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Growing up, international travel always seemed like a daunting affair. It required intensive planning, negotiating strange languages, customs, and currencies; the journey itself seemed arduous, requiring so many hours spent in a car or plane. While the idea of studying abroad was appealing, adding the stress of classes to the mix did not make study abroad appear any more attractive. I managed to overcome this aversion only through complete accident. I was on a canoe trip in northern Minnesota with my friends, and after a long day on the water, we realized our surroundings did not match where we thought we were on the map. After prolonged and often heated examinations of the map, we realized that we had penetrated several miles into Canada, and like that, I was an (illegal) international traveler. Granted, I had only paddled seven miles into a country with a shared language and many cultural similarities, but this incursion bolstered my confidence and made studying abroad seem like much more feasible experience.
Emboldened by my inadvertent foray north, I began to seriously consider studying abroad. With the help of OIE, I was able to find a program that encompassed everything I wanted to get out of my semester abroad. Working with OIE, as well as my academic advisers, allowed me to crystallize for myself what I hoped to achieve while away from Harvard. I sought an experience that would supplement, rather than substitute, academics at Harvard. DIS, with its emphasis on experiential learning and practical applications, was exactly what I was looking for. The hands-on experience is something I felt had been lacking from my time at Harvard. DIS would allow me to not only study European politics, but to see how the systems and institutions worked in person.
My academic experience in Copenhagen lived up to the expectations I had for it. While studying the European Union, I had the opportunity to travel to Brussels with my class and meet with the people who made all these institutions we had learned about work. The experiences outside the classroom provided something more that studying textbooks alone cannot. Visiting military bases, meeting with ambassadors, and sitting down with lobbyists gave me something tangible to which I could connect my learning. My academic experience abroad gave me something that my time at Harvard had lacked.
Being in the classroom and on field studies helped me learn more about my chosen course of study. Being outside the classroom helped me learn more about myself. Over the semester, I gained confidence in my ability to navigate unfamiliar places in languages I had a hard time understanding let alone speaking. Living in a homestay in a small town outside Copenhagen helped me to better connect to the distinct culture of Denmark. My morning commute by bike and train into Copenhagen really made me feel a part of the society. Although I did not take a Danish language class, I began to understand basic phrases simply from being surrounded by the language. I joined a football team and made good friends with a number of Danish students around my same age. Through these encounters and interactions, I came to appreciate a completely different way of life.
Studying abroad while at Harvard may seem like a waste of a semester or even a year. Why squander even a few months of the boundless opportunities and resources available at Harvard? Leaving Harvard and going abroad is not about what you miss, but what you gain. Other institutions offer opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable at Harvard. From within the ivy and gates of the Yard, you cannot have wine with the Italian ambassador, tour the brewery of a Trappist monastery, or interview lobbyists to the EU. Studying abroad is not about what you leave behind, but what you can gain.