I strive to be totally transparent about college in Europe.  Studying in Europe is a fantastic option but, like anything else in life, their are benefits as well as obstacles.  That’s why I thought it was important for you all to know about Sam’s experience, so that you/your kids can be prepared in aspects of his situation applies to you. I realized, though, that sharing his experience had other effects as well. I received so many emails from parents. These emails talked about how they, themselves, also struggled their first year in college (in the US), or how their own kids in Europe had similar difficulties as Sam did, or that they had been worried that their kids would encounter the same in Europe.  It’s almost as if there was a taboo in discussing this, and they expressed relief that they could talk about it!

I do want to clarify that I’m not at all disappointed about or embarrassed by Sam’s first year experience. Yes, he failed a class but he did not fail out of school. He realized that much of the course failure was due to the fact that his interests weren’t aligned with the content/teaching style (though, let’s be hones,  there was a time management aspect to it as well). What he has learned about himself is a huge accomplishment! Actually, much of this is similar to what students seek in a gap year as it pertains to the outcomes of personal growth, self awareness, and exploring the world. In addition, he has gained insights into his academic needs, which isn’t usually a part of structure gap year programs.

As I mentioned in the last post, I want to explore what we might have done differently, had we known then what we know now.  A shift of mindset as it related to the goals of the first year of study would have been a huge one.  Standard academic goals for the first year of study are adjusting to a new system, doing well in classes, and the like.  I think Sam (and other students in Europe)  would have benefited from a very different set of goals. Let me explain.

Many 18 year olds, particularly those graduating  from the US educational system, may not know exactly what they want to study or where their academic interests lie (if this is the case for you, check out our Choosing a Major self paced course or the What’s My Major service).  Most of the European programs require that you know what you want to study when you apply.  While there are broad options, multidisciplinary options, and those that start broad with specializations offered later in the program, the curriculum is structured and rarely has gen-ed requirements that aren’t related to the field of study. In Europe ,the required courses in a Chemistry program will be science related which would not be part of the requirements for a Political Science program. They can sometimes transfer as electives, but that doesn’t account for an entire year of credits.  In the US, students are able to easily change their major or even change universities with less trouble (with credits transferred) due to the gen-ed requirements.  Most bachelor’s degrees in Europe take just 3 years to complete, but don’t have the flexibility that comes with those gen-ed requirements.

I wonder what would happen if we approached Sam’s first year studying in Europe as sort of a bridge year or an academic gap year. Though I don’t know the best title for it, the goals would have been for him to  learn more about what he wanted to study, determine the learning style that is best for him, and to strengthen the academic skills that would help him most throughout his studies (be it study skills, time management, etc). He would have gone into the year knowing that that deciding that he loved this program or finding a different program based on what he learned about himself would have been equally desirable. Had we had this mindset and formalized goals around it, we likely would have communicated more often and in more depth about what he was learning about himself, his interests, and learning style as the year went on and would have planned to make a decision in February, before application deadlines were looming..

This is not an unheard of approach.  As you may know, there are a few countries that require American students to have either an IB diploma, a certain number of AP scores, or a year’s worth of college credits (don’t worry if you don’t have these, they only account for about 350 of the 1900+ options). We do have students who enter into their first year at a university in Europe to get the years worth of credits with the intention of applying to a school that requires APs for the second year. That year of credits would not transfer, as it would be used to meet admissions requirements.  Some of these students end up changing after a year, and others learn that the program that they thought would be temporary meets their needs.

Of course, the price of education in Europe allows for this.  We could pay a total of $220,000 for four years of tuition for Sam to have this flexibility at a liberal arts college like Carleton, Davidson, or Middlebury.  We could even pay $36,000 for four years of tuition for Sam to attend a UNC Chapel Hill with in state tuition (though, even here, he may not gradate in 4 years if he changed his major).  Instead, we will pay a total of $32,900 over 4 years, which includes the tuition for his year at Leiden and his remaining three at Erasmus University Rotterdam. We will pay less for his four years than we would for ONE year at one of the liberal arts colleges!

Let’s go back a bit further though and look at what we could have done differently during his high school years.  First and foremost, I would have insisted that he take an economics class when he decided that the program at Leiden was on his shortlist.  There are economics courses each year in the program and it’s the only area he didn’t have exposure to.  Once you have your shortlist of programs, see if there are more than one or two courses in a particular discipline in which you haven’t taken any classes in. If you can take a class through school, great. If not, find an online course. This is one reason I think the summer before junior year is a great time to start looking at college in Europe. Not only does it allow you to course plan for APs, if desired, but it also allows you to course plan to determine your interests. This is something we are doing with Ellie. She’s interested in tourism, which includes a number of business related areas.  She thinks that business as a whole doesn’t interest her, other than marketing. That said, I don’t think she really knows what business courses entail. She’ll take business as one of her electives this coming year so she can see what does and doesn’t appeal to her about it and evaluate the programs she is considering accordingly.

In retrospect, I think it would have helped Sam to have some sort of outside support (someone who isn’t his mother…).  I’ve thought about who this could have been. He’s incredibly close to my father, for instance, but my dad doesn’t understand the European system. He comes from the  “what happened to the other 5 points?” school of thought.  He certainly doesn’t understand that the European version of A’s are incredibly rare, and not even a reasonable goal. That rules Poppy out for this role… Sam did go meet with the academic advisor at one point, which was helpful, but does not provide what I’m thinking would have hoped him most.  I’m thinking of someone who serves as a mentor or coach, to support, motivate, provide suggestions, and provide a level of accountable. There is much less hand holding by European universities to I think this could particularly be helpful for for first year students coming from the American system. Given my background as a therapist and executive functioning skills coach for high school and college students, I may develop a service around this in the coming year, perhaps later evolving into a service that BTS students could provide, after graduating. Right now it’s just a thought, but if you have a student starting in the fall who may benefit from this, do let me know.

When  you are pursuing college in Europe, it’s important to learn how to reframe certain social norms or expectations that are engrained in us by our own life experiences and culture. Tom had directed his mother to the last blog so that she could understand a bit more.  Her takeaway?  “You mean he’s not getting credit for the year!?!” My dad expressed hope that the change will help Sam buckle down.  It took a mindset shift of my own to have a very different takeaway. I’m so glad that Sam discovered these aspects about his interests and learning style. I’m also so glad that he didn’t feel that this was a failure and he sought out solutions.  He recognizes that the year at Leiden was valuable in so many ways. I’m also so glad that the affordable tuition allows him/us not to feel stuck in a situation that is not the best fit for him! Though he’s bummed to be leaving the Hague, we are all excited to see where this next phase takes him!