This week we hear from Claire, who is here to talk about Czech student life at one of my favorite schools in Prague! Get this! International student tuition for her program is just under $500 per year! For more on why European universities are so much more affordable, check out the podcast episode I did with an American professor at this same university. – Jenn
My name is Claire, and I am studying Environmental Engineering at Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague, Czech Republic. I am currently in my second year having experience with both COVID and non COVID times.
Academic Schedule School days at public universities in the Czech Republic are generally Monday-Thursday with Fridays off or left for extra classes. I have only had Friday classes once, when taking the mandatory sports class during my first year. Classes take place between 8:45am and 6:00pm and are and hour and half long. Usually, each class meets twice a week, once for our lectures and once for our seminars. During my two years, I’ve had five to eight classes a semester, but usually a couple of the classes aren’t work/study intensive. My current schedule of classes (2nd year, 2nd semester) is:
Tuesday: classes from 8:45-5:15
Wednesday: classes from 8:45-10:15
Thursday: classes from 12:15-3:30
Usually one day a week has a full day of classes which is extremely exhausting, but because of the extended weekend days, on school days, I try to keep long study hours to a minimum and find that it is very helpful for my stress. Typically, after classes are done, I will work out, relax, and maybe get together with my friends depending when classes end. COVID has definitely affected my school schedule, as it has everyone, especially studying a STEM subject and having all lab activity closed. However, professors have tried their best to make the classes work as much as possible.
Social Schedule On easier days in our schedules my friends and I may go out for lunch or do something after classes but, we try to get together at least once a week outside of school to just hang out, go out to eat, or nights out. Prague is amazing and has a lot of parks and places around the river that people can hang out and outdoor festivals/events so during warmer months a lot of time is spent outside. It’s pretty easy to find different types of foods although Asian (specifically Vietnamize), American, and Czech are most common cuisine, and we have never run into any issues with dietary restrictions because Prague is very vegan/vegetarian friendly. I live in an apartment with roommates which has led to an easier time during COVID lockdowns. One of my roommates and I cook dinner once a week and study together (even though we study different subjects), we started working out together, and just trying to get out of the house.
In terns of Czech student life, I have found that I tend to have more free time than my friends who go to university in the US because of how my school and exam schedule is made. Even though I have 5-8 subjects a week, I have three to four “free days”, so my life isn’t so cramped. Since exams grades are the final grades of classes, usually we don’t get much in the way of homework or test/quizzes which also helps with keeping free time. Compared to my friends in the US, the class difficulty is relatively the same, but can feel harder because I have to self-study more than they do. Overall I find that even with more classes, even at the same level as my US friends, I tend to have more time to study and socialize due to less weekly work. — Claire
“Why did I choose college in Europe? This is a question I get a lot, and often I am not sure how to respond other than simply, why not?” Read more on Taylor’s journey to studying overseas in the medieval city of Utrecht, Netherlands.
I have grown up in a small town in Washington state, and was very excited with the idea of being able to experience living in a whole other atmosphere in a way I hadn’t before. I am eighteen years old and studying overseas in my first year in the Creative Business program at Hogeschool Utrecht University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. When looking for schools, I was interested in business school, but wanted to be sure that my desire for becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t lost. That is why I chose the Creative Business program, which heavily incorporates entrepreneurship and helps students along the way. In the program that I have chosen, each course topic has been interesting and informative.
During the process of applying to schools in Europe, I was focusing on the program that best fit my interests as well as my desired atmosphere. I visited multiple schools around Europe and found that my best fit was here in Utrecht, Netherlands. Some of the other schools I had visited in this process offered good English programs, but when I visited, I wasn’t quite convinced that I would want to live there. I have learned a lot since living in the Netherlands, from budgeting, taking public transportation, time management, as well as becoming more culturally aware. My choice of studying overseas in Europe has been the best and biggest decision of my life. I have grown in many ways from living on my own and grown in confidence because I have also figured it out on my own. After first moving here, there were lots of things to check off the list, such as the visa requirements, residency numbers and more, but after a few phone calls it wasn’t so hard to figure out because people are so willing to help.
