As you may remember, we made plans to move to Malaysia in spring 2020. We applied for a visa, and Ellie and I spent an incredible six weeks looking at schools, apartments, and just exploring. We were all super excited for a life filled with curry mee and a completely different way of life. Just a couple of weeks after I announced our plans, we had a plot twist in our lives. Tom got a job offer-one he was really excited about-for a company that is 100% remote. However, he would need to live in place that had some overlap in the work day with US time zones. With a 12-hour time difference, Malaysia was off the table if he wanted this job.
Luckily, we weren’t completely back to square one as I had researched several countries before we decided on Malaysia. Deciding on a new plan paralleled the process I advise students to go through when choosing which European schools to apply to. I always recommend students to first start with the quantifiable criteria, which starts with area of study and admissions requirements. It doesn’t matter if you want to live in France if you want to study Philosophy because there aren’t any English-taught programs in that area of study. It doesn’t matter if you want to study in Denmark if you don’t have any AP scores or an IB degree, since those requirements are country-wide. For our search, first and foremost we needed to identify a country that had visa structures that we qualified for (since we weren’t going with a work or student visa). We also needed a place that had no greater than a 5 to 6 hour time difference from EST. It doesn’t matter if I want to live in Croatia if they don’t have the visa structure we need, or anywhere in Asia due to the time difference. These concrete criteria helped us narrow the field tremendously. The next criteria we had was around cost. Just like the university search, this gets a bit more complicated. When students are looking at universities in Europe, tuition along with living expenses needs to be considered. I often use the example comparing Norway and Estonia. Though Norway offers free tuition, the overall cost of tuition and cost of living is less expensive in Estonia because Norway is such an expensive country. In our search, we had to consider not only cost of living, but also tax rates (one reason we initially chose Malaysia is that they don’t tax global income). We would love to live in Spain, for instance, but the tax rates there are high which affects the overall cost of living. Then we get to the most subjective criteria, which is quality of life. This is different for everyone, but for us some considerations were weather, food, public transportation, ease of visiting schools for Beyond the States, and high school education for Ellie.
All these factors helped us decide on Lisbon. Portugal has a tax structure that provides a 10-year tax break to those who become tax residents and meet a set of other criteria. It’s also one of the more affordable countries in Europe. My brother lives in Lisbon, so we will get to spend regular time with him, his wife, my nephew, and niece. Food and weather boxes are checked (big time) and we found a great international high school that will allow Ellie to continue with her curriculum. I do hate that we will be paying more for high school tuition than we pay for Sam’s university tuition, but I keep reminding myself that it’s just for two years! Speaking of Sam, it will be much easier to see him since Amsterdam is just a 3-hour flight from Lisbon. And get this-after just 5 years of living there we can apply for Portuguese citizenship! We must pass a language test first (thought there are rumors that this requirement is being removed), so we will be taking classes and studying hard. After we become citizens, we can live anywhere in the EU! Finally, this move means that school visits for Beyond the States are going to be a lot more frequent! We are taking advantage of Ellie’s virtual school year with a couple of months of travel before settling in Lisbon. We leave on January 12th and will spend a month in Valencia, Spain, with plans to visit a few schools in Madrid. After a couple of weeks in Lisbon to handle logistics in February, we will then spend March in Athens -with more school visits-and settle down in Lisbon April 1st. I’ve had my eye of a few schools in Finland that I plan to visit in May as well. It’s been interesting going through a process that parallels that of the students I work with. Like some of the students I talk with, we started this process with one thought/plan in mind that required modification. What we thought of as a Plan B turns out to be at least as good as a choice as the original plan, just in different ways. Flexibility is something that I sometimes struggle with, but it’s been an exciting process. The other thing I have found fascinating is how many BTS members, former members, future members/newsletter subscribers I have encountered through this process. I’m in a Facebook group for Americans who have or are planning to move to Portugal and already have been contacted by four other people who are in the same group and know me through Beyond the States! I guess it’s not surprising, given that valuing global experiences is something we all have in common. Anyhow, I look forward to bringing you even more frequent information about schools! I’ll send out updates about the schools I have appointments with ahead of time, so you can let me know if there are any specific questions you would like answered.
I visited six Netherlands universities during my recent trip. Whenever I plan these trips, I have a preconception of which schools I’m most excited to see. I’m often proven wrong, and this trip was no exception! There are two schools that particularly excited me during this trip-a research university and a university of applied science. I’m so eager to tell you about both of them that I had to flip a coin to decide which one to start with!
One of the main reasons I chose to visit Utrecht was convenience. Two of my days involved three hours train rides (each way!) so I was eager to have at least one day with an easy commute. Utrecht is just over 30 minutes by train from The Hague and, since it’s the largest and busiest train station in the country, trains ran frequently making the travel aspect super low stress. Little did I know that it would end up being one of the schools that excited me the most!
Let’s get back to the train station for just a minute… Utrecht Central is a hub, so just about everywhere you would want to go in the country is really accessible. This opens up great opportunities for students to attend different events (be it music, social, or networking) in nearby cities. They also have the world’s largest bike garage, with 12,500 spots. I’ve never seen anything like this before!
I knew little to nothing about the city before I arrived. It’s the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, though still small by other standards-with 340,000 inhabitants. It has a great combination of Dutch charm (I’m a sucker for canals) and conveniences needed for everyday life. Almost 20% of the Utrecht population are students, so there are plenty of opportunities for an active student life. The Parnassos Cultural Center offers various opportunities in the arts (dance, music, theater, and photography to name a few) and the Olympus Sports Center offers just about every sport I could think of-along with some I had never heard of (korfball anyone?).
Of course, the drawback of living in such an incredible and charming city is the housing shortage it creates. Casa Confetti is a well known student housing location. It even has it’s own Facebook page and website. Like Groningen, housing is notoriously difficult. Utrecht does reserve a number of rooms for first year international students (bachelor’s and master’s) but this is extremely competitive and offered on a first come, first serve basis. Be prepared to wake up in the middle of the night, right when they open the registration for the housing list. The majority of students find housing in the private market, which can be challenging but not impossible for first year students.
Utrecht University was founded in 1636 and is the largest university in the Netherlands. Their population of 31,000 students includes 2,500 international students. They offer 12 English taught bachelor’s (which includes two different university colleges) and 101 English taught master’s. Now that we are offering services around bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, this post will include information about both.
The bachelor’s programs are broad and/or multidisciplinary and allow students to choose their area of focus as the program proceeds. For instance, the Global Sustainability Science program has four tracks that begin the second year: Water Climate and Ecosystems, Energy and Resources, Governance and Societal Transformation, and Business and Innovation. Literary Studies students choose to focus on either World Literature or Literature in Conflict during their second year of study. History students choose either the History or International Relations in Historical Perspectives track during the second year and each of those tracks have 3-4 other specialization options. These include options like Political Conflict in Modern Europe, The Power of Culture, Globalization and World Order, and Europe in the World. Further, the university offers 41 English taught minors which can further customize a student’s educational path.
