Travel Experiences as a Student in Europe

This week’s post is written by one of our student ambassadors. Sam (yes, that Sam…) is from North Carolina is a student at Erasmus University Rotterdam.


Travel opportunities played a significant role in my decision to go to college in Europe. My family made international travel a priority ever since I was about six years old. One of my favorite trips was visiting my uncle in Istanbul when I was 13. I was able to see what it’s like to actually live in another country, as opposed to the less authentic experience of a tourist. This trip made me realize that I wanted to, at some point, live outside of the US. I had a similar realization when I did a summer language program in Morocco. I lived with a Moroccan family and got to experience the local culture firsthand. When I learned that I could go to college in Europe, where I could live in another country AND easily travel to so many places, I knew it was what I wanted to do. 

I moved to the Netherlands in 2019  and the ease of travel compared to the US is unbelievable! I can travel to many places by train, which is so much more comfortable and easy than flying! When I do need to fly, it’s not hard to find cheap airline tickets, which has made it easy to take long weekend trips with friends. Before COVID, I went to Morocco with some friends and the ticket was only 80 euros round trip and the expenses of the trip were half of that! I’ve also been to Portugal many times to visit family, and I spent about a week in Prague. Over the summer, my friends and I spent a week hiking and camping a route on the Camino de Santiago, from Portugal to Spain. Further, the Netherlands is so small that I have been able to visit different cities in the country as well.

Obviously, COVID has put a stop to all of my other travel plans for the time being, but I have many more planned for when things are back to normal. If travel is open again, I will be taking a week long bike trip through Bavaria over spring break and plan to visit friends in Spain, France, and Germany over the summer. Of course, I will visit my family in Portugal and perhaps another hike will be planned as well! I will also be taking trips to visit schools as a student ambassador for Beyond the States. The bottom line is if you like to travel and experience the world for yourself, college in Europe is something you should explore.






Creating New Traditions

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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







The Challenges and Benefits Around Language Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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