F&M Stories

Off-Campus Study: Karolina Heleno '18

I know I am learning when I am uncomfortable. Looking back on my experience abroad in Stockholm, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark, I feel a cool, fresh breeze of memories. That is how I will always remember Scandinavia; it was cold and shy, yet approachable and refreshing. It was while studying abroad that I regained my voice for social justice and most importantly for self-love and growth. The experiential learning I was able to do while abroad taught me more about myself and my world.

One of my proudest moments abroad was recognizing problematic behavior in the end of the semester discussion for my Core Course: Gender and Sexuality in Scandinavia. Our professor asked us to think of how we have taken up space throughout time. It was supposed to be a reflection on our identity and how/why it has changed. We had the option of making a slideshow, picture demonstrations, song-writing, essay... any form of expression was an option and we had an entire week to complete it. The day had come for presenting and it was time to discuss. No one shared. We went around the entire circle, and no one had thought of how they take up space, nor had they cared to think about it. Instead, they summarized the different trips we went on as if that was the answer to the question. Abroad was our time to reflect on our identity outside of the American bubble and no one did that.

As a woman of color traveling in predominantly white spaces in Scandinavia, I constantly was thinking about my identity and how it moves within my space and time there. Abroad was a time for me to explore how our American politics mix with those of Scandinavia. And I walked out of that discussion and realized that, when learning about social issues and the way people's lives are affected by race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc, it is easy to state your theories and beliefs. It is easy to talk about the lack of diversity in leadership positions or about the gender wage gap, but it is a completely different to ask to ask why. Why are the majority of beggars in Sweden black and brown people? Or why are men so afraid to go on paternity leave although Sweden has one of the most equal paternity leave systems in the world?

That discussion helped me realize I had control over the things I stand up for and those I do not stand up for. I do not stand up for ignorance and the veil of privilege it comes with. Like all other discussions, I listened to everyone's summaries and nodded to let them know I was listening. I shared my own reflections on how I take up space and tried to add to the discussion but in the end, once everyone had shared their opinions, I had to walk out. Given our history and current events, being a woman of color in America is a complex experience. Being an American woman of color in Scandinavia brought its own struggles and I was reminded of those everyday. My abroad Core Course was about social issues such as sex and gender, yet no one in my class was thinking outside of their own experiences, ultimately, not allowing them to fully interact with Scandinavian culture and norms. No one in my class was connecting the importance of experience when it comes to social change.

Study abroad taught me that beyond theory and critical thinking, there is much to learn outside of the classroom as well. I learned about the true value of experience and empathy when talking about the AIDs Epidemic in Scandinavia and learning more about gay and trans rights while volunteering in the Pride Parade. Our ability to walk in another person's shoes and see what their struggles are, those are the moments we change. The problematic discussion in my Gender and Sexuality in Scandinavia class had to do with space we take up and most of my class had never needed to think of that.

Before going abroad you have to think of who you are, so once you are navigating new spaces you know how to be uncomfortable and learn. Think of your experiences, all the different factors in your life that have brought you this far, and remember to bring those with you and acknowledge those experiences. And to get the full abroad experience while you're there, learn how to look past your own experiences and learn about those of others. Learn how to care for the story and lives of others. Ask why things are the way they are and deconstruct your ideas. And keep leaning into uncomfortable conversations and situations so that you can see the world isn't as bad or scary as we all make it seem.


OCS Profile

Karolina Heleno '18

DIS Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark

Term Abroad: Fall 2016

Ware College House

Joint Major in English and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Campus Affiliations: Alice Drum Women's Center, Alpha Phi

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