Student Ambassador Experience-Andrea in Utrecht

This week we hear from another one of our student ambassadors!  Andrea is from Andover Massachusetts and is in her first year of the liberal arts program at Utrecht University.
Read on to learn more about her experience.

My decision to attend college in Europe was made in my senior year of high school in Andover, Massachusetts, where I have lived almost all my life. Growing up in this suburbia, I was comfortable with the way things were and generally thought I would continue to live in the same area for my college years as well. However, after being exposed to BTS through a family friend, I began growing curious of what other opportunities could be out there for me.

I ended up applying to universities in the Netherlands and Czechia, and am currently in my second semester at University College Utrecht, one of the few liberal arts colleges in the Netherlands. This liberal arts curriculum allows me to explore my interests and combine them to create a unique degree. The courses are split up in three sections: Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities. There are no GenEd requirements, except that you must try out at least one class in each of the disciplines in your first year. The program is three years instead of the four years I would be taking in the US, but don’t let that fool you, it is shorter but the course load and curriculum is equally difficult if not harder than that at US schools. At the end of my second year, I have to choose a discipline to major in, within which I have to finish “tracks” or a series of courses in a certain subject to graduate. I am leaning towards taking an Interdisciplinary Major by combining the Social Sciences and Humanities.

My classes have been enriching and interesting, as I have been able to learn about historical events and methods of thinking through a completely different perspective. I have been able to recognize some of the biases or misconceptions I may have as a result of growing up in one area for so long. The classes are also relatively small at UCU, so a close connection with the professor is possible in case I ever need help or have specific questions.

The application process for UCU was similar to that of schools in the US, except that I needed to turn in my AP scores. This added a bit of stress to the process, but I also applied to other universities and university colleges in the Netherlands. The universities here have a set of requirements that if you meet, your acceptance is almost guaranteed, which definitely gave me an added sense of security as I was applying.

The decision to move across the Atlantic to pursue a higher education proved to be worth it. Not only will I graduate without student loans, but I also will receive a degree unique from many other of my peers in the US. The friends I have made here have also helped me grow, and learning about their experiences across the globe has greatly enriched my day-to-day life.




Is Free Tuition the Most Affordable Option?

We sometimes get emails from students who say that they want to find information about universities with free tuition, but that they can’t afford to pay for our services. The concern I have is that these students have a misconception about what it will actually cost to study and live in Europe.

The Beyond the States database contains over 75 English-taught bachelor’s degree programs and 857 English-taught master’s degree programs that charge zero tuition for international students. These programs are mainly in Norway, Iceland, and Germany. But “free tuition” does not actually mean cost free.

The first thing students need to consider is proof of means, which is  more properly described as “proof of means of subsistence”. Essentially, this is the minimum amount of income a student will need to live as a student. This is an amount set by the individual country’s government as part of the immigration process. Students who aren’t EU citizens need to provide proof that they have the  full amount for the year during the immigration process.  

Norway is one of the countries that offers international students free tuition at their public universities.  It truly is a remarkably beautiful place. During our visit there in 2016, we really enjoyed everything that was on offer. One thing that became immediately apparent was the high cost of living. According to Expatistan, Oslo, Norway’s capital, is slightly more expensive than Los Angeles (after New York and San Francisco, LA is the 3rd most expensive city in the US). 

An international student in Norway will pay no tuition, but they will pay more than 10,000 euros a year on housing, food, transportation, and leisure expenses (and that is on a VERY tight budget).  In fact, proof of means in Norway is 10800 euros which often allows for a very modest lifestyle. Estonia has many similarities to the Nordic countries, and students do pay an average of 3168 euros per year in tuition. However, the living costs are so much lower that EVEN WITH TUITION, they end up paying almost 2000 euros less per year. Of course, because cost of living is so much lower, the amount of money you need for proof of means is also easier to swallow at 4500 euros per year.

Families and students are frequently drawn to the “free college in Germany” idea. Of course, the admissions requirements often create obstacles for students.  The cost of living in Germany can be quite reasonable. Berlin is on the more expensive side at just 28% less expensive than LA.   However, it would still be a mistake to focus solely on Germany.

Let’s compare Germany to the Czech Republic.  Proof of means in Germany is 10236 euros and is 3600 euros in the Czech Republic.  Depending on the source, Berlin is anywhere from 32%49% more expensive than Prague. Even using the lower cost difference, a student in the Czech Republic would have 41 bachelor’s and 98 master’s options in which they would pay the same for living AND tuition as they would pay for living expenses alone in Germany.

While these aren’t all necessarily dramatic differences, we are comparing your overall expenses including tuition. The fact that you can pay less overall while paying a few thousand euros a year in tuition is precisely the reason not to confine your search to only those with free tuition. For a student who has a tight budget, those savings can mean a lot and/or open up a lot of options that are comparable in cost.

