As I mentioned in my last blog, Brussels is not my favorite city in Europe. Recently, I spent some time with Jared, and his friends, Sebastian (from Luxembourg) and Lisa (from Atlanta) to find out their opinions on student life in Brussels.
They all appreciate the offerings of the urban atmosphere. Of course, no car is needed and they are able to get anywhere they need to go on foot or by train. Though Brussels is known as a somewhat ugly city, the Grand Place is truly beautiful. In some cities, it is hard to find student residences in the city center. Jared and Sebastian, however, live very close to the Grand Place and Jared frequents a coffee shop right in the square. If I were experiencing the Grand Place and it’s surroundings on a regular basis, my impression of Brussels might be different.
Jared and his friends all appreciate the perspective gained from the different backgrounds of the students in their classes and residences. In some cities, diversity is limited to the university student population. This is not the case in Brussels, which is an incredibly international city. The diversity is further increased by the fact that one’s social life is more often associated with their place of residence than solely with their program or school. This allows students to have friends from schools all around the city.
Belgium has two official languages. Flemish, a dialect of Dutch is spoken in the northern region, while French is spoken in the south. Brussels is actually in the northern region but has special status as the Belgian capital and both languages are spoken. I had a really interesting conversation with Sebastian about how the Belgian economy and population in different areas affects the perception of Belgians who speak each of the languages.
Alright, let’s get to the elephant in the room which is, of course, safety in Brussels. Jared and his father were in Brussels on March 22nd, 2016 visiting KU Leuven when the bombing of the metro and airport occurred. Despite this first-hand experience, he still chose to make Brussels his college home. Jared, Sebastian, Lisa and I discussed their perceptions of safety, as it pertains to terrorism in Brussels. They all had a really good perspective on it and noted that terrorism can and has happened in many cities around the world, including US cities like Boston, San Bernadino, and Orlando. There is also a strong police and military presence in the city, which has increased since last spring. We discussed how horrible events can create a “new normal” of sorts. An example in the US is the regular lockdown drills in elementary schools due to school shootings. Any safety concerns that Jared and his friends have were around safety precautions you need to take in any urban area, and were not related to terrorism at all.
Universities in Brussels also have unique opportunities for the refugee issue. Vrije University Brussels, for instance, has a “Welcome Student-Refugee” program to help refugees continue their studies. They had 18 students enrolled in the program in the fall of 2016. Some of these students are in English-conducted Social Science program. Students in this program include refugees as well as students from expensive UK private high schools. Talk about a range of perspectives in the classroom!
Jared and Lisa both attend KU Leuven’s International Business Program. Though the campus is in Brussels, Lisa lives in Leuven which is about 20 minutes by train. I really wish I had the time to visit Leuven on my trip. Belgium has some incredible cities (I know it’s cliche, but I LOVE Bruges), and it sounds like Leuven is one of them. Over half of the 100,000 residents are students, which means that it has the accommodations of a student town and active student life. The city is filled with medieval architecture, has a low cost of living, and is very safe and compact. The city is also known as a technology hotspot and is part of Health Axis Europe which is a “a strategic alliance initiated by the biomedical clusters Cambridge (UK), Leuven (Belgium), Heidelberg (Germany), Maastricht (Netherlands), and Copenhagen (Denmark) in order to cross-leverage innovation resources and thus jointly increase the international competitiveness.” Sounds like some great internship and job opportunities there!
An administrator told me that one needs to really know Brussels to appreciate it. Given the diversity, culture, opportunities provided by the UN and NATO offices, and ease of exploring Belgium and Europe as a whole, I’ve decided that I was premature in my negative opinion. Student life in Brussels has a lot to offer.
Thanksgiving can be a bit hard for first year students in Europe. It’s just like any other day with classes and student sometimes are a bit homesick by this time. Many American students gather with other international students and school staff to celebrate holidays from home that aren’t recognized by their school country. Some international student offices even arrange such celebrations. When my kids go to college in Europe, I plan to fly over and spend time over Thanksgiving weekend together-either in the town of their school or a quick nearby getaway. Fortunately, Christmas break is right around the corner and most American students do go home for the break, since schools have at least a two week break around this time.
Students can benefit from experiencing different holidays and festival traditions that they would not otherwise be exposed to. Travel expert Rick Steves has an extensive list of holidays and festivals by country. Here are a few of our favorites.
Christmas in Europe centers on an Advent market that, in most cases, has filled the square before the cathedral each December for hundreds of years. Many markets start on the Friday before Advent, which is four Sundays before Christmas Eve; most end on December 24, especially in Germanic countries, where Christmas Eve is set aside for trimming the tree at home. Here’s a really great article to help identify the best ones from our friends at Dispatches Europe.
