The Year That Changes Lives
Studying Abroad in the United States
By Rebekka Groeneveld
11 January, 2019 | 12:00 last updated
It is the beginning of January, and everyone who wants to go on exchange completed their signups about a month ago. In February, they will know if they are one of the chosen ones, and if so, if they will go to their dream university or to one of the other universities on their list. No matter where they will end up, the next couple of months will be as important as the few months that they are actually there. Every step of the process will get them closer to those four months but will also raise questions and at times will even raise doubts. But then, when it is finally August and their bags are packed and they are ready to go, December comes, and they will realize it is already over. Yes, it really flies by that fast. So, to all the people that are about to start the greatest adventure of their lives, let this article show you why it will be the best year of your life. To all the people that already completed their semester abroad, let this article bring back the memories of that amazing time. And finally, to all the people that are thinking about signing up next year or the year after that, let this article explain to you why you should.
Who am I and where did I go
My name is Rebekka Groeneveld, and I spent the 2018 fall semester at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ. To all the people going to NAU next fall semester, congratulations, you are in for a treat. Not to brag, but Sedona is a 45-minute drive, whereas the Grand Canyon is only 2 hours away, and Zion national park is a 4-hour drive. Flagstaff is a small town in the mountains, so you will be living at 7000 feet (2.1km). This will take some getting used to at first - the air is different, you need to drink more water and your alcohol tolerance will be lower, the sun is warmer and you get sunburnt more easily, and working out is more exhausting than it is at sea level - but the upside to this is that you can just blame everything on the elevation. Hungry? Blame it on the elevation. Tired? Definitely the elevation.
The emotional process
There are many processes to go through before you actually get to study at the university you chose, whichever university that is. There are a lot of technical processes, but there are also the emotional processes. Though they differ for everyone, talking about mine might help you get through yours. The first one starts in November / December, and it is the inevitable “should I go, or should I not go” dilemma, followed by the “I signed up, but do I really want to go?” question. Right now, the “but what if I don’t get to go to my first-choice university?” question is spooking through most minds, and somewhere in February “Yes, I’m going to America! For a whole semester! Yay!” will happen. The couple of months after that will be filled with questions and the last couple of weeks before the semester starts will be filled with both “what have I done” type of days and “I’m so excited I can’t wait to go!” type of days. The day of saying goodbye at Schiphol will come closer and closer, and for some it cannot come fast enough while others are worrying their heads off. Then Schiphol is there, the plane ride takes too long and depending on which day you are traveling on, you spend a few days on holiday before heading to your university, or you go straight to your university and wonder how you are ever going to find your way around campus. You arrive at your dorm and then it kicks in: you are finally there after all those months. A mix of “I’m so excited,” “I’m scared,” and “it’s fine I’m fine” will inevitably kick in. But soon enough you will have built your own life, made some amazing friends and maybe even joined a club and you will thank yourself for not giving up. And then five weeks will have gone by, eight weeks, ten weeks, then there are two weeks left and “I don’t want to go home please let me stay” happens and suddenly you are in your parents’ car on the way back home from Schiphol and it is already over. When people told me that those four months would fly by so fast I was very skeptical but looking back they were right, so make sure to enjoy every second of it.
The technical process
The technical process started with gathering the right documents so you could complete your sign-up, one of which was the results of the TOEFL test. The next step in this process is being accepted to your first (or second) choice university, after which you can start gathering other necessary documents like a visa. For your visa you need to fill out many forms and you also need to pay a lot of money and spend some time at the embassy in Amsterdam. Applying for housing is a different process at every university, but for me, at NAU, it took a while before I finally knew where I would end up and who my roommates would be. Luckily, we got along very well, but if not, most universities offer opportunities to switch rooms if you cannot get along with your roommate(s). Also important is a plane ticket, and I recommend buying a roundtrip ticket with KLM because you can change your ticket for the way back (city, date, or both) for €150 + difference in price if the new flight is more expensive, but there will be plenty of options where there are no extra costs besides the €150 changing fee.With KLM, booking a roundtrip ticket is much cheaper than buying two one-way tickets, so even if you are not sure when you will be flying back, this still tends to be the cheaper option, especially if your university is not on the east coast.
Then there are the smaller things you need to think about: do you want to buy a camera so you can take pretty pictures (my advice: yes), do you have the right suitcases, do you have the right clothes, is your passport valid until after you come back, etc. etc. Altogether, going on exchange is a yearlong process even though you are abroad for only four months. It is a long process, but it is also a fun process because with each step you complete, you get a little bit closer to actually studying at an American university.
The “study” in studying abroad
You may already know this, but at most American universities, the level of difficulty is lower than it is within American Studies at the RUG. Because their credit system is different, one American credit equals 2.5 ECT, which means you have to take four 3-credit classes (level 300 or higher) in order to get your 30 ECTs. Of course, you would also have to pass all those classes, but in my case, I did not have to work very hard to accomplish this. However, the fact that the classes I took were relatively easy does not mean that every class is equally as easy or difficult as any other class, so I highly encourage you to put in the same effort you put in for your current classes at the RUG. With that being said, I also highly recommend checking out all the clubs and other extracurricular activities your university offers. The clubs I joined were very open and welcoming even though I would be joining them for only one semester, and I made some great friends there. I had plenty of time besides my studying to join a club and it is a great way to meet new people and explore your interests, but also explore the university and maybe even its surrounding area.
Front row with the student section at a football game
Conclusion: best year of your life
Though right now August might seem very far away, it will be right around the corner. There are still a million things on your to-do list, but with every single thing you cross off that list you are getting one step closer and you are getting more excited to start this great adventure. The four months that you are actually abroad will be filled with a thousand different feelings, but it will mostly be a feeling of excitement. My advice is to soak up every minute of it because you will want to hold on to the memories you make for the rest of your life. Enjoy!