Let me just start by saying that, though there are many parts of Belgium that I think are incredible, Brussels has never been my favorite city in Europe. That said, I have learned that the city has a tremendous amount to offer students.
The first has to do with the price. The government subsidizes public universities and I visited two schools during this visit with tuition under $3,000 per year. Remember that these are three-year programs so you are getting your full degree for under $10,000! The school that impressed me the most on this trip, however, is a private school. At $12,500 per year, it is not the bargain of the Belgian public universities but still offers great savings compared to US schools, tuition at Vesalius College is less than in-state tuition at many public universities such as Michigan, Illinois, and UMass. This becomes even more apparent when you factor in the benefit of the three-year program. Not only is this a year of tuition and fees avoided – it’s also a year sooner in the workforce generating income and experience. The school also offers merit-based scholarships which provide a 50% tuition reduction.
This school is Vesalius College. It was founded in 1987 by Vrije University Brussels (VUB) and Boston University to provide English conducted bachelor’s programs that merged the best parts of the European and American approaches to education. Though Vesalius Collge is right across the street from the VUB campus and is technically part of the school, it has its own private school status and functions independently from VUB. That means that students are able to enjoy the amenities and facilities of VUB (clubs, sports facilities, libraries, etc) without the struggles that often accompany a larger school.
Vesalius College offers bachelor’s programs in Communication Studies, Business Studies, International Affairs and International and European Law. Though they tout a liberal arts education, they are referring more to the interactive teaching style and not the broad education that involves students choosing a specialty/major after introduction to various fields. Though all of the programs have strengths, I want to focus on the International Affairs program.
The first strength that Vesalius College offers International Affairs students is the fact that their students come from 60 different countries. Combined with the interactive teaching style, small classes (large lectures are even limited to 30 students) and group work, students are exposed firsthand to perspectives from around the world which I believe is a key component to International Affairs.
The school uses “Theory-guided, Practice Embedded and Experiential Learning”. Though it’s a mouthful, you can certainly see that it is implemented in their curriculum. Of course, students get the theory component in the classroom. There are some interesting and timely classes like Legal Aspects of Migration, NATO and Transatlantic Approaches to Security, and Global Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, and De-Radicalization. Students are also able to choose from a broad array of electives at partner schools which include VUB, Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, Institute of European Studies, and the Royal Music Conservatory Brussels. Unlike many other Belgian schools which base grades almost solely on final exams, courses at Vesalius College are continually assessed through projects, papers, and exams. Further, the fall semester ends in before winter break, so students don’t have to spend their holiday studying for final exams.
For the practice and experiential components, International Affairs students really benefit from the school’s location in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union. The school has guest lecturers that include speakers from NATO, the UN, various relevant EU committee chairs and directors, ambassadors, and foreign ministers. Students must participate in a capstone project, which involves working with high-ranking diplomats on foreign policy issues and also have the option of doing internships (for academic credit) with the UN, NATO, and various embassies.
Vesalius College’s modern building is located across the street from the VUB campus and is about 20 minutes from the city center. The school has its own cafeteria which sources many of its ingredients from organic farms and won the SMC Sustainable Seafood Certificate in 2013. Of course, as previously stated, students can also cross the street and use the large array of VUB facilities.
Coming as an international student to a foreign city can be overwhelming, so Vesalius has a number of support systems in place to smooth the transition. Though they don’t have their own student housing, the school does assist students in finding space in the student residences throughout the city. Each student is assigned a study advisor (a professor) and a separate career advisor which speaks to the priority of educating students and also making them employable. Though student life is enjoyed with students from schools all over the city, the school has a real community feel. The small size allows the students to really get to know each other and their professors. This community feel was something I noticed when I was observing students while waiting for my meeting to start.
Students are sometimes concerned about going to a small university. Often their concerns center on student life. I had dinner with Jared from North Carolina and his friends Lisa (from Atlanta) and Sebastian (from Luxembourg) while I was in Brussels and this was one of our topics. Though Jared knows Lisa from class, most of his other friends are from his student residence and attend various schools through the city. Jared and Sebastian both told me that their social life is more from their student residence and less from their academic program. Further, even when one attends a large university (like Jared at KU Leuven), the majority of their classes are held within one department so larger schools have a small school feel as well. Given that students at Vesalius College have access to all the clubs, facilities, and even classes of the larger VUB, the school size does not present limits but does provide advantages.
Preview: Next week, I will be writing more about what I learned from Jared and his friends about student life in Brussels…