Firsthand: Student Life in Brussels

As I mentioned in my last blog, Brussels is not my favorite city in Europe. Recently, I spent some time with Jared, and his friends, Sebastian (from Luxembourg) and Lisa (from Atlanta) to find out their opinions on student life in Brussels.

They all appreciate the offerings of the urban atmosphere.  Of course, no car is needed and they are able to get anywhere they need to go on foot or by train.  Though Brussels student lifeBrussels is known as a somewhat ugly city, the Grand Place is truly beautiful.  In some cities, it is hard to find student residences in the city center. Jared and Sebastian, however, live very close to the Grand Place and Jared frequents a coffee shop right in the square. If I were experiencing the Grand Place and it’s surroundings on a regular basis, my impression of Brussels might be different.

Jared and his friends all appreciate the perspective gained from the different backgrounds of the students in their classes and residences.  In some cities, diversity is limited to the university student population. This is not the case in Brussels, which is an incredibly international city.  The diversity is further increased by the fact that one’s social life is more often associated with their place of residence than solely with their program or school. This allows students to have friends from schools all around the city.

student life brusselsBelgium has two official languages. Flemish, a dialect of Dutch is spoken in the northern region, while French is spoken in the south. Brussels is actually in the northern region but has special status as the Belgian capital and both languages are spoken. I had a really interesting conversation with Sebastian about how the Belgian economy and population in different areas affects the perception of Belgians who speak each of the languages.

Alright, let’s get to the elephant in the room which is, of course, safety in Brussels. Jared and his father were in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016 visiting KU Leuven when the bombing of the metro and airport occurred. Despite this first-hand experience, he still chose to make Brussels his college home. Jared, Sebastian, Lisa and I discussed their perceptions of safety, as it pertains to terrorism in Brussels. They all had a really good perspective on it and noted that terrorism can and has happened in many cities around the world, including US cities like Boston, San Bernadino, and Orlando. There is also a strong police and military presence in the city, which has increased since last spring. We discussed how horrible events can create a “new normal” of sorts. An example in the US is the regular lockdown drills in elementary schools due to school shootings. Any safety concerns that Jared and his friends have were around safety precautions you need to take in any urban area, and were not related to terrorism at all.

Universities in Brussels also have unique opportunities for the refugee issue.  Vrije University Brussels, for instance, has a “Welcome Student-Refugee” program to help refugees continue their studies.  They had 18 students enrolled in the program in the fall of 2016. Some of these students are in English-conducted Social Science program.  Students in this program include refugees as well as students from expensive UK private high schools.  Talk about a range of perspectives in the classroom!

Jared and Lisa both attend KU Leuven’s International Business Program.  Though the campus is in Brussels, Lisa lives in Leuven which is about 20 minutes by train. I really wish I had the time to visit Leuven on my trip. Belgium has some incredible cities (I know it’s cliche, but I LOVE Bruges), and it sounds like Leuven is one of them. Over half of the 100,000 residents are students, which means that it has the accommodations of a student town and active student life. The city is filled with medieval architecture, has a low cost of living, and is very safe and compact.  The city is also known as a technology hotspot and is part of Health Axis Europe which is a “a strategic alliance initiated by the biomedical clusters Cambridge (UK), Leuven (Belgium), Heidelberg (Germany), Maastricht (Netherlands), and Copenhagen (Denmark) in order to cross-leverage innovation resources and thus jointly increase the international competitiveness.”  Sounds like some great internship and job opportunities there!

An administrator told me that one needs to really know Brussels to appreciate it. Given the diversity, culture, opportunities provided by the UN and NATO offices, and ease of exploring Belgium and Europe as a whole, I’ve decided that I was premature in my negative opinion.  Student life in Brussels has a lot to offer.

