4 Lessons Learned From a Semester Abroad in the Netherlands

4 Lessons Learned From a Semester Abroad in the Netherlands (Courtesy of Jordan Pagkalinawan)

Los AngelesThis past semester, I embarked on an exciting journey of studying abroad in the Netherlands, spending 90 days in a 14th-century castle with 80 of my peers.

That time also came with a myriad of experiences, from adjusting to the workload to figuring out when and where to travel. For other students considering a similar opportunity, here are four lessons I took home with me from my time in Europe.

Pack Light

Everyone says don’t pack the kitchen sink when studying abroad, and it’s true. My parents encouraged me to pack only the essentials so it’d be easier when moving out. I later adopted this mindset when I traveled on weekends. Instead of bringing my carry-on, I put what I needed into the backpack I used for class, and it worked just fine. It was a lifesaver, considering some European airlines charge extra for checked bags. Packing light also gave me room for the inevitable souvenirs I collected, mostly T-shirts and books.

Culture Shock is Real

Aside from a six-hour time difference, I also had to adapt to Dutch culture. Kasteel Well’s staff carefully explained the various norms we may encounter — we even took an online history course about the Netherlands — but the real learning occurred during daily life. Every day brought a new lesson, from greeting every Dutch person you pass on a walk to recognizing the optional tipping culture.

Once you figure out which country you’ll be studying in, research as much as you can beforehand. If you have friends who did the program before you, ask them for advice, but remember your experience may not be the same as theirs. Culture shock will come in different ways, but you and your peers will get through those stages together.

Advance vs. Spontaneous Trip Planning

After compiling a list of places I wanted to visit in Europe, I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to hit up everything I put down, especially in a 13-week semester.

I also did not book anything before touching down in the Netherlands, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Planning while in the castle was actually fun, and most of my peers were in similar situations. Planning travels with friends inspired me to research other places to explore. I had something to look forward to by being one step ahead, and it allowed me to enjoy every second in that new place.

I also decided to take day trips, fueled by somewhat impulsive decisions. I could hop on a bus, buy a train ticket at the station and be somewhere else in two hours. Those trips were worth it, even with a few delays. I went to a vintage car museum in Dusseldörf, Germany, and explored a church-turned-bookstore in the small Dutch city of Zwolle, among other adventures. I wouldn’t have known about them if I wasn’t curious enough to check them out.

Document Everything

Finally, it may be obvious, but take tons of photos and videos and have fun with them, too. I relied on my phone to capture all the memories I made, but some of my classmates brought film cameras or created travel vlogs. Even now, I find myself going through my camera roll again and reminiscing over how much I enjoyed the journey.

I also tried to journal as often as I could, writing down feelings as a tangible reminder of the places I went to. That journal also came in handy when collecting souvenirs, as I used some pages to store transit passes or museum tickets. There’s no single way to keep track of your time abroad. Find what works for you and stick with it as best you can.

Final Thoughts

The biggest takeaway I had from the last four months was the need to get out of my comfort zone. I had experiences I wouldn’t have gotten if I stayed back. I explored the streets of Venice and London and went around Brussels until 1 am with friends, among the dozens of stories I have now. And while there was a bit of FOMO when it came to missing places and people back home, I did my best to stay in the moment, because I wasn’t sure if — or when — I’d be back again.

My four months in the Netherlands truly exceeded my expectations. I recognize that the lessons I gained here will serve me well in my future endeavors.

Jordan Pagkalinawan (he/him) is from Los Angeles and covers news, health and technology. He currently studies journalism at Emerson College in Boston. Follow him on X: @JPagkalina1 and Instagram: @jpagka22.

Edited by Nykeya Woods

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