunately, that was not in the cards. However, I hope that it is something my children can do. I believe going abroad can bring a wonderful point of view of the world we live in.

    1. I agree completely, it’s a great way to encounter and embrace difference. My mom’s first time outside the United States was when she visited me in Denmark, and I’ve been grateful to have my parents’ support as I’ve studied and lived abroad over the years. That’s fantastic that you’re encouraging your kids to study abroad; they’ll be lucky to have a supportive family.

    1. I encourage everyone to have a longer term experience abroad! It’s changed me for the better in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.

  2. I went to a british boarding school, university in switzerland and then a MBA at Anglia Ruskin. You have made some amazing valid points. Studying abroad opens your mind to other cultures and ways of doing things. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thank you for such a nice comment! That’s great that you’ve been able to have so many international educational experiences, I’m jealous! I’ve loved becoming friends with people from all over the world in Copenhagen and Madrid.

  3. This is such an informative and interesting article on studying abroad. I can see how there might be miscommunication when studying and learning new concepts abroad so I like how you have mentioned how to help these issues. Also, I really like the idea of hygge, so interesting!! Great post, thank you for sharing your experience!

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you liked it! Yeah, it’s a learn-as-you-go process that gets easier with time. I’ve run into my fair share of miscommunication muddled by cultural difference while teaching in Madrid as well. Knowing how to step back and approach it calmly is vital. And a bit of daily hygge helps too: I get mine from yoga and writing!

  4. What an amazing experience for you! That is something that will last a lifetime for you. I think it is amazing to learn about other cultures and how much different they are from our own. It is eye-opening, and can be a wonderful experience. I’m glad you had the opportunity to do this and share with your readers.

    1. I agree completely. My life has felt more full as a result of being surrounded by different cultures while living abroad. Glad you enjoyed my post!

    1. Finding balance is still exhausting for me sometimes, but definitely worth the effort. I hope you are enjoying your time abroad, otherwise!

  5. Studying abroad definitely makes you open your mind to new knowledge and experience. Those are some great points to know. It must have been quite an amazing experience for you.

    1. It was an amazing experience and still is, as I go into my third year of living in Madrid. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

  6. You hit the nail on the head! I have lived in the US for 12 years and still shocked at the level of moral decadence growing by the day. I come from a background where morality and respect take precedence and seeing everything in the opposite here is a culture shock to me.
    I hope my kids will make better choices in spite of all the madness and chaos that surround them.

    1. Culture shock is difficult to navigate. I still get nervous about where I will encounter it in Spain, especially as I’m preparing to start a new job next week. When I first arrived to Spain, I reacted with silence and shyness, even as I’d become more outgoing among my closest friends. Now I’ve learned that I can’t let it affect my personality: I always try to treat others with the kindness I’d like for myself, and don’t shy away from complex conversations. This is how to best learn about the place where you are living.
      Good for you for starting a life and raising a family away from home! It’s a brave action. I hope you and your family can find everything you desire from your life in the United States.

  7. I’ve never been out of the United States. It would have been so cool to study abroad, but it was never an opportunity for me. Denmark sounds wonderful.

    1. Denmark remains one of my favorite places in the world! Visiting my was my mother’s first time outside the United States. I hope you can find an opportunity to have an enriching experience abroad.

  8. I wish I had the chance to study abroad. These are great tip for those who are embarking on that journey.

    1. Hygge is such a cool concept. If you explore any language enough, you can find interesting terms that aren’t easily translated to other languages. When teaching English, I’m curious to learn what expressions my students don’t have in their native languages.

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