Lessons in Sustainability from a Study Term Abroad

All smiles returning to Utrecht, where I spent six months on a study abroad term. It was here in this city that my approach to sustainability shifted and pointed me in a new academic direction.

In 2017, I, like many other UVic students before and after me, jetted off on an international exchange. I arrived in Utrecht, the Netherlands, excited for the six months ahead attending Utrecht University.

I expected to have the best time of my life, but what I didn’t expect was for it to shift my entire way of thinking and approach to my Geography degree and environmental sustainability.

As I return to the Netherlands for the holiday season, I’m reminded of my exchange term and how exactly it changed the path of my Geography degree.

As a physical geography student, I had always viewed humanity as separate from the environment. In my mind, cities were separate from nature, and the environment was to be kept pristine from human impact. My perception of sustainability and being green were that I was to avoid things like plastics in cities while supporting things like parks and protected areas.

However, when I travelled to Europe and was more disconnected from nature than ever before, I began to see sustainability in a different light.

Lost in a sea of bikes at the Amsterdam Sloterdijk train station. In the Netherlands, there are more bikes than people!

I realized sustainability isn’t necessarily about keeping nature pristine and removed from human interaction, it’s more so about what we can do at home to lesson our environmental impact. Humans are the key to making or breaking sustainability, and I realized this on my study abroad.

Studying abroad shifted the way I thought about geography and sustainability. Going abroad and being exposed to another culture—and approach to sustainability—completely flip-flopped and changed my perception of my studies back at UVic.

Returning home, I took a hard look at the courses I was taking and thought about what I really wanted from my Geography degree. I signed up for more human geography courses and less resource management-type courses, which furthermore shifted my thinking and perception of sustainability. I applied to the co-op program and did a co-op term, deciding I want to work in the non-profit sector.

A study abroad term completely transformed my academic thinking and propelled me towards a career choice. It opened my eyes to not only a new culture, but a new way of approaching Geography, and I’m forever grateful.

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