A post-study abroad perspective on global sustainability

June 9, 2016

Four months ago, I wasn’t imagining what it would be like to come home. The only thing on my mind was this little country called Denmark – the first place outside of the United States that I had ever had the opportunity to venture to. Four months ago I had no idea that I would see the Eiffel Tower at night, that I would ski in the Alps, that I would climb to the top of a wind turbine, or that the people I would meet would become some of my best friends.

“How was it?” seems to be everyone’s obligatory question upon seeing me again, and I don’t think I’ll ever have an honest answer. My usual response, though, is something along the lines of “it was incredible” or “amazing,” or some other cliché word that could never encompass the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with moving to a new country without anyone familiar by your side.

"Through being forced to
learn how to be alone,
I learned to thrive in
solitude, and I love
that I am now honestly
able to describe myself
as independent."

So many days were truly amazing; seeing the Colosseum, the canals of Venice, Big Ben, or any other famous landmark that I had previously only seen in movies and pictures was always breathtaking. There were days, though, that I would have papers and tests and laundry to do, and it had started pouring rain on my bike ride home from class, and I would have given just about anything for a plane ticket back to Wisconsin.

In my experience, it’s very common for people who have studied abroad to talk about their entire experience as the best days of their lives, and even though I completely agree that some of mine so far occurred while I was abroad, I experienced some of my hardest days there, too. The difficulty of being away from home for four months taught me more about myself than if the entire experience had been exactly what the promotional study-abroad websites and blogs made it out to be. Through being forced to learn how to be alone (a surprisingly difficult-to-acquire skill, even for a self-proclaimed introvert like myself), I learned to thrive in solitude, and I love that I am now honestly able to describe myself as independent.

After seeing sustainability practiced in different ways in so many different places, I’ve come to understand that even though there are endless sustainability solutions, these solutions aren’t necessarily synonymous from country to country. For instance, Denmark can use wind to create 40 percent of their energy for one simple reason – it’s a windy country. Denmark also has an advantage in passing certain environmental policies because the entire country has a smaller area and population than that of Wisconsin. Living in a country like Denmark, which many would describe as having things “figured out” in terms of sustainability, gave me an insight that I never would have acquired if I hadn’t studied there.

"To say that my time
abroad was an inspiration
would be an understatement.
Not only did it allow me to
give context to otherwise
abstract terms like
sustainable development,
but it also showed me how
important community is
to implementing these
kinds of initiatives."

As Americans, we seem to share a common paradigm that if you want to be successful in the sustainability sector, it’s in your best interest to move to a country that already has its foot in the sustainable “door.” This idea changed for me, however, when I was visiting an eco-village outside of Copenhagen with my sustainability class. After touring the community, my professor asked, “Should I move to a place like this, or move somewhere that isn’t as sustainable and help them to make more eco-friendly decisions?”

Immediately, I connected this to my relationship with the United States. I could easily move to a place like Denmark or the Netherlands and join sustainability initiatives that are already in place, or I could go back to the states and begin these initiatives in a place that arguably has much more impact on the future of our planet than these smaller countries ever could. I think I’m going to choose the latter.

To say that my time abroad was an inspiration to me would be an understatement. Not only did it allow me to give context to otherwise abstract terms like sustainable development, but it also showed me how important community is to implementing these kinds of initiatives. The same sense of community that I observed abroad at all of the sustainable places I toured, I also feel so strongly here at UW-Madison and even throughout Wisconsin. Which is why I have endless optimism for the sustainable future for not only this campus, but even this country as a whole.

Madeline Fischer is a junior at UW-Madison from Blanchardville, Wis., double majoring in environmental studies and life sciences communication. While studying abroad for the spring semester in Copenhagen, Denmark she will document her experience on a student blog, Bringing Bæredygtighed Back.

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