If you’re having trouble getting in the yuletide spirit or you’re not the shopping type, there’s always the legendary Christmas Beer Festival in Essen, Belgium. This festival features 178 different beers, including some of the best beers in the world, in a celebration of the diversity of Belgian beer culture.
According to Wikipedia, “Carnival is a pre-Lent season of festivities Carnival typically involves a public celebration and/or parade combining some elements of a circus, masks, and a public street party.” Carnival is celebrated in New Orleans as Mardi Gras. You may have already heard of Carnival in Venice with its masks and elaborate costumes. Venice is perfectly nice, but if you’re looking for a similar festival with a less touristy vibe, check out Croatia. Established in 1982, Rijeka, Croatia holds the country’s largest carnival festival of parades and costumes. the 2017 Carnival runs from January 17 until March 1, so there’s ample opportunity to check this out on a break or as a weekend trip.
In Sweden, Midsummer’s Eve is one of the most important days of the year, rivaling Christmas with its festive spirit and traditions. Traditionally, Midsummer was celebrated on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but the holiday has its roots in a pre-Christian summer solstice festival. In 1952, the Swedish Parliament decided that Midsummer should always be celebrated on a weekend. As a result, the observance of Midsummer now varies between June 20 and 26. Midsummer Eve activities include folk dancing in traditional costumes around the Maypole and games for all ages. At some point, festival goers enjoy a meal of herring with new potatoes and a glass of schnapps.
There are many pride festivals across Europe. The biggest one in Central/Eastern Europe, Prague Pride, happens in August in the capitol of the Czech Republic. 40,000 people gathered together to celebrate equal right to love. Although they sometimes look like carnivals, gay pride parades are an opportunity to show that all citizens should have the same rights in our society. The 2016 edition of Prague Pride included a memorial service for the victims of the Orlando, Florida, night club massacre where 49 people were killed at a gay night club.
Someone close to you may think this “college in Europe” stuff is a pretty frivolous idea – that it’s all just an excuse for you to take selfies at the castles from Game of Thrones or to attend Europe’s best summer music festivals. Here are six other travel experiences connected to school that you’re probably not aware of yet (and don’t involve Finnish hipsters, organic food trucks or Massive Attack).
1. College visits
Once you’ve decided on a school or narrowed your choices to a very short list, you’ll naturally start thinking of visits. The great news is that we’ve already visited a lot of these schools for you. Here’s an example of Jennifer’s visit to Copenhagen Business School. In addition, some schools have virtual tours on their websites. You can also find videos on YouTube, such as this one from Finnish student Whity. If an in-person visit is within your budget, we can help you plan the optimal trip through our Consulting services.
2. Internships and study abroad
At some schools, internships and/or study abroad are mandatory elements of the program. For example, SciencesPo in France requires every student complete a study abroad year during their three year program. Internships can offer a huge aid in getting a job after college and are a key experiential aspect to completing many programs, such as business, engineering and communications.
3. Be a guest for the weekend
International students are often housed together, why not try to wrangle an invitation to your Italian friend’s home for the weekend to experience another culture?
4. Take advantage of great deals
Is your weekend suddenly free after a big academic crunch? Europe is so compact with extensive train networks that taking day or weekend trips is very doable. Lots of cheap flights are available, too, on airlines like Ryannair, Spirit and most recently Iceland’s WOW Air. Be wary, though, the cheap airfares may carry add on fees that make them less attractive.
5. Club trips
Schools have many clubs to suit different interests. Many clubs organize trips for students as activities. For example, the Stockholm University Student Union traveled to Lapland, which is above the Arctic Circle. Activities on this trip included driving a sled dog team, visiting a famous ice hotel and learning about the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia. For a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, they traveled in an overnight ferry between the cities. Students could have a refreshment, take a sauna or show their moves on the dance floor! The next morning students woke up in a new city ready to explore the next destination.
6. National holidays
There are different national holidays in Europe than the US. For instance, in the Netherlands, the birthday of the king is a cause for celebration called King’s Day. Celebrated on April 27th, this event combines a nationwide flea market and many concerts and special events in public spaces, particularly in Amsterdam. Don’t forget to wear orange, if you want to fit in.
Ready to learn more?
Beyond the States helps students and parents find the right college for them outside the US. We offer personalized recommendations for students who are considering studying abroad and our online guide to the thousands of English-taught bachelor’s programs in Europe is unique. We can also help you work through the sometimes complicated process of applying to college, finalizing your paperwork and moving abroad. Contact us to take the next ste