Utrecht University has two university colleges. These are the self contained, honors level, liberal arts programs that are a part of every Dutch research university. University College Roosevelt is further away, in Middleburg, so I didn’t make it on this trip. However, I was incredibly impressed by my visit to University College Utrecht (UCU).
The UCU facilities are located about about 15-30 minutes away from the city center (depending on whether you are walking or biking). It is an American style campus, which is quite rare in Europe, with the various buildings circling a quad. Campus includes the various academic buildings as well as a dining hall/student center, student bar, and student residences.
UCU student are not impacted by the housing issues as on-campus housing is required for the first two years, and optional for the third. Housing costs 6000 euros per year and includes a private bedroom and shared bathroom, kitchen, and common space. As we toured, I was also struck by large number of flyers for a varied offering of student activities and associations specifically for UCU students. This shouldn’t be surprising given the larger student body (700), diverse background (50% international), and range of academic interests represented.
There are a few different types of Netherlands university colleges. UCU is one of the few that allows students a tremendous amount of flexibility in designing their own curriculum. This is something that I had trouble fully wrapping my brain around until I visited. The program offers three very broad majors (Humanities, Social Sciences, Science) and a large number of core subjects-with many courses for each subject-under each major. The first year provides an introduction to each of the academic areas and student choose a course to take from each one of the majors. Student choose their major the second year and must take ten courses within that department. Other than the ten courses within the major, the other rule is that students have to focus on two different core subjects, and one can be in another major if desired. A student might be a Humanities major with a focus on Philosophy and History. A student interested in psycholinguistics could major in either Humanities and either Social Science or Science, and focus on Linguistics and Psychology or Cognitive Neuroscience. The possibilities for meaningful combinations are really astounding!
There are some core requirements as well for all students. All students have to take language courses, with a wide array of options! Student can choose Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Latin, or Sign Language. Other requirements vary by major. For instance, all students have to take a math class, but one option for Humanities majors is “Mathematics for Poets”.
Students are assigned a faculty member who serves as their academic advisor for all three years. There are two mandatory meetings each semester in which work is done towards course planning in a way that is aligned with the students goals and interests. It was only in the last 20-25 years that bachelor’s degrees in much of Europe were common. Until the Bologna Declaration, most Netherlands universities combined bachelor’s and master’s were into one degree. Thus, most UCU graduates (as well as most graduates from other Netherlands universities and programs) continue on for their master’s degree.
Which brings us to the master’s degree programs at Utrecht University….
Utrecht University offers 101 English taught master’s degree programs. One hundred and one!! There are two types of master’s degree programs offered by Dutch research universities. Research master’s are two years in duration and prepare students for Ph.D programs. Of course, not all graduates will pursue a Ph.D and end up working in research related careers. One year master’s degree programs are designed to prepare students for their careers.
I read about the different programs, thinking about how much career choices have changed in the last 30 years. Certainly, I know what careers are associated with their programs in Clinical Psychology, Law and Economics, and Financial Management for instance. Though I don’t understand technology, I can imagine the careers associated with Human Computer Interaction. Then there are a number of programs that are super relevant to the issues in modern society. These are programs like: Global Criminology Migration, Ethnic Relations and Multiculturalism Conflict Studies and Human Rights Sustainable Citizenship
I found myself wondering what graduates would do for employment with these degrees. Luckily the Utrecht website (and many others) has a page associated with each master’s degree program that speaks to career prospects. Graduates of these sorts of programs often find employment as advisors, policy makers, researchers or consultants. They generally work for NGOs, but also for think tanks, government bodies, and international organizations like the UN and WHO.
This reconfirmed that there are so many careers these days that I know nothing about! At first I thought this might be a generational issue. Most of the people I know (or knew) went to school to become lawyers, bankers, teachers, psychologists, academics, scientist, etc. I assumed that the rise in globalization has led the younger generations to seek knowledge and careers in fields that we may not have known about. With a little more digging, I realized that my knowledge gap around these fields can’t be explained by age alone; that perhaps other countries are more invested in teaching the skills and knowledge related to solving global problems than US universities are.
I looked at the flagship public universities in my own area to explore master’s level offerings focused on global problems. UNC-Chapel Hill offers many of the more “traditional” options that Utrecht does, but the only thing close to a program that focuses on global issues is the Global Studies program. Same for NC State University. Only one of their 102 options, an International Studies program focuses on global issues.
Why is there is not a greater emphasis on solving world issues? Is it because, as a country, we are geographically separated from much of the world, limiting our exposure? Is it because the social lives at so many universities is segregated into homogeneous groups, preventing students from learning from the perspectives and experiences of others? Is it because we are worried about the career prospects of students graduating with these types of degrees?
And then we have think tanks, which may be affiliated with NGOS or universities. These organizations usually have a specific focus and work on research, advocacy, and policy advice. This is one of those fields I had never heard of anyone working in when I was in my 20’s (or even my 30s). How cool, though! Experts working together to try to develop solutions for specific problems!
I have so much to report from my week in The Netherlands-it’s hard to know where to start! In addition to information about two schools that blew my socks off, I also want to give you some concrete examples of academic and student life. I’ll be sending emails with all of this information in the coming weeks, but let’s start with academic life.
I talk conceptually about the differences between academic life in the US and in Europe quite a bit. It can be difficult to wrap our brains around though. I thought it might be helpful to tell you a bit about what academic life looks like for my son, Sam, and other students in the International Studies program at Leiden University.
Let me begin my explaining a system in place at all schools throughout Europe. ECTS is the European system for calculating credits. The US system calculates credit hours based on how many hours you are physically in class (or supposed to be in class…). If you have a course worth 3 credits, that means that you are in class for 3 hours a week. Full time US students generally take between 12-15 credit hours per semester, meaning that they are in class for 12-15 hours per week. The European system calculates the total amount of time needed on the course-in and out of the classroom. A class that has a 3-hour lecture might have more out of class requirements than another, and this takes that into account. Each of Sam’s courses this semester is worth 5 credits (requiring 5 hours of weekly work in and out of the classroom), and full-time students take 30 credit hours a semester.
Leiden’s International Studies program is conducted in two buildings in The Hague. Both buildings are near the train station and right off the tram line that leads to any of the student residences. Sam usually walks to class, which takes about 15 minutes, though his friends and I are trying to talk him into biking (more on my evening with Sam and his friends in an upcoming post).
International Studies students don’t choose their language and region specialty until their second semester, so they all have the same courses the first semester. This means that the weekly lectures for each course are large, with all 500 of the first-year students.