As a student it has been very eye opening to be a part of such an international community. There are many different cultures in my program, and it has been so wonderful to be able to work with so many different types of people with many different backgrounds. With Covid-19 being a part of my first year, it hasn’t all been easy, but there are lots of programs and student organizations that have put in extra effort to make sure that students have the opportunity to make new friends. My main concern with moving across the world during a global pandemic was how I was going to make friends, but it has been easier than I thought to keep connected with other people from my school. I am so grateful for finding this program in this town.
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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.
My decision to attend college in Europe was made in my senior year of high school in Andover, Massachusetts, where I have lived almost all my life. Growing up in this suburbia, I was comfortable with the way things were and generally thought I would continue to live in the same area for my college years as well. However, after being exposed to BTS through a family friend, I began growing curious of what other opportunities could be out there for me.
I ended up applying to universities in the Netherlands and Czechia, and am currently in my second semester at University College Utrecht, one of the few liberal arts colleges in the Netherlands. This liberal arts curriculum allows me to explore my interests and combine them to create a unique degree. The courses are split up in three sections: Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities. There are no GenEd requirements, except that you must try out at least one class in each of the disciplines in your first year. The program is three years instead of the four years I would be taking in the US, but don’t let that fool you, it is shorter but the course load and curriculum is equally difficult if not harder than that at US schools. At the end of my second year, I have to choose a discipline to major in, within which I have to finish “tracks” or a series of courses in a certain subject to graduate. I am leaning towards taking an Interdisciplinary Major by combining the Social Sciences and Humanities.
My classes have been enriching and interesting, as I have been able to learn about historical events and methods of thinking through a completely different perspective. I have been able to recognize some of the biases or misconceptions I may have as a result of growing up in one area for so long. The classes are also relatively small at UCU, so a close connection with the professor is possible in case I ever need help or have specific questions.
The application process for UCU was similar to that of schools in the US, except that I needed to turn in my AP scores. This added a bit of stress to the process, but I also applied to other universities and university colleges in the Netherlands. The universities here have a set of requirements that if you meet, your acceptance is almost guaranteed, which definitely gave me an added sense of security as I was applying.
The decision to move across the Atlantic to pursue a higher education proved to be worth it. Not only will I graduate without student loans, but I also will receive a degree unique from many other of my peers in the US. The friends I have made here have also helped me grow, and learning about their experiences across the globe has greatly enriched my day-to-day life.
We sometimes get the question, “Will I miss out on sports by going to school in Europe?” The answer is, “No”, but the form may be different than what one expects. The sports scene in Europe is different than in the US, but it is still quite vibrant.
Sports in Europe are structurally different than in the US as sports here are associated with “sporting clubs”. The club system is a network of sporting organizations, ranging from small local recreational clubs to multi-billion dollar franchises akin to the professional sports organizations of the US.
The club system is complex and books have been written on the topic. In Portugal for instance, 120 teams play in four level leagues. Teams in the top level league, the Premier Liga, play one of the other 18 teams in the same league. Each year, teams move up or down based on their record over the entire season. Leagues are organized at the national level. There is also post season play where top teams from different countries play each other in tournaments.
There are similarities that an American like me finds familiar such as passion, tradition, and rivalry. When we recently visited Porto, we were kept awake for many hours by the constant honking of car horns outside our apartment after the Porto team beat the traditional powerhouse team from Lisbon, Benfica.
Students who enjoy watching sports (live or televised) will have no trouble finding like-minded friends to watch with! The football culture can be contagious, even for students who don’t engage as fans. After just a few months of studying in Europe, Jenn’s brother (who was never very into sports) was all of a sudden a fanatic about the UK Premier league and his chosen team, Tottenham.
