After 12 hours of silence, discomfort and anxiety, walking off the plane into the unfamiliar Copenhagen airport was unsettling to say the least. I made my way through passport control, where I was immediately teased for my accent. Then I wandered towards the exit where my host family was waiting for me. Once I found my host family, I spent a night at their house, and the next day we headed for Herlufsholm, my exchange school.
Walking into the school, I could tell that the two schools–Herlufsholm and Athenian–were wildly different. Not only did the modern architecture and paved pathways of Athenian oppose the cobblestone streets and brick buildings that resembled castles I had only seen in movies, but I could feel the immediate difference in the atmospheres of the schools. The 500-year-old Herlufsholm was full of fascinating traditions that were completely foreign to me. They had uniforms, Prefects, forbidden benches, and a centuries-old church that we attended daily. While we had our own dorm rooms for storing clothes, doing homework, and taking the occasional nap, there was a dedicated sleeping room containing walls lined with beds for each student living in their respective dormitories.
In Denmark, while the national language is Danish, most people can hold a conversation in English, and English is a required class in school from a very young age. At Herlufsholm, the majority of classes are in Danish, but there is a separate IB (International Baccalaureate) program that has English classes. The IB program contains mostly boarding students, many from countries all over the world. I found that I connected quickly with the people in the IB program, all of whom spoke English throughout the day, and reminded me more of people at Athenian and in the Bay Area.
While overall, this was one of the most beneficial experiences of my life, that is not to say it wasn’t difficult at some points. Oftentimes, I found myself sitting in a room for hours at a time, completely lost in the language. Occasionally, with enough context clues, I could figure out the general conversation, but I could never fully understand what anybody was saying. Sitting in a room for long periods of time not understanding nor being able to join in conversation was the hardest part of my experience, and sometimes caused me to feel isolated. As my exchange went on, however, I tried to embrace it. Sometimes I would play little games in my head as people spoke to each other or try to guess what they were saying just by the way the words sounded.
Before going to Denmark, my exchange partner warned me of how Danes are often perceived, and said that they aren’t as welcoming as she found Americans to be. While in California, she was shocked if I would just go up to people at school and talk to them even though we weren’t close friends, or if my mom had a conversation with a cashier, or even if we were on the bus and sat next to a stranger. This made me nervous to make friends, because going up to people and having a random conversation, or sitting next to a stranger on a bus was the culture I was raised in and I had never known anything different. This was what I was probably MOST nervous about when leaving California, but I found the opposite of what she had said. Sure, people in Denmark didn’t always want to start the conversations, but if I initiated, they always seemed interested in keeping the conversation going. I found that the people I spoke to were some of the most kind, honest and open people I have ever met. They were curious to hear about my life and my experience, and were excited to teach me about Denmark and what it has to offer. They didn’t sugarcoat things and didn’t talk around the subject. They just spoke about things how they were, something I greatly admired.
The first three days of my exchange were difficult and isolating, but the other 28 were some of the best and most interesting days I can remember. I learned a lot more about the world, and a lot more about myself. Going through this experience has made me realize what I am capable of, and I am proud of myself and everybody else who has ever gone on exchange, because it’s not an easy experience. That being said, I would highly recommend exchange to anybody who wants to step out of their comfort zone, because I truly loved it and made unforgettable memories.