"Before and After" by Brandon Gorrell, Editor at Thought Catalog

Hm, yeah... How am I to describe my year studying at Maastricht University in the Netherlands? It was basically like this: in Maastricht, I made way more friends than I ever had, I studied more than I ever had, and when I came back, I was different.

To illustrate, let’s first do a number of comparisons of myself before studying abroad and myself after studying abroad.

Before. I’d never been outside of the States. I’d rarely, if ever, made friends from outside the States. I was confused if the people of Holland spoke Danish or Dutch. I was confused about the whole Holland/ the Netherlands name dichotomy thing.

After. I had traveled to over 10 countries outside of the US. I had thirty to fifty friends from outside the US. I figured out that people spoke Danish in Denmark and that Holland is the traditional name for the Netherlands, but that the Netherlands is officially divided into twelve provinces—only two of which share the name “Holland.”

Before. I had never stayed up all night studying. I had never stayed up all night partying. I had never slept through a final exam. I had never willingly skipped a final exam because of overriding worries regarding the status of a relationship with a Scottish girl. I had never almost failed a final exam because of how ridiculously difficult it was.

After. Staying up all night for studying and partying had become normal. I had two botched final exams under my belt, one for unexplainably sleeping in (on second thought, it might have been because I stayed awake until four in the morning studying), the other for letting unreasonable worry over a Scottish girl get to me. I had definitely almost failed a final exam—despite my preparatory militant study habits—because the professor was apparently grading on a curve whose standard was set by a genius.

I could go on, but I won’t, because that would be boring. The point is that my year abroad was not only totally awesome, but afforded me experiences unattainable elsewhere. While I have zero vested interest in anyone else studying internationally, I really recommend it. I’ll explain.

If you don’t have a social disorder, you’ll make some really close friends. I know this because I made friends, and I’m themost socially awkward person ever. I generally flee, terrified, into the back of crowds, facing a crippling aversion to being the center of attention, and before studying abroad, this really kept me from connecting to people. It kept me from connecting to people because I wasn’t giving them anything with which to connect. But in Maastricht, this changed. It wasn’t a coincidence.

I realized, in Maastricht, that the nature of so many opportunities with which I was presented was that I would only see them once. Resultingly, situations—fueled by this feeling of “this is never going to happen to me again”—often elevated to the status of epic. My friends and I pushed ourselves beyond our boundaries because we all knew we’d never have the chance to do so again.

The variable that drove the feeling further still was the fact that this attitude was a collective endeavor—that together we were seeking the same experience. Aside from making the friendships I formed particularly poignant and enduring, this variable, I think, caused me to ‘overcome’ social barriers that had, at one time, probably led others to think I was ‘dark’ and ‘disturbed’ when I was really just ‘afraid.’

Obviously, it wasn’t always great. There were times when I wanted to leave. Interactions characterized by such cross-cultural awkwardness that they most likely left some random stranger from Maastricht thinking I was a typical American dirtbag. Plenty of times that I wanted to destroy everything, in frustration with the country’s bureaucracy, the school’s administration, or the neverending party on my hall that sometimes made it extremely difficult to study. Embarrassing circumstances. Anti-American sentiment. Situations that made me want to go back to America and sleep for a long time.

But more important was the simple knowledge of the fact that if I hadn’t gotten out then, I might have never, and that studying abroad was teaching me much more about myself than the whole of the time I had spent at university back in the States. During my time abroad, I pushed myself to think and act in ways that I otherwise wouldn’t have. The exercise of extending my boundaries became protocol. In other words, I grew.

When I returned to the States—after a year that felt more like a month—I found that I had moved far past the knowledge, ideas, and capabilities of the person I had been before I had left. Nobody back home really understood what had happened to me, but then, they couldn’t have.  

© 2012 StudentRoads by Brandon Gorrell. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission.

Brandon Gorrell is an editor at Thought Catalog, the author of "during my nervous breakdown i want to have a biographer present", a poetry book published by Muumuu House in 2009, and a forthcoming novella titled "my hair will defeat you". He has been featured at NYLON, Plan B, the Poetry Foundation and more. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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