Visiting Utrecht, Netherlands: How it Changed My Mind about College in the US

I visited six Netherlands universities during my recent trip. Whenever I plan these trips, I have a preconception of which schools I’m most excited to see. I’m often proven wrong, and this trip was no exception! There are two schools that particularly excited me during this trip-a research university and a university of applied science. I’m so eager to tell you about both of them that I had to flip a coin to decide which one to start with!


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One of the main reasons I chose to visit Utrecht was convenience. Two of my days involved three hours train rides (each way!) so I was eager to have at least one day with an easy commute. Utrecht is just over 30 minutes by train from The Hague and, since it’s the largest and busiest train station in the country, trains ran frequently making the travel aspect super low stress. Little did I know that it would end up being one of the schools that excited me the most!

Let’s get back to the train station for just a minute… Utrecht Central is a hub, so just about everywhere you would want to go in the country is really accessible. This opens up great opportunities for students to attend different events (be it music, social, or networking) in nearby cities. They also have the world’s largest bike garage, with 12,500 spots. I’ve never seen anything like this before!

I knew little to nothing about the city before I arrived. It’s the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, though still small by other standards-with 340,000 inhabitants. It has a great combination of Dutch charm (I’m a sucker for canals) and conveniences needed for everyday life. Almost 20% of the Utrecht population are students, so there are plenty of opportunities for an active student life. The Parnassos Cultural Center offers various opportunities in the arts (dance, music, theater, and photography to name a few) and the Olympus Sports Center offers just about every sport I could think of-along with some I had never heard of (korfball anyone?).

Of course, the drawback of living in such an incredible and charming city is the housing shortage it creates. Casa Confetti is a well known student housing location. It even has it’s own Facebook page and website. Like Groningen, housing is notoriously difficult. Utrecht does reserve a number of rooms for first year international students (bachelor’s and master’s) but this is extremely competitive and offered on a first come, first serve basis. Be prepared to wake up in the middle of the night, right when they open the registration for the housing list. The majority of students find housing in the private market, which can be challenging but not impossible for first year students.

Utrecht University was founded in 1636 and is the largest university in the Netherlands. Their population of 31,000 students includes 2,500 international students. They offer 14 English taught bachelor’s (which includes two different university colleges) and 106 English taught master’s. Now that we are offering services around bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, this post will include information about both.

The bachelor’s programs are broad and/or multidisciplinary and allow students to choose their area of focus as the program proceeds. For instance, the Global Sustainability Science program has four tracks that begin the second year: Water Climate and Ecosystems, Energy and Resources, Governance and Societal Transformation, and Business and Innovation. Literary Studies students choose to focus on either World Literature or Literature in Conflict during their second year of study. History students choose either the History or International Relations in Historical Perspectives track during the second year and each of those tracks have 3-4 other specialization options. These include options like Political Conflict in Modern Europe, The Power of Culture, Globalization and World Order, and Europe in the World. Further, the university offers 41 English taught minors which can further customize a student’s educational path.

Utrecht University has two university colleges. These are the self contained, honors level, liberal arts programs that are a part of every Dutch research university. University College Roosevelt is further away, in Middleburg, so I didn’t make it on this trip. However, I was incredibly impressed by my visit to University College Utrecht (UCU).

The UCU facilities are located about about 15-30 minutes away from the city center (depending on whether you are walking or biking). It is an American style campus, which is quite rare in Europe, with the various buildings circling a quad. Campus includes the various academic buildings as well as a dining hall/student center, student bar, and student residences.

UCU students are not impacted by the housing issues as on-campus housing is required for the first two years, and optional for the third. Housing costs 6000 Euros per year and includes a private bedroom and shared bathroom, kitchen, and common space. As we toured, I was also struck by large number of flyers for a varied offering of student activities and associations specifically for UCU students. This shouldn’t be surprising given the larger student body (700), diverse background (50% international), and range of academic interests represented.

There are a few different types of Netherlands university colleges. UCU is one of the few that allows students a tremendous amount of flexibility in designing their own curriculum. This is something that I had trouble fully wrapping my brain around until I visited. The program offers three very broad majors (Humanities, Social Sciences, Science) and a large number of core subjects-with many courses for each subject-under each major. The first year provides an introduction to each of the academic areas and student choose a course to take from each one of the majors. Student choose their major the second year and must take ten courses within that department. Other than the ten courses within the major, the other rule is that students have to focus on two different core subjects, and one can be in another major if desired. A student might be a Humanities major with a focus on Philosophy and History. A student interested in psycholinguistics could major in either Humanities and either Social Science or Science, and focus on Linguistics and Psychology or Cognitive Neuroscience. The possibilities for meaningful combinations are really astounding!