Each course has a weekly lecture and also has a biweekly tutorial section. Almost all of the tutors are Ph.D.’s and many are lecturers for other courses as well. This is very different from the seminars I had in college that were led by graduate students. Tutorials have 12 students max and during the first semester students have all their tutorial classes with the same group of students. This allows a certain comfort level as they get used to the tutorial structure (which requires active participation) and gives them an academic community to access for assistance. Sam’s group is very international with students from Iceland, Slovakia, Germany, France, Dominican Republic, and the Netherlands. Tutorial counts for 30% of the grade in all of Sam’s courses. The tutorial grade is made up of attendance/participation as well as assignments which may include debates, presentations, or in class, group work.
There is one course that does not follow the above structure, which is Academic Reading and Writing. I can’t tell you how glad I am that this is a required course, as I feel like this area was really neglected in Sam’s high school curriculum! This class has about 25 students and meets weekly. Students learn strategies to read critically, structure academic papers, research, formulate a strong thesis, and even more specific writing techniques like cohesion within and between paragraphs and the like. This writing assignments are done using a text and concept from the Global History class. Sam’s group is working with Tonio Andrade’s book “The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History”. There are three graded assignments for this course that lead up to a final essay which is worth 50% of the grade.
In addition to Academic Reading and Writing, all first year International Studies students take Sociolinguistics, Global History, Introduction to Cultural Studies, Introduction to International Studies, and Principles of Economics. Economics is one of Sam’s favorite courses, primarily because the lecturer is very engaging.
International Studies is another one of his favorites and after reading the syllabus I totally understand why. I could sit and ponder the ideas presented in the syllabus alone for quite some time, so I can only imagine what the readings and lectures are like. I cited part of the syllabus in a previous post, because I love that one of the course objective is “to foster global positioning sensitivity based on an awareness that there is no single objective position from which to observe the world.” Don’t you just want to sit and think on that for a minute? Another little gem from the syllabus explains that the course “seeks to initiate a critical exploration of the making of ‘us’ and ‘them’ through an introduction to the methods and perspectives of a range of disciplines and the potential strengths of their (interdisciplinary) combination, thereby fostering a genuinely global, historically-informed awareness of what we share, what divides us, and the processes out of which the contemporary global order of nation-states emerged.”
Sam is struggling with Global History, which is surprising because it was one of his strengths in high school. It’s taught in a way that is interesting, but incredibly different than how he learned the topic in the past. Instead of exploring events, it’s more about exploring patterns of events in history. The syllabus states that “the aim is to examine connections between societies, cultures and regions, as well as their divergence. Based on a combination of a thematic structure and a focus on a particular region, the plenary lectures each week will aim to shed light on connections and comparison, as well as on similarities and divergence.” I think this way of looking at history is a great way to increase critical thinking skills.
Sam had midterms the week before I arrived and is pretty sure that he failed his Global History midterm. I fought my initial instinct (which was to freak out) and reminded myself of some important information. Most Dutch schools grade on a 10-point scale. Grade inflation simply isn’t a thing, as it is in the US. I met different students at different schools this week who had never met anyone who received a 10 and only a few knew students who had received a 9-ever! Most students shoot for about a 7, and an 8 is viewed as very good. A score of 5.5 is the minimum required to pass the course.
First year students at Dutch universities have something called Binding Study Advice (BSA) to contend with. Basically, though the admissions process is less rigorous, they must prove that they have what it takes to succeed during their first year of studies. At Leiden, students must finish the year with 45 ECTS. If they fail more than 3 classes, they will not be able to return the second year. This makes the stakes quite high, so you may be wondering why I didn’t follow my instinct and freak out about Sam’s midterm…
First of all, the midterm is 30% of the grade. He still has the final and tutorial to pull up the grade up to a 5.5+ total. Students are also offered the opportunity to re-sit for any course they don’t pass. This would mean going back in mid-late January (before classes start) and taking an exam that would be worth 70% of his grade (midterm+final together). If, God forbid, he still failed he could retake the course next year as he would be able to return as long as he doesn’t fail 3 courses.
Most programs publish the percentage of students who get positive study advice during the first year and continue on to the second year. The international studies program is at 85%. Do I think Sam needs better time management and study skills? Yes, definitely. Do I think he needs to reign in the amount of going out? Yes. But do I think that he will be with the other 85% of students who receive at least 45 ECTS? Yes.
Whew! Typing that all out was very cathartic and I’m feeling even better than I did with my self talk around this…I’m sitting in the airport lounge during a layover in London while I’m finishing typing this and sent an email to Sam a few minutes ago. He was not receptive to discussing changes he would make in person (I got a lot of “I know, Mom”- old habits die hard, I guess), so I thought I would send it in writing. There are resources that students can use at universities, but they have to be proactive about seeking them out. Sam knows where he could go for assistance with study skills and such, but asking for help is not one of his strengths. My email outlined changes I would like to see-from making an appointment with his study advisor for pointers about studying for Global History, to getting on a sleep schedule, to figuring out regular times and places to study that are conducive to focus and retention. I threw in a suggestion about daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, because I couldn’t help myself.
So why am I telling you about all of this? First of all, I always strive to be transparent about both the benefits and challenges related to studying in Europe. It will likely be challenging academically. Students who are accustomed to straight A’s will have a rude awakening. Students who have a hard time asking for help (looking at you, Sam) need to get over it and make themselves do it. Though it might be uncomfortable but nothing bad will come of asking for help. Worst case scenario is that it’s not helpful. Parents need to remind themselves that this is a different structure than we are accustomed to. The first year goal is about passing, and that in itself should be celebrated.
Sam is so happy with his life in The Hague and at Leiden that I don’t doubt he will do what he needs to get those 45 ECTS. He knows that if he doesn’t, he won’t be able to live this life that he’s creating for himself. Further, he knows that even if he does get positive binding study advice, he will be paying me back for any class he fails. Hoping that extra incentive helps him make the changes now, before first semester finals.
College in Europe can be hard. Parenting a college student can be hard. But I really love both!
Ellie and I have been in Malaysia for the last four weeks and are finishing up our time in Bali. It’s actually been a scouting trip since we (along with Tom) will be moving to Malaysia in the spring. I’m often asked why we are moving and why Malaysia. The short answer is that Tom and I have always dreamed of living abroad. Ellie is 100% on board with this plan, but Sam wanted to finished high school in the US, so we waited for him to get off to college and then sold our house this past spring and started the process!
Malaysia has an incredible 10 year visa, low cost of living, great health care, no taxes on global income, and Kuala Lumpur is an exciting, modern, food filled city. It’s also a great jumping off place to explore other parts of Asia with short and cheap flights to amazing places. The long answer goes back to Tom’s brain hemorrhage in 2017, our experiences around that (both with healthcare and the insights that come from a near death experience), job insecurity he has experienced when he returned to work (despite his full recovery), my learning about various ways to experience location independenceafter being interviewed for the EPOP podcast, and a deep desire to experience more of the world on a longer term basis.
