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A Trip Outside My Comfort Zone

November 4, 2015

About Me 

Ellen Deninger (pictured above in Florence, Italy) is a fifth year Chemical Engineering student from Sterling, Massachusetts. She is currently completing her third co-op in France, and will graduate in May 2016. In her free time she enjoys running, skiing and traveling.

A Trip Outside My Comfort Zone 

Whenever I’m asked, “why did you choose Northeastern?” the answer is simple: co-op. I chose the standard five year, three co-op academic track, and I intended to complete all my co-ops in New England so that when I graduated, I would have three potential job opportunities in the area. To me, this was the most practical way to make the most out of my education. I still intended to get outside of the US at some point during my time at Northeastern, but as the years went by I found that I was running out of time, and it was become more and more difficult to fit an international experience into the remainder of my education. When I was near the end of my second co-op and still had no plans to go abroad, I realized there was only one option left—if I wanted to go abroad, it was going to be an international co-op. I scheduled a meeting with the CEO of the company I was working for at the time, who happens to be French, and asked him what he thought about my tentative career path. He told me that working internationally would give me a unique perspective to bring to future jobs and also the opportunity to broaden my horizons while experiencing a different work culture. I left my meeting with him feeling confident that this is what I would pursue.

If I were to summarize my current co-op experience for you it would go something like this, “I am an R&D co-op at a company called Arkema, located just outside of Paris. I am working autonomously on a critical project to allow the company to expand into new market areas. The position has given me a unique opportunity to work at a French company, learn a new language and experience a new work environment. The position has also given me an understanding for how businesses are run internationally as well as the opportunity to exchange information across international teams.”

However, if I were to tell you what I have really taken away from this experience, it has an entirely different storyline.

The three months between accepting a job at Arkema and boarding my flight to Paris went by in a blur—from visa interviews to securing an apartment to booking my flights. All my friends kept saying “you must be so excited,” but I was so caught up in preparations that I didn’t really spend any time thinking about what it would actually be like. When I finally arrived in Paris reality sunk in: I was in a foreign country alone. After spending a few weeks jet-lagged, missing home, and wondering why on earth I chose to move to a country where I don’t speak the language, I flipped a switch and decided to make this the opportunity of a lifetime.

Growing up, I didn’t spend much time outside of my comfort zone. Sure, there were times when I was nervous or unsure about situations, but I had never known what it was like to really live outside of your comfort zone. Going on an international co-op alone put me in this situation for the very first time. I tried to force myself to find comfort in my new home by embracing the culture, and to do this I decided to be an extreme tourist for the first few weeks. I ate way too many crepes, took a million pictures of the Eiffel Tower, gazed at the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, and asked “parlez-vous anglais?” far too many times. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to feel comfortable that I actually began to feel at home. What I’ve come to realize is that comfort zones are not stagnant; every new experience stretches that little zone wider and wider, until fewer things are uncomfortable and saying yes to new opportunities becomes a whole lot easier.

Living in France has taught me many lessons. Some lessons are kind of funny (like when I pronounced ‘shoes’ wrong and my co-workers thought I was talking about going hunting), while other lessons are more meaningful. The most important lesson I’ve learned is how to adapt to change with an open mind and positive attitude. I have surprised myself in so many ways and have learned things about myself that I never would have known had I not had this experience. When I accepted this job back in March, I knew that I would enjoy the simple things that came with living in Paris, like eating a freshly baked chocolate croissant from the boulangerie on the corner and seeing the Eiffel Tower twinkle at night. I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to go hiking alone on a chilly morning in Norway, or the opportunity to present my research at a technical seminar in front of colleagues who traveled all the way from China and Malaysia. The experiences I’ve had during this international co-op have given me the opportunity for so much growth—personal growth for everyday life, and professional growth for my future career. I know I’ll return to the US in December and be glad to be home, but I’ll also miss the experience and all the growth that came along with it. I feel so lucky to attend a university that encourages students to co-op abroad and makes it possible for us to have these opportunities.