If a student would like to continue to actively participate in a sport, many schools offer intramurals, which means “within the walls” of the school. At Groningen, for instance, intramural sports are addressed through their association system, which also offer social and cultural interests for students. Groningen has 50 different sporting activities students can choose from. Additionally, the ACLO Studentensport center in Groningen offers just about every sport and fitness activity you can think of, as well as a wide variety of sports clubs.
If the level of competition isn’t enough in intramurals, the student could approach a local club about trying out for their team. Outside of the US, and especially in Europe in the sport of soccer, the development of elite athletes has almost always fallen to a network of local and national professional clubs. Serious young people don’t play for their high school or college team. They play for a club.
Truly gifted athletes may even be able to move up within the system from the local club level to play professionally in one of the larger clubs. Beyond big time soccer, these clubs also support other sports, as well. For example, Sporting Club of Portugal, one of the large sports clubs here, has a soccer team, of course, but also teams for volleyball, handball, indoor soccer, and rink hockey. FC Porto has those teams plus teams for cycling, swimming, billiards, and more.
In the end, if a student wants to participate in sports, he or she will be able to, it just may be in a different form than if they went to college in the US. Two things are for sure, sports aren’t viewed as a relevant factor for admissions and standing out in sports won’t mean a sports scholarship. Fortunately, college in Europe is so much more affordable that sports can be enjoyed on whatever level one desires to.
***Note: We posted this yesterday, before WHO announced the pandemic status and Trump announced the European travel ban (which does not apply to citizens though). Though these are difficult times, we still need to plan for the future-including college. I was hesitant to write about the virus, as I’m sure your inboxes-like mine-are being flooded. I will be sending something in the next week, though, about how our students in Europe are faring through this.***
Life as an international student in Europe isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. There are definitely extra challenges they face living in a new country. I’m experiencing some of this myself as we are in our first few months in Europe. I’m really kicking myself for not memorizing the metric system. Even as I’m learning the formulas, calculating is an extra step. I know how far a mile is, but have to think about what it means if something is presented in kilometers or meters. There is also a new language to learn, new public transportation system to navigate, and the challenge of figuring out where and how to take care of day to day needs-from organic milk to contact lenses!
These challenges make me really respect what our students are going through. They are navigating all of these issues (maybe not the quest for organic milk….) with less life experience to draw from AND while going to school full time. The challenges that they are successfully navigating actually end up being beneficial, as they lead to tremendous growth and self confidence-not to mention soft skills that employers are looking for.
I’m also experiencing some of the same perks that international students benefit from, the first of which is affordability. I talk a lot about the dramatic difference between tuition in the US and Europe. The average tuition for international students in Europe is right around $7000 per year. The savings are even greater when you consider that most bachelor’s degrees take just 3 years to complete. As a frame of reference, my son Sam attends a university with tuition that is higher than average in Europe (about $12,500 per year). Yet we will save more than $200,000 compared to US private universities and even about $39,000 less than attending our flagship state university.
Since we are moving from North Carolina, where cost of living is more affordable than in much of the US, we didn’t expect to be blown away by the savings. We were wrong! While our housing costs are comparable, there are other savings that are astounding! Though we will be covered by the public health system, we need to get private health insurance-at least temporarily-in order to get our residence card. Many people use both the public and private health system. Want to know why? It’s incredibly affordable! We’re paying about $200 per month (2400 per year) for private insurance for all three of us. Of course we will have co-pays, but they are under $15 for most services. Our coverage includes the option for in-home doctors visits, specialists, prescriptions, physical therapy, MRIs, and just about anything else you can think of-with no deductible!
Until recently, we always had health insurance through Tom’s employers. Since our portion of health insurance costs was always deducted from his check, it was easy to not fully wrap our brain around how much we were paying. In fact, most families with employer based insurance pay $6000 per year for their portion of the plan and have an average deductible of $8232! If you aren’t lucky enough to have employer-based insurance, you’re looking at an average of $14,016 per year plus deductibles, co-pays, and uncovered costs. My friend just told me that they just got a $150 bill for her daughter’s throat culture and treatment for pink eye-despite the fact that they have insurance.