The reaction from friends, some family, and even strangers has been really interesting. Some people are genuinely curious and I’m always happy to answer their questions. Many people aren’t familiar with Malaysia (I wasn’t until fairly recently), but know of Singapore, due to the movie, “Crazy Rich Asians”. To them, I’m able to explain that Kuala Lumpur is like Singapore, but more affordable! Other people make assumptions and seem to want us to defend our decision. My mother questioned what we would do about healthcare-though Malaysia is medical tourism hot spot with affordable and high quality care. Some question why we wouldn’t choose another better known place, without consideration to the fact that you can’t live long term on a tourist visa. They (including my mom) questioned safety, though Malaysia is ranked the 15th safest country in the world-far ahead of the US ranking of 128th place. Others (ok, my mom again-but others too…) questioned the educational impact this will have on Ellie, without realizing the learning opportunities that living abroad naturally provides and that there are options for international high schools.
This all relates to the myth of American exceptionalism. We’ve addressed this concept previously, but it bears repeating. Why do we assume our health care is the best? Why do we assume our universities are the only good ones in the world? Why do we assume that our way of life is only one worth emulating? Why do we even have to think in terms of “best”? A good university, doctor, way of life for one person may not be for another. Things can be different without one having to be defined as better than the other.
Ellie is doing 10th grade through a virtual school, since we are moving before the end of the school year. This also gives her the opportunity to travel with me this year. We are in Bali to attend a conference about World Schooling. I first read about this a few years ago and found it fascinating. Basically, these are families who take less conventional approaches to education in order to allow their children to learn from the world. Though Ellie’s education is more traditional (accredited online school and likely international school for the rest of high school), I thought this would be a great way for her to meet other teens and for us both to learn from families who make a conscious point to learn from the world.
Already I’ve seen the natural learning and curiosity that occurs through these experiences. You can imagine our surprise when we saw a swastika on a building on our way in from the airport! I had no idea that the swastika is actually a Sanskrit symbol used for over 5000 years by many ancient cultures around the world. It is still used on some Hindu and Buddhist temples and organizations in Asia-not as a symbol of hate but as it’s original pre-Hitler meaning of peace, luck, well being, and prosperity. We learned about world religions and can’t even count how many Ganesh statues we have seen! We learned thought provoking information about cultural identity; how many people are just learning that they are Japanese because their families took on a Chinese identity for fear of retaliation after WWII; how Tamil is the common language among Indians in Malaysia; how the British colonization still has effects though independence was granted in 1957; and how ethnic Malays/Malaysian Malays (not sure if one term is more PC than the other) are all held to sharia law, while all others in the country have a secular justice system. We had first hand experience with haze in Malaysia, caused by the intentionally set forest fires in Indonesia. Ellie was able to use this information for a paper she had to write in Earth Science about deforestation. I can tell you that NONE of these things would have been of interest to Ellie (and -full disclose- some would not have interested me either…) if we weren’t here having these first hand experiences.
So why am I telling you all this?
I recently read a sentence that really stuck with me from Sam’s Introduction to International Studies syllabus. It noted that one of the course objectives was to “foster global positioning sensitivity based on an awareness that there is no single objective position from which to observe the world.” This really gives me goosebumps! Wouldn’t it be great if we all had this? The very same day, I read an article that quoted a woman who was at a political rally in North Carolina. She said, “This is like college — it’s like a pep rally of like-minded people and we feel safe here,”
I don’t want my kids to solely be around like-minded people. I want them to learn from the experiences of others. I want them to feel a little uncomfortable as their views and perspectives are challenged by their experiences and the views of others. This type of education occurs when studying in Europe. Their classmates and friends are from all around the world so they will meet and learn-in the classroom and socially- from students who have had vastly different life experiences than them. They will also learn about the history and culture of the country they are studying in, just through day to day life and the natural learning experiences that take place.
I recognize that our choice to move abroad isn’t possible or desirable for many people. There may be jobs, family responsibilities, and many other reasons to stay in the states. You may prefer to experience the world through travel and enjoy a supportive community in the US. I totally get that! This is an example of differences that aren’t better or worse than the other. That said, almost every person I have met through Beyond the States has wished that they had these opportunities to get a degree abroad when they were in college. Our kids don’t have a mortgage yet. They aren’t responsible for taking care of us. They don’t have a career to leave behind. This is the prime time for them to take advantage of the opportunities to learn and grow in tremendous life changing ways, by getting their degree in Europe.
Beyond the States helps families access and navigate the information about the English-taught bachelor’s degree programs in Europe. This free webinar is a great starting point and provides answers to many of the questions you may have.
Most of us are familiar with what goes on the first few weeks at American universities, but who has any idea what happens at European universities? Sam has been in The Hague for almost two weeks now and though I knew-on paper-what his schedule would be, I didn’t fully understand what this would look like.
As I had mentioned previously, Sam flew to Amsterdam by himself and was met at the airport by the welcome team. This is an optional free service in which current students greet new international students at the airport, guide them to the train, help them buy train tickets, and find the correct train. After finding his way to the housing office, the next welcome team took Sam to his room and showed him around the city.
The first week of orientation is called HOP Week (Hague Orientation Program), and is for Leiden students who are studying in programs held in The Hague (as opposed to the main campus in Leiden). Sam will have orientation that is specific to his program next week which will cover academic information as well as an introduction to the student associations within the program, resources, and the like. HOP week included information fairs and assistance with things like ID cards and such but this was primarily a social introduction, with tours of the city, a beach party, pub crawls, and cook outs.
The drinking age in Europe is 18, so the presence of alcohol was even addressed in the HOP week online information. The parent FAQ section stated “Besides soft drinks and water, we serve beer and wine during the week. However, we do not serve any alcohol to participants under the age of 18.” The drinking age is sometimes a cause for concern for American parents, but it is actually a relief to me. Students in college, be it in the US or Europe, will have the opportunity to drink no matter what the drinking age. Since students in Europe aren’t breaking any rules/laws by drinking, there can be initiatives in place to teach responsible drinking instead of abstinence. When I spoke to the ESN president for a podcast episode, he talked about things they do at parties like passing out water bottles at parties that have information labels about how much alcohol people of different sizes can handle and encouraging students to alternate drinks that contain alcohol with water.
Drinking also isn’t taken to the same extreme it is on US campuses. Yes, there has been more partying by Sam than I would like, but there have been nights that he goes out and has a couple of beers without drinking excessively, and nights he goes out and doesn’t drink at all. When excess has occurred, it hasn’t been at the level that results in passing out, getting sick, or blacking out. Sure, we are only a couple of weeks in, but these weeks before class start are traditionally the heaviest party times. His experience confirms what I have been told by other American students in Europe-that the drinking culture among college students in Europe is drastically different than in the US.