Student Update: Jared Thriving at KU Leuven

We recently gave you an update on how Theo is doing at Leiden University College. Today I have an update on Jared (first blog, second blog) the student from Chapel Hill we worked with who is now attending KU Leuven in Brussels, Belgium.

brux-2Jared’s family had a crazy summer before he left for school.  In addition to getting Jared ready for college in Europe, they were also in the process of relocating from Chapel Hill to Wilmington, NC.  Jared’s mom was starting a new job so Jared’s dad, Dave, went with Jared to settle him in.  Now I have to say, though many Tom would probably struggle in a similar situation, I know Dave personally and he is super organized. Even with the presence of a focused and on task dad, Jared noted that the first week was exhausting with running around taking care of residency requirements, school documents, and settling in to his apartment. 

Jared is living in a brand new student residence right in the middle of Brussels. The residence provides options for single rooms with shared kitchens/common areas or studio apartments.  Since Jared’s family is saving so much money on tuition (at only 1,250 Euros per year), he was able to talk them into paying for a studio apartment option (housing in this residence ranges from 450-675 Euros per month).  Jared’s room came with a fridge, bed frame, and desk so he also had to spend the first week buying a mattress, bedding, and seating.  Thank goodness for Ikea!

Though there have been some issues with building management not being responsive (to issues like internet problems and such), Jared has no regrets about choosing this residence for his first year.  The majority of the 75 students in the residence are first year students at various schools in the city and about a dozen of them are in the same program at Leuven as Jared. These factors made it easy for Jared to make friends from other schools and gives him friends from his own program to study with as well. Jared makes dinner for himself most nights (something his mother was worried about him handling), mostly prepared and frozen foods but sometimes a group of students in the residence cook for each other. Jared thinks that paying a bit more for a residence that was new and in a safe part of town was a great idea for his first year, despite some of the problems.  He will have more options his second year since he will know about more alternatives, have a feel for the city, and be able to make arrangements while he is there.

Jared’s classmates and friends from the residence are from a variety of countries around the world and he has enjoyed meeting people with diverse backgrounds and learning about their cultures.  He plans to travel to Spain with some friends from his residence who are from Mallorca and has already travelled to Luxembourg and around Belgium. Of course, he also enjoys hanging out and going to parties!

268px-belgium_provinces_regions_stripedJared misses his friends and family, but hasn’t been hit with overwhelming homesickness. His older sister came to visit over Thanksgiving and then he will go home for two weeks over Christmas. His biggest challenge has been around learning the languages in Brussels.  Belgium has different language areas. In the northern region, Flanders, people speak Flemish, a dialect of Dutch. In the southern region called Wallonia, people speak French. Brussels, the capitol is in Flanders (orange on the map), but the city is pretty much evenly split between those who speak French and Flemish (much like Dutch) which increases the difficulty of learning either of those languages.

Jared’s first year includes classes on accounting, financial institutions and markets, management, research methods, statistics, math for business economics, managerial economics, philosophy, psychology, law and foreign language.  Of course, these are not all taken at once.  Jared is taking eight classes, three of which are math-based courses this semester, which require a good amount of out of class study time.  His lecture classes are in subjects like philosophy and require less time out of class for him since he had taken two years of world history,  Jared is also taking a project class in which small groups of students organize an event for charity and carry it out by the end of March. Though he notes that it is the most challenging class he has, he appreciates that he is learning skills around marking, sponsorship, insurance, general accounting, and event management in a practical, hands on way. There are generally around 20 students in each of his classes except for his lecture classes which have all 200 students from his program. Here’s one key difference from college in the US: all of Jared’s books costs less than brux$200!

I was a bit worried that Jared’s transition would not be as seamless as Theo’s was.  Not only does KU Leuven not have the residential component that Leiden University College has, but Jared’s campus is in Brussels while the main campus is a short train ride away in Leuven.  Jared’s experience really speaks to a difference I often point out, which is that student life is often not confined to the school, but is more an experience of being a student in the town of wherever you may be.  I’m so happy for Jared and we will continue to follow his experiences.

