Denmark: Expanding Your Vision
Submitted by Zachary Shulman on the 2019 fall semester DIS program in Copenhagen, Denmark…
The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, and as I reflect on their contribution to my semester, I realize that in two months’ time, I will be boarding my flight back home. Therefore, I consider this blog post to be uniquely important to the overall perspective I will have at the conclusion of the semester. I am not only writing these to provide advice and insight to students who currently, or intend to, study abroad; my second motivation is to provide for myself a sort of cartography of thoughts that have influenced my perception of Copenhagen as a city, Denmark as a country, my place within them, and who I will be upon my return to the United States.
Studying in an unfamiliar environment is a unique opportunity to grow as a person, and not exclusively in an academic context. Alongside European politics, I have been searching for ways to learn more about myself. This semester has presented me with challenges for which I was not prepared in a country I had never visited. Unlike my experience in Rome, before which I was able to meet the other attending students, I entered this program with a clean social slate. This was both an exciting and intimidating venture; never before since kindergarten had I been placed in a situation so unfamiliar as this.
So how did the last two weeks profoundly change the course of this semester? There were two main functions they performed, with each week taking on a respective function. The second of these past two weeks was quite eventful in a more academic context. A staple facet of the DIS Copenhagen program is the long study tour, which is a week-long trip to another country in Europe full of experiential learning. For my study tour, I visited Brussels, Belgium, which is the capital of the EU. We were so fully immersed in European politics last week that even our hotel was just down the road from some of the most important EU institutions. We toured most of them, as well as the European External Action Service, a European think tank, and conducted interviews with European diplomats and lobbyists.
The effect of last week manifested in a tendency of the college experience I have noticed since freshmen year, but never occurred in such a concentrated dose. When you choose your major in college, you are typically informed by a broad interest in a given field, without much knowledge about what effect that degree will have on your relationship with that field or your future aspirations. I have noticed throughout my four and a half semesters that learning new information, of any quantity, can revolutionize the way you perceive that topic. Any given reading, lecture, or conversation can create a paradigm shift, opening up brand new avenues of thought. The most effective catalyst for this type of change, of course, is experiencing it firsthand, and that is what last week was all about.
The most interesting stop on the trip was the European External Action Service, which is the primary institution through which the EU member-states can express a collective opinion regarding a development in international politics. It does not, however, supplant each country’s individual foreign policy, as that would constitute a major shift of sovereignty from the national to the supranational level. However, within the scope of issues that the EU faces as a whole, the EEAS serves to provide effective and immediate responses. We heard from a few select speakers who were surprisingly conversational in their approach to the lecture. Ultimately, they touched on their various topics with a degree of casualness and nuance atypical of political discussions.
The second effect these weeks had on me kicked in when I came to terms with a permanent sense of solitude. This is not to say that I do not have reliable, consistent friends here with whom I regularly communicate. However, given the distance of my homestay from the city center and the unfortunately short length of the semester, I have found myself growing more comfortable in the time I am able to spend alone. I genuinely believe that young people, especially in this generation of kids that have grown into adults with the constant power of connection at their fingertips, to truly understand the meaning of solitude. I do not mean physical separation, but a social separation as well. I implore my peers to take purposeful breaks from their communication with and company of others, and use that time discover themselves.
Sometimes it can feel in my situation as though this social separation is involuntary, and that my unique situation here has forced my stifled ability to make connections. This feeling only arises, however, out of the unnecessary comparison of myself to others in different situations. Some people make fast friends; others take time. Some are socially advantaged by living alongside their peers; I chose to live with a Danish family and receive a more culturally holistic experience. Contextual factors must be taken into consideration if you are to find satisfaction and comfort in your situation and fully appreciate the experiences and opportunities that you have. This may require a bit of “trial by fire”, and the pressure can get heavy. Only after this process is complete will you be able to look back and recognize just how far you came, how much you grew, and how deeply you developed as a person. And it will all have been worth it.