Housing is quite different as well. Sam’s room is much bigger than I expected. It comes with a bed, bedding, side table, a lounge chair, desk, wardrobe, lamps, kitchen table, and kitchenette (cabinets, stove top, small fridge). He shares an entry way and bathroom with a student from Prague who is entering his first year in the International Studies program as well. We pay 590 euros a month for his housing. The is right near a train stop and is only about a 15 minutes walk from the city center (where his classes will be held). Sam was showing me the room on Face Time and I noted that it was so big that I could stay with him when I visit in October, instead of renting an Airbnb. Sam didn’t think that was very funny….
I was a little worried about what Sam would do the first few days, since he arrived on a Thursday and orientation didn’t begin until Monday. However the RA’s set up a WhatsApp group for everyone in the building to join, so Sam had already communicated with people before he got there-and even had plans made for the first night. By the end of the weekend-even before orientation began-he had a large group of friends. These are students from Ireland, England, the US, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Portugal, Serbia, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Albania, Morocco, Tunisia, Finland, Norway, India, Thailand, and China. And these were just the nationalities he could name off the top of his head!
This reminded me of a neighbor I had. Her son started at UNC Chapel Hill last year and requested a roommate change because his assigned roommate was from a different country. He felt uncomfortable living with someone whose first language was not English and had cultural differences. This is a kid who grew up in a fairly progressive community, but didn’t have experiences that would lead him to appreciate and value cultural differences. I tried to talk to my neighbor about what positive experience her son could have, if she encouraged him not to switch rooms, but it fell on deaf ears…
I love that Sam has the opportunity to connect with such a diverse group of kids and I love that fitting in doesn’t mean that everyone has to be same. They can learn from their different backgrounds while also sharing some very significant life experiences. They all chose to live outside of their home country, which speaks to their openness and curiosity abut the world. They are navigating similar unfamiliar ground together, associated with the nuances of acclimating to a new culture and systems. This is one of those benefits that starts out as secondary, but becomes just as high impact-to Sam and us-as the benefits related to tuition and admissions!
I would not have been able to name a city, other than Prague, in the Czech Republic before starting Beyond the States. I certainly would not have thought that the city of Brno is consistently rated one of the top ten student cities in the world! There are 70,000 students in this city of 400,000, making it a lively place with lots of opportunities for student life. Brno itself has been called “Little Vienna”, since many of the same builders and architects developed the city when the city walls were taken down in the 1850’s.
A university administrator told me that the sense of community throughout Brno makes it feel like a village, though it is actually the Czech Republic’s second largest city. To me, Brno felt like a large campus, due to the abundance of universities and students throughout the city. Having been in Vienna before I arrived in Brno, I was also struck by the lack of tourists in the city.
It’s not just students that are attracted to Brno. IBM, Honeywell, and Red Hat are just a few of the multinational companies with large offices in the city. These companies often look to the university students when hiring English-speaking, part-time employees.
Another benefit to living outside of capital cities is the affordability factor. Most universities in the Czech Republic have their own housing. Single rooms in Brno generally cost around $150 per month. Meals in student canteens can be found for under $3, and a monthly transportation pass for students is just $12 per month. This leaves plenty of budget left to explore nearby capital cities during the weekends! Students can get to Prague, Budapest, and Krakow in just around two hours and Vienna and Bratislava in just one.
I often visit cities that have a beautiful city center, but areas outside this section are more run down. I did not have that experience in Brno. I walked in many different parts of the city and noted how well-maintained it was. Further, I was also struck by the excellent condition of all the buildings were at both schools I visited. This is not the case with public universities in many countries. Even public universities in Prague were not as well restored. This may be due to the fact that the Brno area and universities had a very different experience under the communist regime than the universities in Prague.
My first stop was Masaryk University. This University was founded in 1919 and is the second largest university in the country. 22% of their 35,000 students are international, but this number is misleading. My recent blog discussed how large numbers of Slovak students come to the Czech Republic for their studies. In fact, about 16% of Masaryk students are Slovak, meaning that non-Slovak international students account for only about 6%. Certainly the needs of international students who are less than an hour from home and are familiar with the language and culture are different from international students from further away. Despite the lower number of non-Slovak international students, the school has very strong resources for international students. They guarantee first year housing for international students, and start the year with an international student orientation and a buddy program. Each faculty (department) has their own international student office as well as an advice dean for international students and another advice dean to work with all students around academic planning. Masaryk offers twenty-one English taught master’s and bachelor’s degree programs. All except for Medicine and Dentistry cost under 4,000 euros per year.
After visiting Masaryk and grabbing some Vietnamese food for lunch, I walked about 30 minutes from the city center to Mendel University. Like Masaryk University, Mendel was founded 100 years ago, but is a much smaller school. There are 10,000 students at Mendel University. International students account for 20% if you include Slovak students but the number is still high-at 10%-without them.
There are so many things about this university that impressed me, that I don’t even know where to start! Let’s start with educational approach. Though many countries in eastern Europe still primarily use frontal instruction, Mendel University takes a more progressive approach. Most courses include a seminar component and incorporate hands on and practical work in addition to theoretical knowledge. The school has large agriculture and horticulture faculties, with focus on sustainability. They have their own vineyard, brewery, and forest that students in the different master’s degree programs use as labs of sorts. There is talk of adding an English-taught agrobiology bachelor’s program in the future, but nothing official yet, visit hbcontrols.com.
Each faculty (department) has it’s own culture of sorts. The Faculty of Development and International Studies, which provides two of the three English-taught bachelor’s, is known for being especially dynamic, and progressive. Professors are accessible to students outside of class and even known to socialize with groups of students from time to time, like their counterparts in Northern Europe. The other benefit to studying in this faculty is that the building has it’s own dorm (with guaranteed housing) and canteen, along with classrooms. This building is less than a ten minute walk from the other parts of campus. Students take this walk through the university’s botanical garden, that is only accessible to those connected with the school. I saw these gardens in February, when nothing was in bloom outside of the greenhouses, but they were very peaceful and I imagine that they are breathtaking in the spring.
Equally impressive are the resources Mendel University offers international students The provide fairly standard offerings, but take them up a notch. For instance, like many schools they offer a buddy program for international students. They make this more successful by matching students to the buddy intentionally as opposed to randomly. Of course, they offer a separate orientation for international students as well. In addition to the centralized international relations office, each faculty has at least one international student advisor. Further, the international relations office staffs a 24/7 help line for international students. This is something I have not heard about from any of the other schools I visited in Europe, and really speaks to the level of care given to international students. Excursions and events are organized by by the international relations office, different faculties and the very active ESN chapter. Mendel currently offers a total of ten English taught bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, ranging from 1470-2940 euros per year.
Brno is one of those outside of the box locations that I would encourage you to consider if you are looking for a great student city, high quality educational options, and strong international student resources-all at an incredibly affordable price.
I really love train travel. It’s just so easy and comes without all the stressors of air travel. Little things make it easy-like not having to worry about where my liquids are and arriving at the station just shortly before the train departs. More than any other city in Europe, I was struck by how many places one can easily get by train from Vienna. In under 2.5 hours, you can get almost anywhere in Austria, or to many cities outside of the country, like Bratislava (under 1 hour), Budapest (just over two hours), Brno (just over one hour). The trains were on time, clean, comfortable, and affordable. The most I paid for a train ticket was to Budapest, which cost 39 euros.