Let’s go back to the student who has a very tight budget and doesn’t think they can afford to work with Beyond the States. We have a self paced course called Choosing A University in Europe.  This course walks students through the process of choosing a European university (for bachelor’s)*that fits their criteria and includes 30 days of database access.  Membership is not required for the course, which costs $75.  Without taking this course, a budget minded student might confine their search to free tuition and not know that they need to come up with over 10000 euros for proof of means. They might apply in Norway, not knowing that you need a certain number of AP courses.  They might not be aware of one of my favorite universities in the Czech Republic which has a Environmental Studies program for under 1000 euros per year.

The knowledge gained after making this one time payment will save you endless hours and minimize the risk of making costly mistakes. It also has the potential to save you thousands of dollars. Of course, if you are comparing to US prices, the savings potential is mind-blowing!  

We would love to help you find life-changing opportunities within your budget! Use coupon code “affordable” through March 7th to save 20% on the Choosing A University Course or your first month of bachelor’s or master’s membership.

***Our master’s membership includes webinars that walk students through the same process.


The Ups and Downs of Expat Life

A few months after we moved to Portugal, I saw a post in a Facebook expat group that made me laugh. A person was planing their move to Portugal and trying to figure out what they should bring with them and what they could wait and get after the move here. Their question was “what have you had trouble finding in Portugal”. One of the answers was “A sense of urgency”.  This response seriously cracked me up! Others though took offense and criticized the person for not appreciating life in Portugal.

I have to tell you-living abroad can be hard! I’m sometimes reluctant to talk about the struggles, for fear that it implies that we regret moving abroad (which we don’t) or that we don’t appreciate the country that we live in (which we do).  I strive to be real, open, and honest in my posts (though I do clean up my potty mouth…). Since our students have many of the same experiences, I want to share some of the struggles with you.

We sold our house, got rid of many of our belongings, and moved into an apartment nine months before leaving the US. This helped us adjust to less living space before moving here.  That doesn’t mean I don’t miss it sometimes though! Watching TV shows and seeing “typical” American houses is usually the trigger.  Yes, I miss my big, organized, and modern American kitchen.  I also miss central heat/air and spacious master bathrooms.  And I really miss being able to run more than one appliance at the same time without blowing a fuse. Other than that, I miss consumer related conveniences like good customer service, ordering food online from around the country from Goldbelly,  the abundance of resources to easily purchase anything I need (or want), and things being delivered to my door soon after I hit the “order” button on my computer.  Of course, we miss friends and family, but Facetime helps us stay connected. In fact, I “see” one of my closest friends more now on our scheduled Facetime calls than I did when living in the US.  Other than family and friends, most of the things I miss are fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things and have actually helped me gain some awareness about myself. For instance, I don’t want consumerism to be such an important part of my life, so the realizations around this help me to work on that.

More than missing things though, the hard part of living abroad is just how much effort is required for regular task of life.  This includes things like: figuring out whether your landlord is taking advantage of your lack of knowledge about renter’s rights-and knowing what to do when they are, asking for help finding an item in the grocery store, figuring out which milk is skim/low fat/whole, finding a dentist and doctor, and figuring out how to make an appointment with that doctor when the phone prompt options are not in English. Then there are things that are a pain even in your home country, but doing so abroad adds an additional degree of difficulty.  Calling utility companies, opening up a bank account, and figuring out what cell phone package to choose can take a lot of brain power! Bureaucratic systems can be another source of headaches, particularly in the early days when sorting out residence permits, trading in drivers license and such are required. And don’t even get me started on learning the metric system! I feel like I have to hold so much extra information in my head every time I leave the house-from how to convert kilometers to miles when I’m driving or kilograms to pounds when shopping, to the tax number they ask for every time I make a purchase, to how to say certain phrases, to remember the rules of the traffic circles. It can be really exhausting!

Despite the difficulties, I do not regret our decision to move one little bit! I love that my daily walks include an ocean view. I love exploring new types of shellfish, wines, and cheeses. I love the affordable cost of living-and that health care is also included in that affordability. I love the community we’ve started to build. I love that eventually, we will be able to easily explore other parts of Europe. I love that there is a five year path to citizenship, which will open up the possibility to live throughout the EU. More than anything, I love the feeling of accomplishment that came with following through on a dream.