Holidays for an International College Student

Thanksgiving can be a bit hard for first year students in Europe. It’s just like any other day with classes and student sometimes are a bit homesick by this time.  Many American students gather with other international students and school staff to celebrate holidays from home that aren’t recognized by their school country.   Some international student offices even arrange such celebrations.  When my kids go to college in Europe, I plan to fly over and spend time over Thanksgiving weekend together-either in the town of their school or a quick nearby getaway. Fortunately, Christmas break is right around the corner and most American students do go home for the break, since schools have at least a two week break around this time.

Students can benefit from experiencing different holidays and festival traditions that they would not otherwise be exposed to. Travel expert Rick Steves has an extensive list of holidays and festivals by country. Here are a few of our favorites.

christmasmarketjenaChristmas Markets

Christmas in Europe centers on an Advent market that, in most cases, has filled the square before the cathedral each December for hundreds of years. Many markets start on the Friday before Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas Eve; most end on December 24, especially in Germanic countries, where Christmas Eve is set aside for trimming the tree at home. Here’s a really great article to help identify the best ones from our friends at Dispatches Europe.

If you’re having trouble getting in the yuletide spirit or you’re not the shopping type, there’s always the legendary Christmas Beer Festival in Essen, Belgium. This festival features 178 different beers, including some of the best beers in the world, in a celebration of the diversity of Belgian beer culture.

images-15Carnival

According to Wikipedia, “Carnival is a pre-Lent season of festivities Carnival typically involves a public celebration and/or parade combining some elements of a circus, masks, and a public street party.” Carnival is celebrated in New Orleans as Mardi Gras. You may have already heard of Carnival in Venice with its masks and elaborate costumes. Venice is perfectly nice, but if you’re looking for a similar festival with a less touristy vibe, check out Croatia. Established in 1982, Rijeka, Croatia holds the country’s largest carnival festival of parades and costumes. the 2017 Carnival runs from January 17 until March 1, so there’s ample opportunity to check this out on a break or as a weekend trip.

Midsummer’s Eve

In Sweden, Midsummer’s Eve is one of the most important days of the year, rivaling Christmas with its festive spirit and traditions. Traditionally, Midsummer was celebrated on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but the holiday has its roots in a pre-Christian summer solstice festival. In 1952, the Swedish Parliament decided that Midsummer should always be celebrated on a weekend. As a result, the observance of Midsummer now varies between June 20 and 26. Midsummer Eve activities include folk dancing in traditional costumes around the Maypole and games for all ages. At some point, festival goers enjoy a meal of herring with new potatoes and a glass of schnapps.

 

Prague Pride

orlando-830x365There are many pride festivals across Europe. The biggest one in Central/Eastern Europe, Prague Pride, happens in August in the capitol of the Czech Republic. 40,000 people gathered together to celebrate equal right to love.  Although they sometimes look like carnivals, gay pride parades are an opportunity to show that all citizens should have the same rights in our society. The 2016 edition of Prague Pride included a memorial service for the victims of the Orlando, Florida, night club massacre where 49 people were killed at a gay night club.

 

 

Firsthand Report from Theo in The Hague

We’ve told you about one of the students we worked with last year in our previous blogs.  Theo impressed me from the start and I have really enjoyed our interactions.  He is attending Leiden University College The Hague, the honors liberal arts program connected to Leiden University in the Netherlands.  I recently checked in with Theo to see how his transition has been going.

University colleges in the Netherlands have a required residential component (1-3 years depending on the school).  As I’ve mentioned previously, student housing at Leiden University College is nicer than any apartment I had until I was in my 30’s (of course, my former career as a social worker certainly limited my options).  The school and its housing is a modern high rise right next to the train station in the center of The Hague.  The lobby includes a vertical garden to represent the sustainability theme. Classrooms are on the first few floors and the dorm rooms are on the top floors.  All rooms are fully furnished and curtained with their own facilities (kitchen and bathroom with toilet). The rooms are huge and are more like a studio apartment than a US style dorm room.  Some units are shared with another student, but most are singles. The floor to ceiling windows overlook The Hague. Rent is €565 (about $672) per month for a studio.