There are some core requirements as well for all students. All students have to take language courses, with a wide array of options! Student can choose Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Arabic, Latin, or Sign Language. Other requirements vary by major. For instance, all students have to take a math class, but one option for Humanities majors is “Mathematics for Poets”.

Students are assigned a faculty member who serves as their academic advisor for all three years. There are two mandatory meetings each semester in which work is done towards course planning in a way that is aligned with the students goals and interests. It was only in the last 20-25 years that bachelor’s degrees in much of Europe were common. Until the Bologna Declaration, most Netherlands universities combined bachelor’s and master’s were into one degree. Thus, most UCU graduates (as well as most graduates from other Netherlands universities and programs) continue on for their master’s degree.

Which brings us to the master’s degree programs at Utrecht University….

Utrecht University offers 106 English-taught master’s degree programs. One hundred and six!! There are two types of master’s degree programs offered by Dutch research universities. Research master’s are two years in duration and prepare students for Ph. D programs. Of course, not all graduates will pursue a Ph. D and end up working in research related careers. One year master’s degree programs are designed to prepare students for their careers.

I read about the different programs, thinking about how much career choices have changed in the last 30 years. Certainly, I know what careers are associated with their programs in Clinical Psychology, Law and Economics, and Financial Management for instance. Though I don’t understand technology, I can imagine the careers associated with Human Computer Interaction. Then there are a number of programs that are super relevant to the issues in modern society. These are programs like:

  • Global Criminology
  • Migration, Ethnic Relations and Multiculturalism
  • Conflict Studies and Human Rights
  • Sustainable Citizenship

I found myself wondering what graduates would do for employment with these degrees. Luckily the Utrecht website (and many others) has a page associated with each master’s degree program that speaks to career prospects called “Career Prospects”. Graduates of these sorts of programs often find employment as advisors, policy makers, researchers or consultants. They generally work for NGOs, but also for think tanks, government bodies, and international organizations like the UN and WHO.

This reconfirmed that there are so many careers these days that I know nothing about! At first I thought this might be a generational issue. Most of the people I know (or knew) went to school to become lawyers, bankers, teachers, psychologists, academics, scientists, etc. I assumed that the rise in globalization has led the younger generations to seek knowledge and careers in fields that we may not have known about. With a little more digging, I realized that my knowledge gap around these fields can’t be explained by age alone; that perhaps other countries are more invested in teaching the skills and knowledge related to solving global problems than US universities are.

I looked at the flagship public universities in my own area to explore master’s level offerings focused on global problems. UNC-Chapel Hill offers many of the more “traditional” options that Utrecht does, but the only thing close to a program that focuses on global issues is the Global Studies program. Same for NC State University. Only one of their 102 options, an International Studies program focuses on global issues.

Why is there is not a greater emphasis on solving world issues? Is it because, as a country, we are geographically separated from much of the world, limiting our exposure? Is it because the social lives at so many universities is segregated into homogeneous groups, preventing students from learning from the perspectives and experiences of others? Is it because we are worried about the career prospects of students graduating with these types of degrees?

The career question has been sufficiently answered for me, jut by looking at the NGO opportunities alone. This sector has grown and continues to grow, with 10 million organizations worldwide! I learned that in the last ten years, NGOs have moved further and further from their origins as charity businesses and expanded into an increasingly diverse range of activities. Nonprofits are investing in social enterprise, cultivating academic expertise, and finding strategic ways to address urgent development crises around the world.

And then we have think tanks, which may be affiliated with NGOS or universities. These organizations usually have a specific focus and work on research, advocacy, and policy advice. This is one of those fields I had never heard of anyone working in when I was in my 20’s (or even my 30s). How cool, though! Experts working together to try to develop solutions for specific problems!

NGOs in the US employ 11.4 million people, but there are also incredible opportunities for students who want to stay in Europe. The Hague, for instance, has 160 NGOs that employ more than 14,000 people. Sure, programs like those at Utrecht which are focused on global interests lead to great employment opportunities. More importantly, these types of programs help global citizens who are ready, eager, and prepared to help solve the problems in the world.

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