What really blows my mind is when I think about our students experiencing these same struggles and benefits. As a middle-aged woman, I have significant life experiences that helped me through difficult tasks. The fact that they are handling these situations without those life experiences is truly incredible. Sam had to go to the embassy four times before he had all the documents in place to get his passport renewed. It was a pain, but what a learning experience around both bureaucracies and attention to detail! Our students also have to deal with difficult landlords, getting residence permits, grocery shopping, and the like. They would not have had this set of challenges had they attended universities in the US. And you know what? These difficult experiences lead to tremendous growth! Accomplishing these tasks gives them confidence in their abilities. They also realize that if they successfully manage the logistics involved with living in one foreign country, then they can also do so in just about any other country. They see the world as a place that is open to them. This is a realization I have had since we’ve moved also and I can only imagine the impact it would have had on my life if I learned this as a young adult!

I often talk about how college in Europe provides life-changing experiences. This confidence and new perspectives about one’s place in the world is absolutely part of that. Though I love learning about the experiences our members have while studying in Europe, I’m also super excited to see how their lives are impacted in the years after they finish their studies.





Food Science Degree Options in Europe

For Jenn and I, our favorite pastime is eating. When visiting a new city, some travellers rush to the ritzy retail shops, find the best museums, or visit the famous sports stadium, but we visit the grocery stores and the food markets. This made me wonder what food science degree options existed in Europe.

All of our great experiences involve food and beverage somehow. Our trip to the Bordeaux region in France was centered on a visit to Arachon, where many French oysters are raised. One Father’s Day many years ago, Jenn gifted me an incredible cheese making camp in Vermont which culminated with a party that we still remember fondly. I spent many years brewing beer at home, and did pretty well in many of the contests I entered. Sometimes I wonder whether it would have been possible to make a vocation of my hobby and study food and beverage at the university level? 

The Beyond the States database contains 58 programs related to food and beverage.  These have different focuses, some are more about food science or agribusiness while others focus on the arts related aspects of the field, such as writing or criticism.

If you’re more interested in the business side of food, the European Food Business bachelor’s program at Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Droten, Netherlands, could be a good fit. Though based in the Netherlands, students also get to spend time studying in both France and Italy. I als found the focus on entrepreneurship and innovation interesting. The first two years provide a basis in business management, marketing and food product development. In the fourth year you will create your own business, based on a product of choice. The annual tuition is € 7,029.  

Another great option for a food science degree is the Agriculture and Food bachelor’s program at Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. This program includes scientific understanding of biological principles of agriculture, orientation in current agricultural technology, and obtaining basic knowledge on the quality and processing of agricultural products and food. The first half of the course of study focuses on applied sciences and relationships between environment and agricultural practices in both crop and animal production. In the second part of the program, students are encouraged to use their developing knowledge and skills to identify practical problems of the production systems to meet the production, economic, and environmental goals, as well as the quality of agricultural products and food safety. Graduates gain a comprehensive background which provides flexibility in the labor market or expertise to run their own business. Tuition is 3,090 Euros per year.

While not a food science degree, the University of Gastronomic Sciences’ (UNISG), Slow Cuisine master’s program (€12,100) in Pollenzo, Italy, offers both classroom learning and practical experience. Started in 2004 by the Slow Food movement, the university offers a unique, holistic approach to food studies. Its aim is to help those interested in a culinary profession to learn about cooking both from a scientific and humanistic perspective as well as get to know various restaurant activities first hand.The course alternates between lectures and practical training experience in restaurants. The course is organized as follows: two months at Pollenzo, three months in a restaurant selected by the organization, two months at Pollenzo, three months in another restaurant, one month at Pollenzo. Under the guidance of the UNISG chefs, students will then be able to share their experiences, as well as dishes and recipes learnt during their time at the restaurants.

As a joint venture of four universities under the auspices of Erasmus Mundus, the European Master of Science in Sustainable Food Systems Engineering, Technology, and Business holds classes in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and Portugal. This food science program has a strong, built-in travel experience as the student cohort moves from Gent to Porto to Kothen to Dublin and back to Gent for graduation. The schools are Catholic University of Portugal, Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, University College Dublin, and KU Leuven. This program covers a broad range of topics concerning sustainable food production and processing, agri-business, including quantitative methods such as predictive modelling and risk assessment within a multidisciplinary approach.The program also provides a vertical in-depth specialization, with units focusing on topics in Risk and Safety, Innovative Technology, Energy and Food Chains, and Sustainable Food Production. The tuition is € 6,000 per year. 

What can you earn with a food science degree? According to data published by The Institute of Food Technologists, the median income for holders of a food science degree is $95,000 per year, while new grads start out at $50k per year. That seems pretty good to me.



Is a Degree from Europe “Good” in the US?

I often get questions about whether a degree from Europe will be “good” in the US.. Degree accreditation and recognition can be confusing, so today I’d like to dive into this a bit.

Let’s start with accreditation. Accreditation is basically a stamp of approval by an accrediting agency that deems that university programs have met certain standards set out by whoever the accreditor is. The most important thing is to make sure that the accrediting body is recognized by the country of the university. In most countries, other than the US, accreditation is granted by a governmental body which is usually the Ministry of Education. Since public universities in Europe are heavily funded by taxes, the accreditation process is quite thorough. Since there is only one accrediting agency per country, the criteria used is consistent.