Transportation is another area we are saving huge amounts of money. As is the case in most of North Carolina, we lived in a place that did not have adequate public transportation. This meant two car payments along with insurance, gas, and maintenance on the vehicles. We plan to stay carless and rely primarily on walking and public transportation in Portugal. Adults in Portugal pay 40 euros for a monthly unlimited public transportation pass, but families pay no more than 80 euros total. Imagine the savings for a large family! Even with occasional local uber rides or car rentals for nearby weekend trips, we will pay dramatically less each month for transportation. Our internet and cell phone is also a small fraction of what we paid before.
Now, affordability is great, but I’m equally appreciating some of the secondary benefits I often talk about. The connections international students make with other students from around the world are truly incredible. These students have something significant in common-be it around goals, interests and/or values-that led them to pursue higher education outside of their home country. Further, they are all having similar experiences unique to living out of their home country. These lead to incredible friendships that develop quickly and last for years to come.
After announcing our plans to move to Lisbon, I heard from other BTS families who were in the process of doing the same. One family is moving just a few months after us, has a daughter Ellie’s age who will be attending the same school, and happened to be in Lisbon scoping things out at the same time we were there last month! Now, I am somewhat of an introvert in my personal life. While I love having connections and true friendships with people, I find the small talk that is initially required to determine if there is a connection exhausting. When we met this family for lunch last month we skipped right past the small talk stage! Just like international students in Europe, we have some core values in common which are leading to our moves abroad and are also share in significant life experiences associated with moving as a family. This led to a quick connection and made me feel like I’ve known them for much longer than I have.
International students in Europe learn so much about the world through their interactions with other students. They learn about the local culture, but also learn about the first hand experiences of students from all around the world. This occurs through classroom discussions and friendships. Hearing the perspectives of someone who has experienced things that students have only read about in the news or classes makes world events more tangible and relevant. The curiosity and knowledge that results from these interactions leads to an even greater cultivation of the values associated with global citizenship.
I’m finding myself more curious about world events too. Our realtor was born in Angola and left when she was very young, due to the war. I experienced one of the best meals of my life at a Goan restaurant in Lisbon. I knew little to nothing about these countries and other former Portuguese colonies, but having these interactions made me want to learn more. Not only did it increase my interest about the events in these countries but also about how those events affected their citizens.
Experiencing these benefits far outweighs any headaches caused by the obstacles! That said, we have also had assistance. We hired someone who has helped us establish our tax residency, apply for a special tax status, open a bank account, and complete the process needed for our residence card. We likely would have been able to figure all of that out ourselves, though it would have taken much more time trying to translate websites, determine what documents we need to bring, and even how to get a number to secure out space in line at the tax office! The tricks, tips, and expertise she has provided has made her services well worth the expense and have saved us incredible amounts of time and money.
The same can be applied to exploring the English-taught options Europe. Yes, you can do your own online research. I can tell you from first hand knowledge that there are a lot of inaccuracies in many portals-particularly as it pertains to admissions requirements for US students. There is also a lot of bias, as many sites only include information about schools that pay for the listing. You may also come across advice from well meaning people with information that doesn’t apply. Maybe their kids went to universities in the UK (which are different than those in continental Europe) or perhaps the information they provide you with is outdated, or based on information about schools without English speaking programs. Weeding through the biases, lack of complete information, and inaccuracies can be incredibly frustrating!
This is exactly why I started Beyond the States five years ago! We realize that there is no one size fits all solution, so we have a range of services that include options for memberships that provide you with the information (and community) to research the options, stand-alone courses to navigate different aspects of the process, and done-for you services in which the research is done for you, providing you with a list of programs that fit your interests, qualifications, goals, and budget! We also have a community of other families to connect you with, many of whom have gone through this process and have kids in Europe already. Their information and support is invaluable! Check it out now and received 50% off your first month of membership. There is no long term commitment required and you can cancel your membership easily at any time within the membership portal.
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.