I asked Theo about the logistics of his move in.  The only things he brought with him were clothes, books, and odds and ends. He bought everything else locally.  His parents stayed in town for a few days and helped scout out thrift store furniture for his room.  Theo also noted that there is an Ikea store in a neighboring town and a few students organized group trips to stock up there.  Having knowledge of the state of shared bathrooms in many dorms or student apartments, Theo is super happy about having a bathroom all to himself! He also loves having a kitchen.  He discovered over the summer that he really enjoys cooking, so he has been using the kitchen for meals beyond the ramen and frozen pizzas I subsisted on at the same age.  He has had fun experimenting with random new ingredients and his Dutch friends have helped him navigate the grocery stores.

Theo is also enjoying life in the Hague.  He describes it as fascinating, beautiful and vibrant and has enjoyed wandering the streets exploring the city.  He also loves the Central Park-esque park that is right outside the school’s front door.  He uses it as a calm retreat from the urban setting. There were two orientation sessions during the first weeks of school.  One was for Leiden University College students and the other was for all Leiden University students in The Hague. He found them both to be informative and entertaining and helped him understand the program, school, and city.

The social transition has been easy for Theo.  He had been corresponding with another student online who he met in person his first day. The orientation programs also helped him meet other students.  Theo reports that the social scene is whatever you want it to be. Some students explore the clubs in town or have “borrels” (which he told me is the Dutch term for a party/get-together with beer).  Theo enjoys a more mellow scene, hanging out with much smaller groups of people.  Theo describes himself as somewhat introverted, he enjoys his time alone but has not isolated himself and has been making friends and joined clubs that have helped him make friends with similar interests. He also told me that there hasn’t been any cultural awkwardness that he anticipated “just regular awkwardness” (did I mention how much I enjoy his insights?).  He did say that there are a good number of jokes made at America’s expense, but that they are not in a mean way or said as a judgement towards him as an American.  He’s met eight other American students, but notes that there could be more.  Since classes are conducted in English, it’s hard to determine where someone is from.

Theo’s description of his academic life is so great, that I’m including it verbatim:
“I am currently taking History of Philosophy, History of Science, Academic Writing (which is actually a course about Greek identities under the Roman Empire), and Global Challenges: Peace & Justice.  Each class is made up of twenty or so kids, and are all discussion based.  Once a week there is a big lecture for P&J, but the Global Challenges classes are the only classes that do that, to my knowledge.  All of these classes are mandatory for first years.  Study time is largely dependent on how bad a procrastinator one is, but in general it can be described as feasible yet challenging.  It also involves a lot of writing.  I found all of my books for free, except my academic writing book, which cost fifty bucks.
Classes start at different times every day, so I may wake up any time between 7:30 (Wednesdays) to 11:00 (Tuesdays).  I have one class every day for two hours, plus an additional two hour lecture for P&J on Moleiden angledndays.  That may seem like a little but we receive enough of a workload to necessitate at least two hours of out of class work every day, or seven hours twice a week, if one is so inclined.
Overall, it has been a wonderful experience so far, and I am excited to continue to explore The Hague, and to participate in such rigorous classes.  I recommend this school highly for anyone who wants to be challenged, who loves discussion, and wants to deal with practical issues facing the world.”

I am so excited for Theo and look forward to continuing to follow him through his college career!

Denmark’s Friday Bars

Denmark was one of the first countries I researched for Beyond the States. One of the things that surprised me most was the concept of “Friday bars”.  Each Friday at noon, the academic departments set up bars in a classroom or canteen in the building with beer and soft drinks.  Students within the department then have a time and place to socialize with other students as well as their professors.  There are two things that struck me about this.  One is how different the relationship is between students and professors than at most schools in the US.  In Denmark, the informality and access are the rule. The other thing this made me think about is the difference in the practices and attitude towards drinking in Europe.  This is something I noted about most European countries, not just Denmark. Since drinking under the age of 21 in the US is illegal , students drinking with professors is limited and could put the professor in jeopardy of arrest. In the US, most college drinking is done under the context of “partying” with the intention of intoxication. American students studying in Europe reported that drinking is done more casually (to relax, with meals, having to know when to stop with professors, etc).  That’s certainly not to say that students in Europe are not getting drunk, it’s just to say that it’s not always the goal.

