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 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.
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 independence after 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 hughesairco.com. 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 online workshop 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 the best home cleaning service in Tequesta. 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!
“You get what you pay for” is a response I sometimes see posted on Facebook about the college costs in Europe. Why people feel compelled to respond to something that they know nothing about-and state it as fact-is beyond me. It’s also simply not true-even about higher education in the US! Does a student paying out of state tuition receive a substantially superior education than the student paying in state tuition? No! It’s similar in Europe, one of the reasons tuition is so reasonable is because it is subsidized by the country.
One of the schools I visited a few months ago, Wiener Neustadt University of Applied Science, provides an excellent example of how “you get what you pay for” is false. Students pay just 726 euros (about $818) per year for their English-taught Business Consultancy bachelor’s program. That’s just incredible to me. They will pay less for their entire three years of tuition than many overnight summer camps costs here in the US!
Let’s look at whether or not their experience is sub par due to their tuition. The first three semesters of the program focus on the fundamentals of business, including courses in accounting, m
anagement, finance, economics, marketing, and law. Students can also chose to do a semester abroad during their third semester. Remember, students continue to pay the Wiener Neudstat tuition during that semester, even though the tuition at the study abroad school is almost guaranteed to be much, much higher!
Consultancy-specific courses begin in the fourth semester, along with those related to the students chosen specialty. The specialization options are; International Accounting and Finance, Marketing and Sales or Management and Leadership. The programs ends with a mandatory internship in the sixth semester. The practical knowledge is not confined to the internship. Almost half of the classes are taught by industry experts and case studies are incorporated throughout the curriculum.
I met with three American students who are studying in this program; Darshaun from San Diego, Jack from Boise, and Vanessa from Dallas. They all stated how much they appreciate the international student body in the program. In fact, 70% of the students are international students from all around the world. In addition to appreciating the multicultural perspective they gain, they also noted that this large percentage means that the program addresses the needs of international students (academic and non-academic). The students noted that the professors are very accessible to students and get to know them. Most of the classes are in groups of 20 and include discussion, group work and such. There is only one lecture course each semester that has all 80 students.
Jack and Vanessa both live in the school’s student residences. These cost 330 euros per month for a single bedroom and a bathroom and kitchen that is shared with one other student. They both enjoy the international feel in the student residences and community it provides. Vanessa’s dorm arranges an international Sunday dinner each week in which students from different countries host and serve a meal. Dashaun lives with friends in Vienna and commutes to school. Her commute is just 30 minutes each way by train and her student train pass is just 150 euros per semester! Though there are a few places in town that students hang out it, they often head to Vienna social opportunities as well.
The only drawback I saw to this program was the location. The town is small and the campus is a good 10 minute drive from the city center. However, there is a new campus opening this October in the heart of the city center. The design blends old and new, with an old church functioning as the library and modern buildings serving as classrooms and IT labs. The facility is walking distance to the train station and there is a free bus that connects the old campus to the new. Further, by living in Wiener Neustadt, students are able to access nearby Vienna easily, while paying much lower living costs.
Because they are funded by the state, the school has to prove that they are a good investment. How do they prove this? With educational outcomes pertaining to employment. How do they achieve those outcomes? With a strong curriculum, practical experience, and an impressive and international student body. It’s not surprising that the school has the highest employment rate of all the Austrian universities of applied sciences! In fact, they find that companies seek the out to recruit students for internships. So I guess the statement “you get what you pay for” does apply here. The state gets what they pay for so the students don’t have to foot the bill.