By Katja Jansen and Thom van der Made
In the academic year 2012–2013, the United Kingdom received, via the exchange program Erasmus (PDF), almost twice as many students from European Union countries as sent from the United Kingdom. English-speaking countries are popular among students who are looking for high-quality education and simultaneously wish to improve their language skills. On the other hand, many native English and American students seem not to feel the need to go abroad. Yet we think it is worth spending part of one’s studies in international institutions.
As students, we are as fresh as a daisy in the world of research. We are looking for a place in the sun to blossom as scientists, with the dream to change the world one day. At the same time, we are in the bloom of our youth and our young hearts want to explore the world. This is the perfect time to combine both dreams! Of course, it is one step out of your comfort zone that requires a certain amount of courage. After all, you have to start from zero, facing a lot of uncertainties. But this is the real attraction: adventure. Moreover, these uncertainties will not last long and April showers bring May flowers.
Far away from home, yet the pipets are exactly the same, the lab coats are as white, and many experiments are performed the same way as in your own country. Most labs have a strong international character, no matter where you are, and life sciences are universal and independent from culture. So why should you go abroad if you can follow high-quality education programs right on your doorstep?
Due to the huge variety of people with different origins in the lab and residential home abroad, you will not arrive as foreigner but contribute to the international character. People around you will be, like you, open-minded and excited to learn about you and your culture. Thereby, you will also learn more about yourself, for example how deeply your culture is rooted in your thinking patterns and behaviour. If Scandinavians cue for the bus, you cannot squeeze yourself into the crowd as you might be used to. And if your schedule is not as repetitive as at home, you will discover how much you can enjoy things that you would normally not do, like day trips to neighbouring cities or just roaming the streets. At work you will discover many parallels to home, but this will help you to understand the essence of doing research. Going abroad equips you with new capabilities but also with new insights that will bring in a great harvest in your career and in your life. New capabilities may reach from methodological skills in the lab to self-reliance in facing problems of everyday life. The latter is less pronounced at home since you have family and friends to rely on.
If you go abroad, you will have something to come back to. There will be your international connections, which are like sprouting blossoms that will flourish from the moment that you take the step abroad. On the other hand, there will still be your roots, which you will see with different eyes. Blossoms and roots are both irreplaceable parts of the whole, so don’t put down your roots too early, but let a thousand flowers bloom! Your mind is a garden and your experiences are the seeds. Avoid a monoculture and learn from different people and other cultures!
For us, the months abroad went very fast, yet it was years worth of excitement and joy. First, we lived without knowing what tomorrow will bring. But then, new cities became our homes and new people became our friends. The feeling of fulfillment does not stop here, though. We grew beyond ourselves, we got more mature and assertive, and we were inspired. It does not matter where you go, just go! Like Henry Miller said, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”