Jared, Part 1

Jared lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He attends high school in the best public school district in the state at a school that is ranked in the top 200 schools nationally. Though he is smart and a good student (4 AP courses, strong SATs, a weighted GPA of 4.3), he has never really enjoyed school and was approaching the college application process in unenthusiastically.

JaredJared loves to travel. He completed summer language courses in both Costa Rica and Barcelona and has also traveled with his family. When he heard about Beyond the States, he asked his dad if he could look into the possibility of going to college in Europe.

Jared completed our Matching Service and received information about a number of schools/programs in Europe that match his qualifications, interests, and preferences. He is interested in studying International Business and he was excited by the business program at KU Leuven. KU Leuven is ranked #44 globally by US News and costs a mere 890 Euros per year (about $975 per year). And it’s a 3 year program (yes, that means his undergraduate tuition will be under $3,000 total)! Though Jared had dragged his feet completing his US college applications, he really seized the initiative in the Leuven application process which surprised (and pleased) his parents.

Jared noted that the first obstacle dealt with figuring out the application KU Leuven’s website.  He found the English version of the site to be a bit scattered and there were some terms used that he was unfamiliar with. Once he figured this out, the application process was very simple. He noted that there were a lot of steps in the process, but they were all easy (setting up an online account, entering info, scanning a copy of his passport). He was a bit intimidated by the motivation letter, as it had no prompt or topic to cover. After brainstorming and some research, he was able to come up with a strong essay.

Interestingly, Jared’s biggest obstacles in the process came from this side of the pond. After completing the application process, having his school send his transcripts, and paying the College Board to send his SATs, he noticed that his application was still shown in the “New” status as opposed to the “Under Review” (there’s a place online to monitor this). He contacted Leuven and found out that they didn’t receive his SAT scores, so Jared had them sent again (and even paid the College Board again). Once again, the school didn’t receive them. Jared contacted the admissions department who was able to see it was an issue with the College Board. They accepted a scanned copy of his official SAT results. Within the week Jared was notified that he was accepted!

I am often asked what qualities a student needs to be successful in Europe. One quality I always note is that the student needs to be proactive in asking for assistance. Jared was not only proactive in keeping an eye on his application process, but in reaching out to the necessary people to resolve the issues that arose. I have no doubt in my mind that Jared will succeed as a student at KU Leuven!

Jared will be keeping us posted about his experiences a few times each year. Watch for future posts.

Do You Have What It Takes?

Over the past months, I’ve talked to many American students who have graduated from, or are currently enrolled, in bachelor’s programs in Europe. We’ve talked a lot about the traits that make a  successful student in Europe. Students across the spectrum pointed to a number of the same qualities needed to succeed. Though these qualities are all distinct, I believe the combination is a crucial component for success as an international student in Europe.

1. Curiosity and Openness

This student is curious about the world, about knowledge, about other people’s experiences, opinions and points of view. She seeks out information about these areas and processes it in order to further formulate their own perspectives and points of view. The student’s curiosity and open mindedness leads to enthusiasm, thus being an active participant in the learning process comes naturally to this student.
This should not indicate that the student has to have been a passionate high school student, but is more about their overall quality of intellectual and cultural curiosity. I spoke to Hannah from New Jersey who attends school in the Netherlands. She noted that, while she was always an avid reader and enjoyed current events; she was not an enthusiastic learner in high school. Now, she attends a University of Applied Science so all her courses directly pertain to her program of study and she does not have many general education requirements. Focusing on her area of interest from the start has made her an engaged, and successful college student.
Further, a student does not have to have already been exposed to a tremendous amount of diversity in order to be culturally curious and open minded. Many students from the US haven’t had these opportunities. That being said, international students in Europe are coming from all over the world. One student I talked to lives with his best friends who are from Croatia, Hungary and Japan. A graduate I spoke with said that, due kids round tableto the friendships she made as a student, she has a place to stay when she travels to well over ten countries. Living with cultural differences can present challenges, but the open-minded student is excited to learn through these differences.

