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Netherlands Universities in Utrecht

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?

The career question has been sufficiently answered for me, jut by looking at the NGO opportunities alone. This sector has grown and continues to grow, with 10 million organizations worldwide! I learned that in  “the last ten years, NGOs have moved further and further from their origins as charity businesses and expanded into an increasingly diverse range of activities. Nonprofits are investing in social enterprise, cultivating academic expertise, and finding strategic ways to address urgent development crises around the world.”

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!

NGOs in the US employ 11.4 million people, but there are also incredible opportunities for students who want to stay in Europe. The Hague, for instance, has 160 NGOs that employ more than 14,000 people.  Sure, programs like those at Utrecht which are focused on global interests lead to great employment opportunities.  More importantly, these types of programs help global citizens who are ready, eager, and prepared to help solve the problems in the world.

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Deep Dive into Academic Life in Europe

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!

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Sam’s Journey Truly Begins

I don’t know about you, but when I went to college, we tied all sorts of stuff to the roof of our car and my parents helped me move in to the dorms. My Facebook feed has been filled with friends doing the same over the past week or so. This is not really the custom in Europe though. As most readers know, our son, Sam, is attending Leiden University in The Hague, The Netherlands, studying International Relations. Here’s a link to a podcast where Sam talks about his visit to Leiden for Experience Day.

I dropped Sam off at the airport on Wednesday. As we checked his bags, I felt compelled to tell the ticketing agent that he had an additional bag to check and that TSA Pre was missing from his boarding pass.  Sam was standing right there and perfectly capable of handling this himself, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I knew he could take care of it, but I just wanted to help, while I still had the opportunity. That said, I do know that these little things send a certain message and can hinder independence.

There are some really crucial tasks that need to be completed during the first couple of weeks. Sam needs to open a bank account (something that is more complicated than it sounds), register at city hall, find out how rent is paid in the coming months, and a host of other logistics.  Knowing myself, it would be really difficult for me not to take over the organization of these tasks if I were there. This is one reason I decided to not head to the Netherlands with him now, and am instead waiting until October to visit.

I’m often guilty of managing things myself just because it’s easier, or because I want to help or protect my kids.  I’ve had to fight these instincts the past few years in an effort to prepare Sam for attending college abroad.  Though he has only been gone a few days, this has already paid off.  When Sam returned from Morocco last summer, one of his bags didn’t make it.  With oversight, he handled that on his own from filling out the forms, to following up with the airline, to arranging the delivery of the bags.  Guess what? When one of his bags didn’t make it last week he knew exactly what to do which eliminated a lot of stress (other than the fact that he was dying for a shower and the missing bag had his towels…).  When we traveled to the Hague his junior year, I had him navigate his way to meet me after one of my meetings with a university. Since he had a way to contact me if needed, it was a lesson in guided independence.  Guess what? When he unexpectedly had to find his way from the train station to the housing office on his own, he was able to do so without worry.

Correspondence from the universities goes straight to the students, parents are not included on these exchanges.  So Sam has been in charge of gathering, scanning, and submitting necessary documents, arranging for the welcome service, calling about student residence permit issues, and keeping track of all the various orientation dates.  I’ve kept a list of the tasks that need to be completed, so that I could follow up as needed (aka-nag).  Sam has surprisingly stayed on top of it. I think he appreciates that the school treats him as the adult in the situation and he responds accordingly.  I will admit that I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from grabbing the phone a few times.  Though he didn’t communicate information the exactly as I would have, it was taken care of.

All of these experiences make him (and me!) confident that he will be able to handle the tasks at hand in the coming weeks-and years. I have a list going again with the crucial things that I will follow up about and have had to consciously make myself not ask (nag) about things that don’t matter in the long run.  If he wants to procrastinate buying the items for his kitchen, it really shouldn’t matter to me (yes, I’ve had to repeat that to myself many times). I think all this is just to say that, as parents, we sometimes take charge of things for our own needs- whether it’s the need to nurture or help, the need to get things done correctly the first time, or the need to protect.  We forget that we have raised these great kids who are capable, who can learn from mistakes, and who can utilize many resources for assistance. I’m often asked what parents can do to help prepare their kids for college in Europe.  Without a doubt, providing opportunities for guided independence is my number one suggestion!

Side note-only a few days in and Sam has had some incredible experiences. It’s prevented me from being sad that he’s gone and more focused on how excited I am for him. I’ll share more about his experiences and pictures of his dorm room (hopefully this will compel him to clean up…) next week.

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Applied Learning and Fun in The Hague

college in europeShow Notes

Title: Student Social Scene and Universities of Applied Sciences

Description

In this episode, Jenn looks are two questions: What is the social life like for international students? And what is a University of Applied Sciences? Universities of Applied Sciences focus on getting students ready to enter the workforce as opposed to the purely theoretical approach one would find at a research university. In some countries, UASs are viewed as inferior, while in the Netherlands, they’re viewed as simply different. In this episode, Jenn interviews Hannah Remo. Originally from a small town in New Jersey, Hannah is currently studying European Studies at The Hague University of Applied Sciences and will graduate with zero student debt. It is less expensive for Hannah to attend college in the Netherlands than it would have been to study in-state!

Guest: Hannah Remo

Resources

CNN Money article featuring Hannah

Projects Abroad

Universities of Applied Sciences on Study in Holland site

The Hague University of Applied Sciences

Ten Fun Things to Do in The Hague

Six Ways the Dutch are Nailing Student Life

Duo Student Housing Organization