I sometimes hear from people who say that they want to narrow their search to European universities with US accreditation. You will not find a public university in Europe that has American accreditation simply because these are not American institutions. There are some private American universities based in Europe and these universities generally have both American accreditation and accreditation by the country in which they are functioning.

It’s important to note that, just like in every country, there are schools in Europe that don’t have the accreditation necessary to be fully recognized in their country. I sometimes get emails with a link university website asking why we don’t have it listed in our database. We require the full accreditation, even for private universities (except for Greece due to a law they have around private universities), for inclusion in our database. This is just one thing that sets us apart from the other portals you will find online.

In the US, the government doesn’t give accreditation itself but approves various accrediting agencies (as does the Council for Higher Education Accreditation).  These are often, but not always, regionally based like Middle States Commission on Higher Education and WASC Accrediting Commission.  There are also national accrediting agencies as well as specialized accrediting agencies (for degrees like law, nursing, medicine, and such).

One issue with this method is that the criteria used for accreditation is not necessarily consistent across the board, since there are a number of agencies involved. The other is that schools can be accredited by an agency that has not been approved by CHEA or the DOA, effectively making the degree worthless. It can be confusing for students because the school can claim-and honestly-that they are accredited. It’s important to note that these degrees aren’t recognized because they are US institutions that aren’t accredited by approved agencies in the US. This is VERY different than how degrees are viewed from universities in other countries that fulfilled the accreditation requirements within that country.

Recognition of the diploma is a different concept. The term can mean a few different things and can be used to mean an informal recognition or an official/formal process. If you are returning to the US after graduating, you will need your diploma recognized (either formally or informally) as valid by either an employer, graduate school, or a licensure board. Let’s walk through how having a foreign degree may affect each of these.

If you return to the US for graduate school, you won’t be an international student but you will be applying with a foreign degree. There were more than 1 million international students studying at universities in the US during the 2019-20 school year. This indicates that admissions departments are very familiar with assessing foreign degrees. Most use a credentialing agency to assess the degrees and ensure that they are valid, which is part of the admissions process. To note, you will still need to take the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, etc and meet any prerequisites the university has.

The exception to the ease in which you can apply to graduate school in the US is medical school.  If going to medical school in the US is the goal, the decision to study outside of the country should be carefully evaluated. Many US medical schools require a degree from the US and those that don’t do require at least one year of coursework from an American or Canadian university (usually science classes). It’s not an insurmountable problem, as some of the credits could be gained in the US or Canada during a semester abroad and potentially even summer classes. The specific requirements around the US programs you are interested in should be explored in depth before deciding to study outside of the US.

When applying for a job, you will likely not need to take any official steps for recognition. Many companies are multinational and/or have been employing people from other countries for many years so seeing degrees from other countries is commonplace.  Further, most of the students who pursue universities abroad would be seeking employment with companies that have some aspect of internationalization, simply because their own interests and values related to global citizenship is one thing that led them to study abroad in the first place.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the student is applying to a small company in a small town and is concerned that the HR department is unfamiliar with the value of a foreign degree.  The student could either attach a statement about the school to their resume, with information about accreditation and rankings by US sources or go through the degree verification process (more on that in a bit). That said, no company can be familiar with all of the higher education institutes in the US alone. Because quality and accreditation varies so widely, when the “quality” of the degree matters for the job, there are often systems in place to evaluate this whether the degree is from the US or elsewhere.

There is also evidence that the name of the university matters very little in the hiring process, and this becomes even more true with there is relevant experience (including internships) on the applicant’s resume. Certainly the soft skills gained by studying outside of your home country is something that employers are looking for, and these could be highlighted in a cover letter.

Professions that require licensure are a different matter. These include many careers related to health care, education, social work, psychology, law, and architecture. There are some fields of study, like education, that really do need study completed in the country in which you intend to work.  If you want to be a teacher in the US, you need to learn about the curriculum and policies specific to the US. In fact, the majority of the English-taught education type programs in Europe focus on teaching at international schools as opposed to the education system in that country. A university in Finland, for instance, wouldn’t have an education program about the Finnish education system taught in English because teachers in Finland need to be fluent in Finnish.

The most important thing to note about the careers that require licensure is that most-not all, but most- are going to require a master’s degree before licensure.  Many of our members intend to work in Europe after graduating.  However, if you are sure that you want to eventually work in the US in one of these careers, perhaps getting your bachelor’s in Europe and your master’s in the US is a solution.