2. Desire for Independence

One aspect of needed independence relates to academic life. Students are expected to do a lot of studying on their own (about 30 hours a week for full time students including classes). Unlike many classes in the US, this is ungraded work that is not monitored by the professors. The work in between classes is done to prepare for the next class discussion as well as to prevent the need to “cram” for tests. The professors let students know what they need to read and do each week, but it is up to the student to actually get it done. Grades for classes are generally composed of just a few tests and/or projects and in many schools the goal is to receive a passing grade instead of the A-F structure in the US.

The other area of independence that is needed pertains to everyday life. Though schools usually have cafeterias and canteens, they are shared kitchenoften not open for every meal every day of the week. Meal plans are pretty much unheard of in Europe and student residences almost always include a shared kitchen. Shopping for groceries and preparing meals is a common part of student life in Europe. Further, since student residences are rarely on campus, students will need to learn to navigate their way around town which often involves learning how to use public transportation.

I recognize that there are a lot of structures in American schools and society that do not give teens as many opportunities for independence, particularly if they don’t live in an urban environment. Students who have not already cultivated their independence can also succeed in Europe so long as they are excited by the possibilities and confident in their abilities.

3. Willing to Ask for Help and Being Proactive

Part of being independent is not only figuring out everything on your own, but knowing when and how to access the information you need. Most schools have an abundance of resources, such as the International Desk, but students must be proactive and seek them out.

Though you are not receiving frequent grades, professors are available to give you feedback and assistance. In addition to appointments and office hours, some countries (like Denmark) have Friday bars where professors set out soft drinks, beers, etc and socialize informally with students.
Most schools also offer tutoring, language learning, help with residence permits, and various programs to help with acclimation. If you aren’t offered information about these programs and services, you will have to be willing to ask around to find it.

Housing is another area in which students need to be proactive about finding help. Very few schools guarantee housing. Some schools help students find housing, some just point students to different resources. Other students and the ESN chapter can help students navigate this system. There are even Facebook pages that helps students locate housing, but these are resources that the student must locate and utilize.

It is important to be proactive socially as well. One American student I spoke with has a passion for baseball. His school in Germany does not offer a baseball team, but he was able to find one associated with the town and now has a team to play with and friends to watch games with. There are an abundance of social opportunities for students within most schools and towns, but you will have to be willing to seek them out.

4. Adventurousness

Living abroad for the next three to four years can be the adventure of a lifetime. An adventurous student does not fear the challenges and uncertainties of going abroad, but is excited by them. I spoke to a student from Southern California who went to school in Sweden. Having never lived through winter weather, she did not even own a pair of close toed shoes when she arrived! Instead of staying inside complaining about the cold, she quickly adjusted her foot wear, invested in good outerwear and ended up loving the activities that winter weather offered. The adventurous student knows that getting lost in the city, being served an unfamiliar meal, living in winter for the first time are all likely to occur but they will face the situations with determination and enthusiasm.

5. Flexibility

If you choose to go to Europe for college, your life for the next three to four years is going to be completely different than your friends experiences back home. Academically, your courses may be structured in ways you aren’t accustomed to. Some schools use 8 week block schedules, some are more traditional schedules, and some schools combine the two.
There is also an abundance of social differences you will encounter. Instead of tailgating and watching college football games, you may be watching rugby or soccer in the pImage result for toulouse rugby teamub with your friends and the rest of the town, since teams are tied to towns and not colleges. Instead of joining a sorority or fraternity, you will join social groups consisting of other students with similar interests. Instead of going to Mexico for Spring Break, you are headed to Barcelona or Greece. The student who goes to Europe for college needs to know going into it that student life is drastically different and be open to finding and engaging in different social activities.