It’s true. I’m proud to say I spent my junior year (last year) studying away in Estonia through the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). I’ll give you a moment while you silently ask yourself where Estonia is before opening a new tab to a search engine. To save you a bit of time, Estonia is the northernmost Baltic country in Eastern Europe, two hours south of Finland by ferry and sharing an Eastern border with Russia. By the way, “Is that a real place? Where is that?” were the two most common questions I received when I told people I decided to spend a year in Estonia. Followed by “What language do they speak?” which only made people think I was messing with them when I responded with a straight face, “Estonian.”
With a population of about a million, Estonia is by no means large, but then neither is Alaska (population-wise). I left my home with a one-way ticket to Eastern Europe, and a 42-pound suitcase and a 10-pound carry-on. This was right when the world was looking at Russia and wondering which country would be invaded next. Yes, I moved to a former USSR country, setting my parents’ hair on end.
I settled into my dorm with my new roommate, breezed through orientation, registered for classes, bought school supplies, and resisted the urge to hole up in my room and never leave. Nearly everyone under 30 speaks English and the majority of the people in Tartu, whom are well-accustomed to dealing with international students at the university, do as well. But that didn’t make me feel any less like an outsider, expecting everyone to cater to my linguistic needs. Seriously, learning “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Please,” and “Thank you” in any local language (with the added bonuses of “yes” and “no”) will earn you Brownie points. Believe me; I’ve had many conversations with grocery store cashiers using nothing but these words.
No doubt, I took advantage of my time studying away in Europe to see as much of it as I could. Admittedly I would have liked to see more even though I did crisscross the map. I spent two weeks roaming Italy and a few days in Munich during my Christmas break; spent weekends with my friends in surrounding Estonian towns, as well as Riga and Vilnius; 72 hours in St. Petersburg and 34 hours on the ferry to get there; and several weekends in London, just because I could. For my birthday I took a week and traveled through Dublin, Howth (Ireland), Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, and Cardiff. Sadly, I never made it to Greece.
School, alas, did not impede on travel plans and I learned much through my excursions away yet I learned just as much in a classroom full of people from different countries. We often discussed current events along with anything else that cropped up. I probably learned more from the amazing friends I met during my year abroad; we discussed nearly everything under the sun. We would go to the smallest towns and befriend someone in a café, and between us have an incredible exchange. I not only gained insights to other cultures, but into the way others viewed my own. Through my friendships and conversations, I realized that no matter where you go, it is the people that make a place.
Adventures are all about what you put into them. As an introvert, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my social life abroad, but I could not have been happier with the people I met whether I was with a group of friends or traveling solo. I certainly had to rebuild my comfort zone after pushing myself out of it so often. I learned that saying “yes” to these kinds of situations is one of the best things I could have done. And if I hadn’t had said yes and done all the things that made me anxious, I’d have spent a year in my room eating Estonian chocolates, pirating Netflix, and missing out on an incredibly rich and fulfilling experience.
So, upon returning home and after a year two hours from the Russian border, not only can I point to Estonia on map with ease, but I can point to where it lives in me, having taken over a little corner of my heart.