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.

 

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Categories: 2014, Reciprocal Exchange, The Netherlands

The Journey Begins:

Venturing to Maastricht, Netherlands is the first time I have been to Europe and the furthest I’ve been from home. When I arrived, I didn’t know what my dorm was called, how my phone was going to work abroad (if at all), if my credit card was going to be accepted, and much more. It was a huge shock as soon as the plane landed, but figuring out how to manage in the Netherlands was a blast!

The City:

Maastricht is the best home base for studying abroad because of its central location in Europe, the size of the city, and the beautiful sights. The central location is easy to prove by just looking at a map and recognizing that Maastricht is in the middle of Europe, which makes traveling very convenient. However, one of my favorite parts of the city is its size. It is a relatively small city with about 200,000 citizens and is 23 square miles in area. Biking is the preferred mode of transportation and almost everything in the city is within biking distance. Despite the small size, there is plenty to see and do. There are many beautiful churches, libraries, parks, castles, a river, plazas, statues, bars, and restaurants to explore. Maastricht has just enough to do without being overwhelming and is a great place to call home.

The Dutch:

During our school’s orientation, we had a presenter inform us about Dutch culture. He told us the Dutch are very direct. He was right. They do not sugar coat their words or try to phrase things in the most polite way. I’ve personally experienced this directness during school discussions in the classroom. One Dutch student disagreed with me and looked me in the eye and said “you are wrong and do not understand the material.” We actually get along fine, but he never hesitates to say what is on his mind. However, one great thing about the Dutch is that most of them speak English. I thoroughly enjoy being able to communicate without having to worry about a language barrier.

The International Students:

One of the great things about Maastricht University is the amount of international students who attend the University. About half of the students at the University come from abroad and many of those international students are studying abroad for only one semester. I am also staying at the University of Maastricht Guesthouse, which is a dorm for international students. The Guesthouse is actually located inside of a hospital, so I see patients in the halls on my way out of the building. At first it seemed really weird living in a hospital, but I got used to it pretty quickly. The dorms are in separate wings from the hospital rooms too, so I don’t have to worry about catching any illnesses. I would highly recommend living in the Guesthouse to anyone interested in studying abroad in the Netherlands. Although it is a bit expensive, I have enjoyed meeting students from all over the world. So far, most of my friends are from Spain, but I have made friends with students from every continent except Antarctica. I love learning about the other students’ hobbies, eating habits, and culture.

The School:

I am studying at the School of Business and Economics or SBE. The actual buildings of Maastricht University are spread throughout the city, so there is no congregated campus like at Texas A&M University. SBE is about an 8-minute bike ride from the international guesthouse where I am staying. The actual building is extremely old and part of it is actually a church. While the outside of the building is extremely antiquated, the inside is very modern. The builders did a great job of making a very modern facility without ruining the original architecture of the old building.

Classes:

Instead of normal classes where students listen to a lecture, SBE uses a learning process called problem based learning or PBL. This approach is much different from a lecture because students are responsible for learning the material prior to class. Class time is lead by a student discussion leader who moderates a discussion of the material and sets learning goals for the next class. The learning method has many benefits, but I am still a fan of traditional lectures too. For studying abroad, I definitely love the PBL approach because it is another opportunity to see how students from different countries think.

I wanted to share a background on what life is like in Maastricht for this entry and will delve into more specific stories in my next post. Thanks for reading!

Categories: 2014, Reciprocal Exchange, The Netherlands

I have been in Maastricht, The Netherlands for only 4 days now, but a lot has happened! When I first arrived, I was surprised to see the rural the area around Maastricht. Between Brussels, Belgium (the airport I flew in to) and the city of Maastricht, The Netherlands there is a lot of open space and small towns. Usually it is dreary and rainy here, but the weather has been awesome. It made for a beautiful drive in!

Maastricht itself has about 120,000 residents, but the city seems much smaller than that. Everywhere I have to go is 20 minutes or less by foot. Pretty much everyone here has a bike, so I am getting a second hand one in a few days (people LOVE the second hand market here for furniture, bikes, etc). I am attempting to learn my way around the city, but it’s kind of hard. There are a lot of traffic circles and old churches that all look the same! So far, I have figured out how to make it the the grocery store, some small shops, and to the school of business and economics (where I will be taking all of my classes). Hopefully the city will start to make more sense soon!

All of the exchange students in the School of Business and Economics had orientation Thursday and Friday. The school operates A LOT differently than Mays. Instead of the large lecture style that I am used to, at Maastricht University they use problem-based learning (PBL). PBL has very few lectures (sometimes only 1 per semester), and the rest is made up of small group “tutorials”. These tutorials are basically discussions of about 10-15 students that group together and use a “scientific” method to discuss the subject material. I have only had an example tutorial so far, but I think I will enjoy the different learning style. In Maastricht we only take 2 classes at a time. I’ll be in Maastricht for 2 “periods” which will equal a total of 12 hours of course work.

One of the greatest things about Maastricht University is the large number of exchange students from all over the world. Maastricht does a great job of organizing events for exchange students the week before classes start. I’ve met people from dozens of different countries, most of which live in the same building as me. It is really interesting to talk to students from different countries to see what their school/life is like back home.

The only let down so far has been the food. The Dutch aren’t exactly known for fine cuisine. I guess I will have to travel to find some good eats! Their redeeming quality though is friendliness. I can easily ask someone for directions (luckily most people speak English), so that has been very helpful.

Classes don’t start until February 3, but I am very excited! It’s all so different here, but it’s definitely a blast!

Categories: 2014, Reciprocal Exchange, The Netherlands