Ellen Hietsch is a Dreams Abroad team member who is returning to Madrid to teach abroad for her third year. Before living and working in Madrid, she participated in a study abroad program. Ellen found the program through her bachelor’s curriculum at Dickinson College. She studied abroad for one year through the Danish Institute and participated in a core course that focused on migration sociology. This course allowed her to meet with organizations who had connections to migrant issues in Denmark and Sweden. Ellen found her master’s program due to this experience. While studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, she lived with a host family. The main transportation infrastructure of the town were bike paths. They remain friends to this day.
What sparked your dream to study abroad?
“I can’t say there was a single spark. I remember coming into college not knowing what my major would be, nor any career paths that interested me. But, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of studying abroad. I chose my alma mater partially for its renowned programs overseas.
Looking back before college, I can spot little nudges toward wanting to study abroad. Funnily enough, I didn’t leave the US until I studied abroad at 21. Before that, I had gathered snippets from all corners of the world through some serendipitous circumstances in my tiny hometown. Carlisle was not only in the same town as my future college, but also the host of the US Army War College. New military families from around the world arrived each summer to call Carlisle home for the year. Frequently, their children attended my schools.
The new arrivals were a fascinating twist from the mundane that tends to hang over small Pennsylvania towns. I greeted them with curiosity and excitement. The college itself was also a source of international exchanges. A first grade classmate’s mother was a Spanish professor. She would come to our classroom a few times a month to teach us the fundamentals of Spanish. My first few units of Middle School Spanish were a breeze thanks to these mini lessons.”
What were your expectations before you left? How did they change once you arrived to the location and what changed after having completed the program?
“Honestly, I was scared. I had reached the moment in which I realized what had drawn me to my college, only to linger back at on-campus orientation crying to the Copenhagen program assistant. After two and a half years, I was finally starting to find my place at college. There I was, about to voluntarily leave for four months. I feared that my foundation would shatter in my absence.
Copenhagen solidified that foundation, and helped make it applicable beyond college. Through my core course on migration at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, I had the opportunity to study across borders. We had conversations with key players involved with immigration policies in three different countries. It was at a time when it was a heated topic locally: the week I arrived in Denmark, the Danish government passed a series of controversial immigration reforms. Through this class structure, I could witness sociological topics play out in daily life rather than simply reading about them behind university walls.”
What did you not expect?
“I could have never guessed how comfortable I’d feel in Copenhagen from Day One. It wasn’t even a comfort developed through challenge and compromise. Little differences were wondrous. My hodge-podged neighborhood of whimsical playgrounds, quaint houses, and lush fields reconstructed what I believed a suburb to be. My entire time in Denmark was a treasure hunt for change. Even nuisances like face-numbing morning bike rides became an awe-inspiring reward. In the States, it wouldn’t be possible to bike wherever I wanted!
In Denmark, I finally found a way of life to which I could relate. Cultural differences embraced me through the vessel of my host family. We’d share dinners with the grandeur of home cooked meals and lit candles each night. They instantly welcomed me into the inner circle of family gatherings, of which there were a few each month. The Danes I knew cared about their careers, and work shared a place at the table with their social lives and personal passions. I envied their balanced lives, especially since I grew up and went to college in the fast-paced Northeastern United States. It is a lifestyle that is now stitched into my own value set.”
What have you done since you studied abroad?
“I now live in Madrid, Spain, where I am teaching English to students of all ages. Returning to the US for my senior year was the beginning of my quest for an international career, on which this is a stop. I hope that obtaining my master’s in a subject like political sociology will open up more permanent opportunities abroad. This is opposed to being caught in yearly cycles of paperwork to maintain a lifestyle in which I thrive.
Thriving isn’t simple, however. Gone is the gentle hand that guided me through study abroad’s classrooms full of Americans and carefully curated host family matches. Madrid has matched me up against some of the greatest challenges of my life. It’s all been in the name of the international career I crave. Yet, I find myself handling each roadblock with greater grace, and have built up resilience reserves that I couldn’t have imagined for myself three years ago. Through it all, the grand prize of living internationally remains luminous.”
What advice would you give to someone who wants to study abroad?
“Disconnect from life Stateside as much as possible: friends, family, and the foods you’re craving will be there when you return. Of course, it’s important to manage the presence of these two worlds rather than ignoring one or the other, but if you must lose yourself somewhere, choose where you are in the moment. Appreciate the tiny differences and seek to understand the complexities of those that present challenges. These challenges are not insurmountable. However, viewing them through strictly an American lens is another means of getting lost in translation.
During my early weeks of studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was constantly in contact with my friends back at home for innocent reasons. I wanted to share my awe with the people who mattered most. I was often frustrated when their reactions to my tales of Copenhagen didn’t match my own. Focusing on relationships with my host family and friends abroad eased my frustrations. Even when disagreements arose, we could have more complex conversations about them since we were living through this unique experience together. Difficulties became more navigable as I learned how and with who I should bring them up.”
Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark is an Experience
Ellen shared that studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark changed her life for the better. It not only helped her form a more internationally-focused mind. It also gave her a different perspective that she might not have had, had she not lived in such a different culture. Her host family continues to inspire and encourage her. She looks forward to her next steps after her third year of teaching in Madrid, Spain. For now, she is enjoying her moments abroad soaking in Spanish fiestas, tapas, and cafes!
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