Spencer Dahl, September 30th, 2014
My time in the Netherlands has been one of much learning, fun, and adjustment. I am studying finance in Maastricht, one of the southernmost cities in the Netherlands (and also the oldest). But I guess I’ll start from the beginning. My arrival to Europe was interesting to say the least. After an overnight flight from Houston to Amsterdam, I was bombarded by a confusion of Dutch signs and chaos at the airport. Luckily, I made it onto the train to Maastricht in no time. That was the easy part. Once I arrived in Maastricht, it took me two hours to find out where I lived and how to get there. I was sleep deprived, the wheels on both my luggage bags had fallen off from wheeling them around the rough streets, and it was the first real challenge I had. Everything was different and unfamiliar, but once I finally found the international student dorm I was staying in, it made things a lot easier. That’s the thing about going to a completely new place- every little hill you have to overcome can easily become a mountain. There’s nobody to help you adjust, and figuring things out for yourself is the only way to learn.
That story wasn’t meant to bore you, but to be an example of the many difficulties in adjusting to a new environment. Throughout the coming weeks there were more adjustments to be made, but the friends I met in Maastricht made those adjustments so much easier. Another thing I want to point out is how welcoming everyone is. I met other American exchange students the day after I arrived, and less than a week later I was on the beautiful Spanish island of Ibiza with them on an impromptu vacation before classes started. Since then, I’ve met people from over 20 different countries and still hang out with them in the international dorm we all stay at. Whenever I said I was from Texas, everybody thought that was the coolest thing and immediately struck up conversation about my cowboyish ways (obviously inaccurate). We all went out to the bars and saw the city the first week, but in the back of our minds was the looming inevitability that school, the “real” reason we were here, was right around the corner.
Maastricht University is a really cool place. The business faculty is housed in a 600 year old building, but the inside is very modern and new. The school is split up into two periods a semester, and in each period you take two classes. Most classes comprise of a day of lecture a week, and two days of tutorials. This is because of the Problem Based Learning (PBL) system of learning the university implements. Instead of having a professor lecture three times a week, the class is split up into many smaller groups of 10-15 students who are led by a tutor (typically a master’s student- the TA equivalent in the US), who sit back and moderate a conversation amongst the students about the topic. The students read before class and then teach the others in the tutorial, with assigned discussion leaders and secretaries every class. The system is dependent on each student being involved, so attendance and participation are mandatory. I can’t say I like it more than lectures (which we’ve had in the U.S. since kindergarten), but the extreme shift in learning has been a refreshing challenge. Because the classes are so short, usually 7 weeks in a period, the tutorials are 2 hours and there is a LOT of outside work.
Enough about school, I’ll talk about the city of Maastricht for a bit. It’s beautiful. It’s the oldest city in Maastricht, built by the Romans in the early 1200s, and sits right on the edge of the River Maas which makes for great views and architecture. The downtown area is vibrant and has tons of shops and markets. The city has thousands of landmarks, and the city looks so old still because they can’t change the outsides of the buildings, only the inside. This blends the old with the new, and keeps the culture and tradition of the city alive. Also, everyone rides bikes. Everyone. The city is much smaller with a bike, and the city is downright made for it. I bought an old bike and have since made the most of it, but anything with a set of wheels makes life easier. It’s also pretty cold here, with the weather ranging from 50-75 degrees since I’ve been here. I’m hoping it doesn’t get too much colder, I’m still used to Texas weather. Everyone does speak English, which is extremely helpful, but I do intend on picking up some Dutch while I’m here. The real advantage of Maastricht, however, is that it is situated right in the middle of Europe. I can ride my bike to Belgium or take a 30 minute train to Germany, and the rail systems are very reliable and easy. This means that I have the resources to do lots of traveling in different countries all over Europe, hopefully without missing too much class.
Overall, the first 6 weeks of my study abroad have been filled with adventure, friendships, and excitement. Now that I’m settled in, I have even higher hopes for the next 10 weeks. I’ve already been to Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland with trips to Germany and Austria in the works. Every country has its own unique vibe and culture, so exploring as much as possible is highly recommended.