The other thing to recognize is that most of these careers are still possible with a degree from abroad, though there will be hoops to jump through. In most cases there is a process to go through to get your degree validated and ensure that it included certain learning objectives. I have my LCSW, so I’m somewhat familiar with sites around licensure and decided to look at the specifics around licensure with a foreign degree.  For this particular profession, the Council on Social Work Education will assess information sent from the university about the competencies and expected outcomes related to the program.  Though you have to dig into the site a bit, they list all of the expected outcomes they are looking for. You can use this type of information when choosing a program to look at how their expected outcomes compare to the standards required for US licensure in your field of interest. In other cases, you many need to get your own credential verification by an agency like World Education Services, which costs around $200 (depending on the type of evaluation needed).

There are a lot of opinions out there about recognition and accreditation. I sometimes see them presented as “facts” as comments on the facebook ads. Before sending my son (and soon my daughter) to school in Europe, I thoroughly researched whether this would hold them back in their future.  If you are still doubtful, I encourage you to do your own research. Look at the admissions pages for graduate school programs in the US, look at LinkedIn to see where people with degrees from abroad are working, and check the licensure board websites of fields of interest. I think you will be happy to learn that pursuing the affordable and life changing options in Europe will, in most cases, keep these doors open for you!


Playing Sports as a College Student in Europe

We sometimes get the question, “Will I miss out on sports by going to school in Europe?” The answer is, “No”, but the form may be different than what one expects. The sports scene in Europe is different than in the US, but it is still quite vibrant. 

Sports in Europe are structurally different than in the US as sports here are associated with “sporting clubs”. The club system is a network of sporting organizations, ranging from small local recreational clubs to multi-billion dollar franchises akin to the professional sports organizations of the US. 

The club system is complex and books have been written on the topic. In Portugal for instance, 120 teams play in four level leagues. Teams in the top level league, the Premier Liga, play one of the other 18 teams in the same league. Each year, teams move up or down based on their record over the entire season. Leagues are organized at the national level. There is also post season play where top teams from different countries play each other in tournaments. 

There are similarities that an American like me finds familiar such as passion, tradition, and rivalry. When we recently visited Porto, we were kept awake for many hours by the constant honking of car horns outside our apartment after the Porto team beat the traditional powerhouse team from Lisbon, Benfica. 

Students who enjoy watching sports (live or televised) will have no trouble finding like-minded friends to watch with!  The football culture can be contagious, even for students who don’t engage as fans.  After just a few months of studying in Europe, Jenn’s brother (who was never very into sports) was all of a sudden a fanatic about the UK Premier league and his chosen team, Tottenham.  

If a student would like to continue to actively participate in a sport, many schools offer intramurals, which means “within the walls” of the school. At Groningen, for instance, intramural sports are addressed through their association system, which also offer social and cultural interests for students. Groningen has 50 different sporting activities students can choose from. Additionally, the ACLO Studentensport center in Groningen offers just about every sport and fitness activity you can think of, as well as a wide variety of sports clubs.

If the level of competition isn’t enough in intramurals, the student could approach a local club about trying out for their team. Outside of the US, and especially in Europe in the sport of soccer, the development of elite athletes has almost always fallen to a network of local and national professional clubs. Serious young people don’t play for their high school or college team. They play for a club. 

Truly gifted athletes may even be able to move up within the system from the local club level to play professionally in one of the larger clubs. Beyond big time soccer, these clubs also support other sports, as well. For example, Sporting Club of Portugal, one of the large sports clubs here, has a soccer team, of course, but also teams for volleyball, handball, indoor soccer, and rink hockey. FC Porto has those teams plus teams for cycling, swimming, billiards, and more.

In the end, if a student wants to participate in sports, he or she will be able to, it just may be in a different form than if they went to college in the US. Two things are for sure, sports aren’t viewed as a relevant factor for admissions and standing out in sports won’t mean a sports scholarship. Fortunately, college in Europe is so much more affordable that sports can be enjoyed on whatever level one desires to. 



Creating New Traditions

For my entire life, even when I lived in an apartment as a college student, I’ve had a real Christmas tree. After Tom and I got married and had kids, there were a number of traditions involved around choosing and setting up the tree every year. We lived in North Carolina for sixteen years before moving to Portugal this year.  There were beautiful Fraser fir that we bought each year from Mr. Johnny, a fixture in the community. Some years, he would throw the tree in the back of his truck and bring it to our house (which was easier than trying it on my car). Each year we would catch up on his health issues, my kids, his business. This was something I enjoyed and looked forward to as much as the actual tree.

Live trees are not as much of a thing here in Portugal.  Most of the options make Charlie Brown’s tree look lush and full. They come stapled to a board, so keeping them fresh in water isn’t an option. I was on the fence about what to do about a tree this year. After seeing my brother’s solution, which involved zip tying two of these sad trees together, I decided to break tradition and bought a fake tree.