Vienna is a strikingly beautiful city. While the most impressive buildings are in the city center, even the residential buildings are stunning, painted light pastel colors. I was able to walk almost every place I needed to go in under 30 minutes and only needed to use public transportation once. The city is easy to navigate, clean and safe (ranked fifth in the world for physical safety). Student residences can be found for 350 euros per month, though there are new higher end options with more amenities that cost 600 euros per month (shown here).
Given my background working in mental health, I was super excited by the Psychotherapy Science program offered at Sigmund Freud University. This program first introduces students to the different therapeutic modalities, and the students choose one to specialize in for their final year. There is also a focus on practice, with students starting clinical placements in their first year of study. I will provide more in depth information abut this program and school in the March Program of the Month, accessible to members.
Another school that impressed me was IMC Krems. Krems is a small city on the Danube river, and is just one hour by train from Vienna. The small population of 40,000 does not impact student life, since 15,000 of those inhabitants are students! The campus is shared by the three universities and also holds one of the student residences, where single rooms cost 350 euros a month. The city center is just a 15 minute walk from campus and holds ample opportunities for an active student life. There is also an ESN office on the campus which arranges trips, parties, laser tag, pub quizzes, holiday dinners and more. A small city like this can be a great option for international students. Since it’s a student city, there are many establishments that cater to students (cafes, pubs, etc), but the size of the city is less overwhelming than a large city might be. That said, Vienna is just one hour away so students still have access to city offerings as well.
I planned this trip to Austria after reading about the Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology program at IMC Krems. I was very impressed by the program and featured it as a program of the month for our members. I had high hopes for their offerings, and was not disappointed! There are supports in place for international student from the time they enroll up until the time they graduate The International Welcome Center helps students with the logistics around housing, banking, visas and such when they arrive. The International Relations Office continues the support throughout the program. The school has strong relationships with industry leaders, which enriches the classroom experience and also leads to internship placements, which are require in all of the programs. IMC Krems offers seven English-taught bachelors degree programs. All are three years in duration and cost between 7800 and 9800 euros per year. It’s often hard to visualize what a university in a foreign country looks like, and what their students are like. This videogives a glimpse into the campus and students at IMC Krems.
My trip also took me to Brno, in the Czech Republic and Budapest, in Hungary. Look for the newsletter in the coming weeks to find out more about the schools I visited in these cities.
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I arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania to investigate college in the Baltic countries, after spending 10 days in Jordan with my son, Sam. I loved Jordan, which provided so many different sensory experiences. There were the sounds of the calls to prayer five times a day which I found soothing (except the one that happen before 5 am…). There were the smells of spices and grilled meat. There were amazing sights I could not have even imagined in Wadi Rum (the desert) and Petra (you may recognize it from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). There was the Frogger-like experience of crossing the street each time (even at crosswalks) and then there were the ups and downs of traveling with a teenager, which included good bonding conversations, as well as seemingly constant “advice” (not criticism I was told…).
Though the experience was absolutely incredible, I didn’t realize how much energy it took until I got to Vilnius. I was a bit grumpy when I arrived. I flew Ryan Air-which I always say I will never do again but then get sucked in by the low price. The boarding process reminds me of the old days with Southwest Airlines-sort of a mob mentality and then the flight attendants spend the entire flight peddling their goods. The person who came up with the idea to allow passengers to sample perfume in an enclosed space is not on my good list…We got to Vilnius late, and the cold fresh air when I walked out of the airport helped improve my mood almost immediately.
I had the weekend to explore the town before my meetings with a college in the Baltic countries began on Monday. I like visiting places in winter, as if you like a place as it’s worst weather wise, then you can imagine how great it would be at other times of the year. There are some places that felt depressing to me in the winter, like Sofia, Bulgaria and Warsaw, Poland. Though the skies are just as grey in Vilnius winters, I didn’t have that same feeling. “Hygge” is a Danish word, that has been entirely worn out internationally now, but really applies to Vilnius. The simplest way of describing it is a really cozy feeling. There are a ton of coffee shops with comfortable seating and lit in a certain way that make you want to go in with a book. There are wine bars-again with the warm lighting-with signs for mulled wine. The streets are clean, the architecture is beautiful, the people are friendly. I felt like I wanted to listen to classical music as I walked around the city (which is not something on any of my playlists). It just felt nice, and calm, and cozy.
Now, what I appreciate as a woman in my forties is very different than I would have liked as a college-aged student! This made me especially curious about student life in the city. I noticed that I didn’t see a lot of college-aged students out and about. Of course, it’s quite possible that the hours that I am out are not the hours in which college students are out (or awake). Certainly there are cafes, bars, nightclubs, theaters and more. It did get me thinking about the international student experience though.
One thing to note is that when a school reports their international student number or percentage, it includes all levels of study (bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate) AND almost always includes exchange students. This makes a huge difference! The international student percentage at Vilnius University, for instance is right around 9%. While that’s not a huge number, it’s not alarming. When you look at the percentage of degree seeking international students, however, it’s less than 3% and, again, that includes all levels of study!
So, why does this matter? For one thing, it can impact whether or not there are sufficient resources for international students. Vilnius University does not have an international student association or an international student office. They do offer an orientation week for international students (which includes exchange students) and they have an ESN office, but these are more directed at the exchange student experience. Further, one of the great benefits around studying in Europe is that students form friendships with people from all around the world. If half of your peer group leaves after just one semester, those meaningful bonds are harder to form and maintain.
Academically, Vilnius University has some strong programs and may be a good fit for some students. A student who is a little older may have the independence required to get their academic and social needs met. A student with a Lithuanian background may know enough of the language and culture to socially integrate with local students. These are just important considerations when looking at a school.
The international student population at Vilnius Technical University is similar to Vilnius University when you include exchange students, however it’s right around 5% when you look only at degree seeking students. It’s still small percentage, but they do have resources in place for their students. There is an office staffed with four people who work specifically with international degree students reading problems, questions, where to find resources, and more. Since they are a smaller university, they do this as the university level so all international students get the same information. There is an international coordinator in each academic department who helps students with the academic piece of things. They also have a mentor program for new degree seeking international students. Additionally, they reserve the newly renovated student residences for international students, which cost under 150 euros per month!
After recharging in Vilnius, I enjoyed the energy in Riga! It’s more urban, with people of all ages out and about at all times of day. It’s also remarkable beautiful with striking Art Nouveau architecture and abundant green space. Though the population is under 650,000 (similar to Portland, Oregon) it is the largest city in the Baltic region and, thus, provides an active night life. It’s an incredibly affordable city, even more so for students. For instance, students pay just 16 euros a month for an unlimited public transportation pass (the regular price is 50 euros). I really fell in love with Riga and it’s now on my list of favorite cities in Europe.
