Hannah Ritchey recently graduated from Colgate University with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Prior to the completion of her degree, Hannah studied with the Swedish Program in spring 2019. After spending the summer at home in Iowa, Hannah will return to Stockholm in January 2021 with the help of a Fulbright grant to conduct research on identity formation in Muslim communities during the rise of the far-right with Swedish Program professor Jonas Brodin.
I cannot remember the exact moment that I decided I wanted to return to Sweden, but by the end of my spring 2019 semester with the Swedish Program I knew that I had found my ‘place.’ Whether it was getting lost on the tunnelbana during my first week, celebrating Easter with my contact family or making new Swedish friends in my SSE classes, my semester with the Swedish Program left me feeling immensely independent, curious, resourceful, confident and, most importantly, at home.
My appreciation for my experience in Sweden, combined with my academic interest in the country’s refugee resettlement programs and national politics in general, led me to apply for a Fulbright grant to return to Sweden after my undergrad graduation this year. Upon hearing that my grant application was accepted and that I would be able to return to Sweden in Fall 2020, I was thrilled. I was excited not only to revive my connection with the Swedish Program through professor Jonas Brodin, who graciously agreed to assist me with my research, but also to return to the city and the country that made me feel so welcome, comfortable and, simply, happy. But, as we all know, the global COVID-19 pandemic has masked the foreseeable future with uncertainty and, along with it, my plans to return to Sweden.
During this time of widespread anxiety, I have found myself leaning on several of the lessons I learned during my time in Sweden and I am realizing just how much my time abroad has impacted my present experience of social distancing and living with uncertainty.
On our first night in Sweden, my two roommates and I ventured to our closest grocery store to buy some dinner items. We kept it simple by purchasing some pasta, meatballs and tomato sauce, but, upon returning to our apartment and looking at the meatballs, I realized that the cooking instructions were written only in Swedish. While I wanted to study abroad to experience a new way of living and thought I was prepared for the challenges that would inevitably accompany this, looking at the (then completely foreign) language on the packaging was the first moment when I realized the full breadth of things I did not know about my new home. I was in a completely new environment with challenges (and adventures) at every turn, whether it be learning how to navigate the tunnelbana, how to walk on ice in the winter months or how to use the doors at SSE.
But, through these initial trials, and trials that would continue throughout my stay, I learned the importance of facing uncertainty head on and not slowing down because I was scared of the unknown. I learned to seek help when needed, often finding it in unexpected places such as with strangers in restaurants or our local Coop. Finally, I learned to be gentle with myself amidst my own ‘new normal.’ I had immersed myself in a new culture, with a new language, new environment and new ways of operating, so there were bound to be mistakes. The best thing I could do was to laugh off my blunders and learn from them.
Now, I, along with the majority of people worldwide, have again been thrown into a situation where we must adapt to a ‘new normal.’ A ‘new normal’ in which health and economic uncertainty about the present and the future abound even from the relative safety of our living rooms. And, while I have definitely been facing struggles about this uncertainty during this time, I have been looking back at my time in Sweden for a sense of strength and resiliency. Now, while I may be physically slowed down while social distancing,
I refuse to let my fears slow down my outlook on the future and will not let uncertainty stop me from exploring various paths, much like my roommates and I did not let our inexperience with Swedish stop us from making meatballs on our first night in Stockholm (the first of many, many meatballs to come).
For now, my return to Sweden has merely been delayed by four months, a small price to pay for the chance at slowing the global spread of the virus, and I am grateful for a safe place to socially distance with family. And while I have been met with my fair share of nerves in the last few months, as most of us have, I know that I have my experience in Sweden to help guide me through. I cannot thank the Swedish Program enough for providing an experience where we, as students, felt both free to explore and learn, while being extremely supported in our journeys. When it is safe to travel to Sweden again, I cannot wait to make new memories and learn more life lessons that I will surely carry with me through the rest of my life.