This experience has me thinking a lot about traditions. Like our students who are in Europe, living in a different country requires a certain level of flexibility when it comes to our traditions from home. It also introduces us all to new ones that we may want to incorporate into our lives.  This, of course, is not exclusive to holidays but also includes student life.

When we think of student life traditions in the US, many of us often think of events around sports or maybe those around Greek life.  Most of these traditions relate in some way to parties and social life.  There are student life traditions in other countries too and certainly no shortage of parties (in non-corona times at least).  These traditions provide the same outcome as those in other countries. They can lead to a sense of belonging and community, provide meaningful shared experiences with others, and are also just fun!

Finland has a number of student life traditions that provide good examples of this. The first involves coveralls. Students buy a set of coveralls that are associated with their university or sometimes even the department at their university and wear them to parties (usually with something creative or fashionable done with the top part of the coverall). Since student life is tied more to the city than the school, you see many different colors of coveralls at parties!

Students then earn patches for their coveralls at parties, pub crawls, and other activities. Patches can also be purchased at specialty stores or from students who have a business designing them.  Wearing sweatshirts with the university name really isn’t much of a thing in Europe so the colored coveralls are a way of being a part of the student community in the city as well as representing your own university (and potentially department). The patches and colored coveralls provide easy ways to start conversations as well when meeting new people.

Then there is the singing….When I was in Finland a few years ago, I met with an American student in Mikkeli who told me about how much she loves sitsit. These are student dinner parties with all sorts of rules and traditions around singing and toasting. Sometimes these are formal events, sometimes a theme/costume party, sometimes with dancing, but there is ALWAYS singing. This is a very Finnish tradition (though Sweden has some similar traditions) so participation can make students feel not only a part of student life traditions but feel a part of  Finnish student life.

Covid has made it hard to learn about many Portuguese Christmas traditions this year.  I like the idea of seafood on Christmas eve, but it may be a hard sell for Sam and Ellie.  I’m sure we will all pass on the idea of a codfish heavy meal, but perhaps we could adapt the Christmas eve tradition of Northern Portugal with the inclusion of octopus in our meal.  I’m interested in creating new traditions that appeal to me from other countries as well. I started making glogg every December after falling in love with it on a winter trip to visit schools in Scandinavia. I also love the idea of the Jolabokaflod in Iceland in which includes exchanging gifts of books and spending the evening reading. We have found some ways to include some of our past traditions here.  For years, we’ve been getting a smoked goose in the US, which only required roasting on Christmas day.  We sourced a goose for a local butcher and found a restaurant that will smoke it for us. That, along with homemade mac and cheese, will provide some sense of tradition for us, even without a real tree!







The Challenges and Benefits Around Language Learning

As most of you know, we moved to Portugal in March of this year. I’m attempting to learn Portuguese right now and, man, is it hard!  Having never learned a conversational language (I took 4 years of Latin in high school), this is not coming naturally to me!  Though I’m far away from being able to speak (beyond pleasantries) or understand (people talk so fast!), my reading is improving a lot. I get really excited when I can read things in the grocery store, menus, or parts of emails.  I can’t wait until I can communicate somewhat effectively, if only basic communication.  We need A2 proficiency to apply for citizenship in 5 years. This is just one step up from beginner, so I’m confident I can get there. My goal is to take (and pass) the test by spring of 2022. By then, we may know our longer term plan and I can either continue my Portuguese to get to a level beyond basic communication or start learning the language of the country we intend to eventually move to.

Suffice it to say, I’ve been thinking about language learning a lot! I have so much admiration for people who are bilingual! I can’t imagine being able to switch between languages with such ease!  It’s also amazing how quickly some people pick up languages. My nephew spent the first six years of his life in Turkey. He spoke English, Turkish, and even Greek (he went to a Greek preschool) at the age of 5. He is 10 now,  living in Lisbon, and has on more than one occasion schooled me on the basics of the Portuguese language. Covid “bubbles” prevented Ellie from taking Portuguese at school this year but, even without formal classes, she is quickly learning various phrases from her friends. I don’t doubt that when she starts taking classes, it will come much easier to her than it has for me. Sigh.

Sometimes I hear from people (usually in those facebook ad comments I’ve mentioned before) that seem almost offended by the suggestion that students don’t need proficiency in another language to go to schools in Europe. Some insist that students need proficiency for day to day life. Or they think that we are suggesting that language learning isn’t important. Let’s unpack this a bit today.

The first thing to recognize is that English-taught degree programs don’t exist with the purposed of  accommodating or appealing to us at Americans. Honestly, they don’t even exist as something specifically for native English-speakers.  Whether good/bad, right/wrong, English is the most widely spoken language in the world. Therefore, English-taught programs exist to accommodate ALL international students in the world who have a defined level of English proficiency.