Of all the schools I visited on this trip, I was most excited by what I learned about Riga Technical University. Their total international student population is 15% which is at 10% when you subtract exchange students. The international student body is diverse, representing 87 countries. Not only does the university have an office that assists international students, but they also have an International Student Council which represents international student interests and arranges social events.
Unlike most universities in Europe, the university has a true campus, just a 25 minute walk (or 15 minutes by bus) from the city center. The campus houses the different academic departments, dorms (which cost 65-180 euros per month), and an Olympic size pool (there is a large recreation center off campus). There is a large shopping center directly next to the campus which includes a grocery store. The buildings were very well maintained, inside and out, which is not always the case with public universities.
Each program is split into groups of no more than 50 students for lectures with much smaller groups for labs and computer classes. Students are always taught by professors (not assistants) who are accessible for help outside of the classroom as well. All of the four year programs are very hands on, with lots of labs and internships in order to prepare students for the workforce. They evidently do a good job at this, given their strong reputation with employers. When I visit schools I look for strong academic programs and educational outcomes and an environment that supports international student life-academic and otherwise. Riga Tech checked all of these boxes.
My visits to the other schools in Riga helped me realize other questions students should ask when exploring a particular school or program. The majority of the international students in the other schools I visited are in just two programs (the integrated Medicine and Dentistry programs). There are only a handful of international students in each of the English-taught bachelor’s degree programs, and these students represent just a few countries. At one of these universities, classes for international students in the English-taught programs are separate from Latvians in the English-taught programs so it’s almost like private classes taught by the professors. While there is something to be said for the personalized attention in the classroom, I’m concerned about how isolating this would feel.
Though I absolutely love the Baltic area, I don’t think that Lithuania and Latvia are as far along with internationalization as Estonia is. That shouldn’t rule out the two countries for students. I would absolutely recommend Riga Tech, and there are certain types of students who the other schools may be a good fit for. More than anything, this trip helped me realize that there are some important questions students should look into when exploring a particular school or program. These are:
What is the number of degree seeking international students?
How many countries are represented by the degree seeking international students?
What is the percent of degree seeking international students in the program of interest?
Is there an international student council?
What types of international student associations are at the school?
Is there an international student office at the university level? Do they work with degree seeking student exclusively or also exchange?
Is there an international student coordinator at the program level?
Is there a mentor/buddy program for international students?
After gathering that information, you can consider the impact each area would have on your own personal experience.
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I was really excited to visit Groningen again. When I visited last year, it was just for a few hours. This time I was there for 3 days exploring the town and meeting with administrators and students from Groningen University College (UCG). Since so many of you have expressed interest in Dutch universities, particularly the university colleges, we are bringing you what we are calling a “deep dive” into UCG.
Let’s start with the city. Groningen is located in the northernmost part of the country, about a two-hour train ride from Amsterdam. It is the youngest city in the Netherlands, with half of the population under 35. Further, 25% of the residents are students. Because Groningen is the urban center of the northern Netherlands and has such a large student population, its cultural scene is remarkably big and diverse with an strong underground music scene, a comics museum, a tobacco museum, and a science museum. It has a vibrant nightlife, dominated by students.
As is the case for many European schools, there is no true campus, and buildings are located throughout the city. They’re easy to identify with the red triangle visible in the picture on the left. In some cities, this seems disjointed but in Groningen, it feels as though the city and university are very connected and the town serves as one big campus. There is a really community feel throughout the town. Almost everywhere I went, I observed people running into people they know. Like most places in the Netherlands, English is widely spoken. People are also really accommodating and friendly about the use of English. I was in one cafe that did not have an English menu and the waitress offered to translate the menu for me verbally! Thanks to Google Translate I did not have to take her up on that.
The majority of my time in Groningen was spent learning about UCG in depth. University colleges in the Netherlands are the liberal arts program within a research university, and they are self-contained. UCG is a department of the University of Groningen, which is a top 100 school in the various global rankings. Though the overall university is one of the oldest schools in the country (founded in 1614), UCG is still a fairly young program, having started in 2015. They stayed intentionally small with around 30 students admitted each year for the first two years in order to straighten out any kinks that arise with any new program. By the third year, they admitted 86 students and anticipate a larger number next year as well.
UCG requires that each student lives in a student residence for one year. UCG students are generally placed together in the residences, which consist of a very large single room with bathrooms, kitchen and living area shared with seven other students. Here’s a video tour of the residence. These cost 480 Euros a month. After the first year, students can stay or take advantage of the many other student housing options in Groningen including the new Student Hotel, apartment rentals, or even a houseboat rental!
What’s Your Major?
Each University College in the Netherlands has a different distinguishing quality. At UCG, their focus is maximizing the integrative aspects of their program, combining more than one area of study. They take an interdisciplinary approach and use project-based education. During the first year, student take core credits in Global Challenges, Research and Methodology, and Integrative Projects and Academic Skills. The other half of the year is made up of credits from Sciences, Social Sciences, or Humanities.
Like American schools, students choose their major in the second year, after being exposed to the various fields of study. UCG has 5 majors students can choose from: Physics of Energy (which includes Applied Physics, Astronomy, Math and Industrial Engineering), Health and Life Sciences (Global Health, Immunology, Human Anatomy, Genetics, Cell Biology and Biochemistry), Cognition and Behavior (Sociology, Environmental Psychology, Biopsychology, Cognition and Decision Making), Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (International Law, Ethics, Global Economics, Political Science, Cognitive Neuroscience) and Reflecting on Culture, History and Criticism (Culture and Media, History, Religion and Diversity, Cultural Geography, International Relations, Philosophy). Students have a lot of freedom within their major. A student with a Reflecting on Culture, History and Criticism major, for instance, can have (but isn’t required to have) a lot more variety in their courses than a student who is in a pure culture and media program. Students also have the opportunity to create their own major by combining areas of study. UCG students are also able to take courses offered by the overall university (which has 29 English conducted bachelor’s programs) which add to the possibilities and flexibility.
Integrative Projects is a required course of each of the three years, culminating in a 15 credit Capstone Project. Since this is such a key feature in the UCG approach to education, I had a lot of questions about it. The goals of integrative projects is to teach students to communicate across the disciplines, acquire scholarly knowledge, and learn useful ways to apply that knowledge. The first year, students are given topics such as immigration or global warming and their projects include building communication and presentation skills and developing research approaches. The second year projects focus more on acquiring the scholarly knowledge through a chosen project and the third year students have to set up a project with defined goals for their Capstone Project. Some examples of the projects can be found here
There is a lot of value to having these projects continuously through the years. We already know that the classroom diversity related to the students’ country of origin adds to the educational experience. Now we are adding to that working with students with different academic focuses. Integrative projects also have students working with people who have different academic focuses.In the corporate world, multidisciplinary teams are the norm, so the students are learning skills seen as valuable by future employers. Further, many research universities have a singular research focus at the expense of applied knowledge. The integrative programs provide that applied knowledge component that is often missing.
