As I've mentioned before, Brussels is not my favorite European city. During a recent visit, I spent some time with Jared (a student from KY Leuven—see blogs for more info) and his friends Sebastian (from Luxembourg) and Lisa (from Atlanta) to find out about their thoughts on being international students 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 by foot or 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 Grand Place, and Jared frequents a coffee shop right in the square. My impression of Brussels might be different if I were to experience the Grand Place and its surroundings on a regular basis. Jared and his friends all appreciate the perspective gained by the diversity of backgrounds the students in their classes and residences have. In some cities, diversity is limited to university students.
This is not the case in Brussels, which is an incredibly diverse and international city. The diversity is further increased by the fact that one's social life is more often associated with the student residence than solely with their program. This allows students to have friends from schools all around the city.
Alright, let’s get to the elephant in the room, which, of course, is safety in Brussels. Jared and his father were in Brussels last spring visiting KU Leuven when the horrible terrorist attack occurred. Despite this first-hand experience, he still opted to study there. 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, including those in the US like Boston, New York, 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, like how in the US there are regular lockdown drills in elementary schools due to school shootings. Any safety concerns that Jared and his friends had were related to issues you would have in any urban area and were not related to terrorism at all.
Universities in the city also have unique opportunities with 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 the 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! 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, and ease of exploring Belgium and Europe as a whole, I’ve decided that I was premature in my negative opinion. The city and its surrounding areas have a lot to offer students.