Living in Europe has made me realize the importance of both bilingualism and the function of a common language.  Just like someone might live in New Jersey and spend just as much time in New York, someone can live in a border city in Spain and work, eat, or socialize in France.  This person would need to know France and Spanish or another language that people are likely to know.  That language in the world right now is English.  The use of a lingua franca is especially evident in the EU where, even with the UK leaving, English will remain one of three official languages in the EU Institutions. Interestingly, even without including the UKEnglish is spoken by 44% of the EU population, while Germany is spoken by 36% and French is spoken by 29%.

It’s certainly possible in many countries to get by without knowing the language. Countries in Northern Europe in particular have extremely high English proficiency. That said, I personally think it is a sign of respect to, at a bare minimum, know things like “Excuse me” for when you bump into someone, “Do you speak English” so it’s not viewed as an assumption or entitlement, and pleasantries like please and thank you.  Certainly, life is easier when you go further than that.  While the google translate plug in has been a game changer for me, there are certain translations that are a bit odd. I remember looking at a menu online with an item that translated as “fingernails”.  I was tempted to order it just out of curiosity! Knowing things like food words and numbers has helped me tremendously, both at the grocery store (there’s nothing worse than standing there trying to get the camera translate app to pick up the words on the label),  the farmers market, and when ordering at restaurants.

International students in Europe have a large number of options for language learning. Some programs have language classes built into the curriculum, though it’s not usually the language of the country they are living in. There are many programs that have a regional focus-whether it’s a business or global studies type program-that include langue learning. For instance, students in Maastricht University’s Global Studies program can choose from Arabic, Chinese Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish. Students in all programs at Bocconi University must learn two languages during their studies and need to achieve B2 in one and B1 in the other by the time they graduate. These classes are built into the curriculum and include choices of French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and German.

Outside of the curriculum, the university almost always offers some sort of opportunities for language learning. Some universities provide an online language class for incoming first year international students.  Leiden University, for instance, offers a five week course and the “lessons are based on realistic scenarios from the life of an international student at Leiden University.”  I think this is really key, as the students are leaning some of the specific phrases that they will actually use in their day to day life as a student (which are, different than the phrases that I as a middle aged woman would use in my day to day life!).

Some universities offer formal language classes for their international students. Others have regular language cafe events which allow students to practicing a language with a native speaker of that language while also helping that student practice English. Other schools have Language Buddy programs for new international students, which can help with both language and culture.

Of course, online resources have come such a long ways!  I remember when we used to buy language programs to help us with language when we would travel. These were almost never effective for us!  Now, though, I’m using an online resource called Practice Portuguese that’s incredibly helpful! For me, the regular use of this program has been far more effective than the more structured online classes I’ve taken! Finding European Portuguese specific resources has been tricky, since most are focused on Brazilian Portugueses, but there are a ton of others for more common languages like Drops, Mondly, Memrise, and Duolingo.

So, other than making day to day life a bit easier, what are the benefits around language learning? For one, it makes integrating into local life instead of just international student life easier.  Certainly, if you are at a group event with students from various part of the world, the common language (English) will most likely be used.  If, however, you are at a party where the majority of the people are from the country you are studying in, they will most likely be speaking their own first language.  Knowing the language opens up social opportunities and social communication with other students.

Additionally, language proficiency improves your job prospects. Of course, it increases the pool of jobs you are qualified to  apply for, but also helps you even when applying for jobs that don’t require any other language. This interesting article cites research that shows that knowing more than one language leads to a “have a greater capacity to understand people from a wider variety of backgrounds, and also have a better understanding of themselves”, reduces decision bias,  makes people better problem-solvers and “better able to function optimally in chaotic situations”. These are soft skills that employers are looking for! Not to mention the fact that language learning in and of itself is an achievement that will help the applicant stand out!

I would guess that Sam is probably close to B1 in both French and Arabic and A1 for Dutch. His goal is to get to B2 proficiency in both French and Arabic by the time he graduates and A2 for Dutch. This would open up a number of job opportunities in many different countries.  Further, having that level of proficiency will allow him to speak to people in their own native language (beyond pleasantries..), and provide him with a greater understanding of the world. I too look forward to experiencing some of the less tangible benefits to language learning!

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Wrapping My Head Around Problem Based Learning

I’ve received several emails since my last blog asking about Sam’s program at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Just like the full university name (I’ve been told that Erasmus University is not accurate, without the Rotterdam at the end…), the program name is also a mouthful. Sam is in the Management of International Social Challenges program.  Students in this program learn about international problems that are multidisciplinary in nature. These include issues like “migration, pandemics, terrorism, climate change, economic stability, international crime”, and more. Students learn to look at and analyze these issues through the lens of a variety of disciplines, including sociology, economics, political science, management, international law, and public policy.