Support for Students
Students at UCG have a lot of support. Students are assigned a faculty advisor who works with them for the entire 3 years. The advisors and professors and even the dean serves as an advisor. The advisor helps with course planning, academic struggles, internships, and preparing for future plans. The dean explained to me that they believe that there is an implied contract between the students and professors to complete the program in three years and faculty is committed to helping students achieve this. The close relationship between students and faculty serves as a personal support as well. I was told about a regular Dungeons and Dragons night that a group of students and professors participate in!
One of the benefits of attending a university college is that you have the benefits of a small school experience, but also the resources of a large university. Students at UCG can join any of the clubs of the University of Groningen and also have their own student association just for UCG students, called Caerus. This group arranges social and academic activities including parties (lots of parties), dinners, and workshops. You can get an idea for some of the things they do on their Facebook page
If you are a Beyond the States member, you probably know that I look to find and report the challenges or drawbacks of the schools I visit as well. I had trouble finding many weaknesses here. The ones I did find were pretty small in significance. For instance, some of the other university colleges have more architecturally impressive buildings. The building at UCG is well maintained and has some wonderful features, but not to the level of some of the other schools. That said, a new building is being built near the square and is anticipated to be complete by 2020.
The main problem is that the overall admissions department for the university is quite rigid in their interpretation of the admissions requirements set by Nuffic (the Dutch government). American students who don’t have an IB diploma are required to have 4 AP scores of 3+ to be admitted to a Dutch research university. Nuffic allows schools to determine whether they allow substitutes for the AP tests with things like college courses. Some schools also have a math requirement that can be met through an AP test, an ACT or SAT math score, or a math entrance exam. Groningen University College does not allow for any of these substitutions and the math requirement must be met through an AP score. This is something that I hope they will have more flexibility around in the future, but for now, it is what it is. Please note that the University of Groningen does not have the same math requirement as the university college. The positive side of this is that the admissions requirements are totally transparent so if you don’t have the qualifications, I don’t advise applying. I met with the Admissions Director of the UCG program and you can find more about the admissions process in this video interview.
UCG charges 12,000 Euros per year (convert to $) and is a three-year program. Check out our cost comparison of another student we worked with who is studying at a comparably priced university college program in the Netherlands. Non-EU first-year students can apply for the 5,000 Euro Holland scholarship for their first year of study.
Let me just start by saying that, though there are many parts of Belgium that I think are incredible, Brussels has never been my favorite city in Europe. That said, I have learned that the city has a tremendous amount to offer students.
The first has to do with the price. The government subsidizes public universities and I visited two schools during this visit with tuition under $3,000 per year. Remember that these are three-year programs so you are getting your full degree for under $10,000! The school that impressed me the most on this trip, however, is a private school. At $12,500 per year, it is not the bargain of the Belgian public universities but still offers great savings compared to US schools, tuition at Vesalius College is less than in-state tuition at many public universities such as Michigan, Illinois, and UMass. This becomes even more apparent when you factor in the benefit of the three-year program. Not only is this a year of tuition and fees avoided – it’s also a year sooner in the workforce generating income and experience. The school also offers merit-based scholarships which provide a 50% tuition reduction.
This school is Vesalius College. It was founded in 1987 by Vrije University Brussels (VUB) and Boston University to provide English conducted bachelor’s programs that merged the best parts of the European and American approaches to education. Though Vesalius Collge is right across the street from the VUB campus and is technically part of the school, it has its own private school status and functions independently from VUB. That means that students are able to enjoy the amenities and facilities of VUB (clubs, sports facilities, libraries, etc) without the struggles that often accompany a larger school.
Vesalius College offers bachelor’s programs in Communication Studies, Business Studies, International Affairs and International and European Law. Though they tout a liberal arts education, they are referring more to the interactive teaching style and not the broad education that involves students choosing a specialty/major after introduction to various fields. Though all of the programs have strengths, I want to focus on the International Affairs program.
The first strength that Vesalius College offers International Affairs students is the fact that their students come from 60 different countries. Combined with the interactive teaching style, small classes (large lectures are even limited to 30 students) and group work, students are exposed firsthand to perspectives from around the world which I believe is a key component to International Affairs.
The school uses “Theory-guided, Practice Embedded and Experiential Learning”. Though it’s a mouthful, you can certainly see that it is implemented in their curriculum. Of course, students get the theory component in the classroom. There are some interesting and timely classes like Legal Aspects of Migration, NATO and Transatlantic Approaches to Security, and Global Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and De-Radicalization. Students are also able to choose from a broad array of electives at partner schools which include VUB, Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, Institute of European Studies, and the Royal Music Conservatory Brussels. Unlike many other Belgian schools which base grades almost solely on final exams, courses at Vesalius College are continually assessed through projects, papers, and exams. Further, the fall semester ends in before winter break, so students don’t have to spend their holiday studying for final exams.
For the practice and experiential components, International Affairs students really benefit from the school’s location in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. The school has guest lecturers that include speakers from NATO, the UN, various relevant EU committee chairs and directors, ambassadors, and foreign ministers. Students must participate in a capstone project, which involves working with high-ranking diplomats on foreign policy issues and also have the option of doing internships (for academic credit) with the UN, NATO, and various embassies.
Vesalius College’s modern building is located across the street from the VUB campus and is about 20 minutes from the city center. The school has its own cafeteria which sources many of its ingredients from organic farms and won the SMC Sustainable Seafood Certificate in 2013. Of course, as previously stated, students can also cross the street and use the large array of VUB facilities.
Coming as an international student to a foreign city can be overwhelming, so Vesalius has a number of support systems in place to smooth the transition. Though they don’t have their own student housing, the school does assist students in finding space in the student residences throughout the city. Each student is assigned a study advisor (a professor) and a separate career advisor which speaks to the priority of educating students and also making them employable. Though student life is enjoyed with students from schools all over the city, the school has a real community feel. The small size allows the students to really get to know each other and their professors. This community feel was something I noticed when I was observing students while waiting for my meeting to start.
Students are sometimes concerned about going to a small university. Often their concerns center on student life. I had dinner with Jared from North Carolina and his friends Lisa (from Atlanta) and Sebastian (from Luxembourg) while I was in Brussels and this was one of our topics. Though Jared knows Lisa from class, most of his other friends are from his student residence and attend various schools through the city. Jared and Sebastian both told me that their social life is more from their student residence and less from their academic program. Further, even when one attends a large university (like Jared at KU Leuven), the majority of their classes are held within one department so larger schools have a small school feel as well. Given that students at Vesalius College have access to all the clubs, facilities, and even classes of the larger VUB, the school size does not present limits but does provide advantages.
Preview: Next week, I will be writing more about what I learned from Jared and his friends about student life in Brussels…
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