The un-American college experience, studying in Brussels
Sabena Gaddy on a day trip to Brugge, Belgium. Photo courtesy of Sabena Gaddy.

The un-American college experience, studying in Brussels

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When people are asked about their college experiences, there are often a few commonalities across the board. At least at larger schools, there are frat parties, sorority mixers or Greek life in general. Football games, basketball games or baseball games all complete with cheerleaders. Dorm rooms, RAs and roommates. Dining halls decked out with long tables and a variety of foods, packed at all times of the day with students. Student unions, student government, intramural sports and clubs. American students recount many of these things as parts of the “best years of their lives.” 

However, this narrative is not necessarily shared internationally. Students who earn their degrees outside of the United States have unique memories that encompass these special years. One Brussels School of Governance student in particular, Sabena Gaddy, joined a Catalyst reporter in an interview to share the notable parts of studying abroad, the cultural differences and the opportunities it has presented her.

I recently traveled to Brussels, Belgium—home to the iconic Belgian waffle, stunning architecture and Gaddy, a long-time friend and academic scholar. Gaddy is a Polish-American citizen who studied in Tallahassee, Florida up until it was time to move away for college. Many students at Leon High School, Gaddy’s alma mater, chose to study at either Florida State University (FSU), University of Florida (UF) or other nearby universities. For months, Gaddy mulled over her future options; she had been accepted to every school where she submitted an application. The Florida schools were close to her family and friends. It was the safe option, and many considered it the “right” option. It wasn’t until later in her senior year that Gaddy announced to her friends and peers that she was going to make the right choice for herself, take a leap of faith and study in Brussels, Belgium.

A glimpse of Brussels, Belgium. Photo by Lucy Duke.

Aside from various reasons why one might relocate from North Florida, Gaddy said she chose Brussels because she “always felt drawn to Europe because of my Polish roots, but choosing Brussels specifically came from wanting to live in the de facto heart of Europe.” Given the prime location and her admirable drive, Gaddy wasted no time making her mark in Brussels, and obtained a coveted internship role with the European Union (EU). She said she found joy in the hard work it takes to succeed academically at the Brussels School of Governance, even though “the environment, especially for my field, is quite competitive, but it pushes me to engage myself further.” Gaddy is not the first to admit that “college” isn’t just textbooks and internships; it includes the experiences that happen outside the walls of the university as well.

When I traveled to Brussels to visit Gaddy, she used her well-adapted tour guide skills that have been honed from years of living abroad. Over the course of 10 days, Gaddy successfully gave this American reporter a true glimpse of Europe, through the lens of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Not an easy feat for most, but efficient and eye-opening travel is second nature to Gaddy, making the ability to sight-see a different country every day one of her favorite parts about studying abroad.

Sabena Gaddy admiring a windmill in Amsterdam. Photo by Lucy Duke.

When I asked about the most memorable experience to date since moving, she recalled “laying on the rocky beach in the South of France [and] feeling the breeze and looking at the view of the coast, the people and eating a classic ice cream.” Her travel has no bounds and the South of France is just one of the several locations Gaddy has enjoyed since making the move to Europe. 

Gaddy said her freshman year at the Brussels School of Governance was not free of complication, and she was placed in a less-than-optimal shared living apartment. But closed shared-living doors opened new apartment windows, and by the second semester of her first year, Gaddy had moved into an apartment with her peer and close friend, Alice.

A glimpse of Gaddy’s apartment views. Photo by Lucy Duke.

Hailing all the way from Turin, Italy, Gaddy’s roommate offered new perspectives and adventure, giving her “many opportunities to travel outside of Brussels and I’m so lucky to do so. Half of my experiences are shaped by the people I have met; visiting my best friend Alice, who lives in a small town in Italy, or traveling to Helsinki, Finland to see another friend. Experiencing the different cultural norms and people of someone you already know is an amazing experience.”

Gaddy exploring the streets of Capri, Italy. Photo courtesy of Sabena Gaddy.

Housing troubles were not the only obstacle that Gaddy had to overcome once moving abroad. Brussels is a completely different world than her previous residence, Tallahassee, Florida. The language, the public transportation and currency are a few of the first things that come to mind when considering the differences between the two, but Gaddy had to learn to navigate more than just a public bus system, and although she had grown up “visiting my family in Poland, moving to Belgium was still a culture shock for me. Small nuances that I took for granted in the US (driving, AC, elevators) were gone.” 

Her university was no different to life in Brussels in general. “School is composed of people from diverse backgrounds, meaning different cultural norms and societal-expectations,” she described. “With my mainly homogeneous upbringing in a small American town, this came as a big change.”

The stark difference that might be shocking and hard to adapt to for some has been one of Gaddy’s “favorite things about my school and Brussels—it’s incredibly diverse and allows you to experience many new things.”

She also appreciates the fact that she can further embrace her Polish identity, and greatly improve her knowledge of her mother language and culture by making more frequent trips to the country while living abroad. 

When asked to advise any young academic who is looking to study abroad, Gaddy noted that while it’s easy to romanticize the European lifestyle, it comes with its fair shares of ups and downs. Her university is similar to American colleges and certain resources are difficult to obtain for some, extracurriculars are not as common. The most obvious issue is that moving across the world alone can be difficult. Living abroad requires one to make “a lot of sacrifice and adjustment that is bound to put anyone out of their comfort zone,” according to Gaddy. But just like most changes, there is beauty in the chaos. Gaddy graduates at the end of May 2024, just three short years after beginning her studies at the Brussels School of Governance. The past few years for Gaddy have held adventure, redirection and opportunity to “to heal myself and learn individually.”

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