As I mentioned in my last blog, one of the standout features of this program is it’s use of Problem-Based Learning (PBL).  This is an educational approach used at a few Dutch universities. Maastricht University, for instance, uses it for all their programs while EUR uses it for just a few of their programs. This approach, along with the block schedule, has impacted Sam’s education experience in tremendous ways!

Maastricht in particular has loads of info on PBL, which is where I first learned about it.  There are a lot of phrases describing it that I feel strongly about…. Things like critical thinking, understanding not memorizing subject matter, public speaking, relevancy, active learning, self-direction, collective learning. I understood that the approach has these values/goals that I think are important in education (and in life!) and I understood that these goals are achieved through small group sessions that are structured in a systematic way, but I couldn’t really wrap my head. Luckily, I’ve been about to pick Sam’s brain and look at some of his course material to get a deeper understanding. I thought it might be helpful to go through an actual example to demonstrate how it works.

Sam has two classes during each of the five week blocks. One is an academic skills classes and the other is specific to the social challenges issue. The first two blocks were for the Globalization and Society class, with block one focused on culture and society and block two focused on politics and economics.  He has one lecture each week for Globalization and Society. In addition, he has one discussion group and two PBL groups each week for the course.

Sam’s PBL sessions are made up of ten students, and the group is the same for the entire five week block. While the weekly course discussion sessions allow students to become familiar with others, these intense sessions allow them to really start to get to know each other as work continues outside of the sessions as well.

Each PBL session has a “problem” assigned, though I think of it more as a topic that students that students then identify problems around. For instance, problems for the first block included things like Globalization and Crime, Cultural Identity, Migration, Ancestral Homelands and Global versus Local. There are certain facts, research findings, or questions that students are provided with, but that is all they come into the session with.

PBL sessions use a step by step process to explore that particular topic/problem. First, the tutor assigns a scribe and a chair for the session. The chair leads the session and the scribe takes extensive notes that the students have access to. Other than that, the tutor’s only role is to get the discussion back on track (if needed), assign breaks, and provide participation grades.

The problem I will use for this example is from the second block. The topic for the week was around whether globalization improves of worsens inequality. The basis for each side of the argument was presented and the goal of the session was to look at different countries (which were assigned) and determine whether globalization improved or worsened inequality in that particular country.

The first step in the process involves discussing the assigned topic, making sure everyone understands it, and defining any unfamiliar terms.  In this group, there were no unfamiliar terms and students progressed quickly to the second step.

The second step involves defining the actual problem and identifying the questions that they need to answer in the process. This step is not about answering these questions, just identifying them. Sam’s group came up with questions like:

  • What is inequality?
  • Does inequality increase with the progression of globalization?
  • Does economic growth lead to inequality?
  • Which countries are negatively and positively affected by globalization?
  • Does inequality increase with the progression of globalization?

The next step in the session is brainstorming around the questions they just came up with and the factors that play into the problem. For this session, students first came up with a rough definition of inequality to use. They then looked at different variables regarding each of the countries assigned.  They looked at when poverty began increasing or decreasing in each of the countries, they looked at education changes in each of the countries, and several other factors including equality, GDP and life expectancy. They also discussed relevant factors like the Lorenz Curve and Gini Coefficient.

The next step is problem analysis, which is primarily about structuring the information from the brainstorming session. This leads to the final step of this session, which is formulating learning objectives.  Students in this session realized that further learning was needed around two key questions.

  • How do we measure inequality?
  • What factors lead to inequality?

In between the PBL sessions, students complete the next PBL step which is to work independently on these questions, using the course texts and other identified material and come back to the next session with the information they gathered.   So, in fact, the first half of each PBL session is actually a discussion of the previous topic. Students go around the group and talk about their findings, citing their sources and discussing the findings before moving on to the steps noted above for the next assigned problem.

There is just so much I love about this process. As a former therapist, I spent many sessions teaching teens, parents, and spouses effective communication skills. Part of the PBL process teaches students to debate their differences of opinion in respectful and elicit meaningful discussion. If only every college aged student could learn those skills!

The academic skills classes that students take each block also tie into the skills they’ll use in PBL sessions (many of which are also useful in life as well). In addition to the more basic skills classes they take in the beginning, they also have skills classes in Research Design, Literature Review, SPSS, Interviewing, Argumentative Writing, Presenting, Negotiating, Professional Conduct, and Data Analysis.

Finally, I really love how this engages the student in the learning process. It’s not just about going and reading the assigned text between classes. It’s about active study strategies, critical thinking, applying theory to relevant real world issues, and doing your part as a member of a group. Learning to learn is such an important piece of being a student.  I think this structure provides students with the skills and resources needed to effective learners as students and-just as importantly-how to apply those skills to their lives beyond.