My decision to apply for exchange to Maastricht University came out of nowhere. I was a nearing the end of the first half of my 3rd year, and I was preoccupied by planning out the next year and a half until expected graduation in May 2014. I, along with the rest of my classmates, had a idealized vision about how the remainder of our college careers would pan out. The sequence– conditioned in our minds and established by those before us–seemed to be set in stone. There were three simple steps: 1) gain work experience through a prestigious summer internship, 2) return to campus and finish out senior year strong (with the security of full-time offer), and 3) enter the workforce confidently with the college degree. Nowhere did study abroad fit in within this structured regimen. Well, it turns out that an exchange could fit quite perfectly as Step 2.1. Fortuitously, a simple errand to our undergraduate office to drop off my course requirement papers help lead me to the adjacent stack of handouts for study abroad opportunities. Long story short, my year and a half schedule certainly became a lot more spontaneous.
Over the next months before my departure, the same questions fired away by friends and family came up over and over…and over again.
1) How did you choose to study in the Netherlands?
2) Where is Maastricht? Is that near Amsterdam or something?
3) Why are you going during your senior year? Isn’t that kind of late?
After going through the routine many times, I had crafted some pretty good responses:
1) “I am able to take my business electives abroad and needed to go to a university in which the classes I would take would transfer over to stay on track for graduation.”
2) “No, I looked it up on Google maps and its pretty far south. I’m not really sure how far it is from Amsterdam but I know that I’m flying into Brussels instead of Amsterdam. So it’s close to Belgium too.”
3) “Yeah I know it’s pretty last minute, but I think it would be an awesome opportunity to be at a central location in Europe and travel. And it may be the last time I can have this opportunity for a while.”
Still, each time I responded to my friends and family with the same replies over and over…and over again, I never felt satisfied with what I told them. Therefore, my goal through this blog is to not only share with those back home about my experiences in Europe, but also to answer these 3 guiding questions so future exchange students can have a better idea about what its like to be a Maastricht student. Only after a month abroad, I believe a could make a pretty sell why to come to Maastricht.
So, how exactly do I recount the first month abroad? I’ll boil it down to the top 5 highlights. Why are these the top 5 (out of over 100+) highlights? Each one I learned an important lesson about living abroad. In sequential order, here it goes:
1) Bags do get lost. You never think it’s going to happen to you. Well, after finally making it to Brussels late at night after the long journey of delayed planes and transfers, I realized that in fact it did happen to me. I watched the carousel spin around 6 times with no more than a few broken baggage straps. The sinking feeling sat in when I went to the claim area and didn’t see anyone in sight. I felt better when I located a representative to file a claim, but when asked where to send the bag, the pit in my stomach fell again. I knew where I was going, but didn’t have an address. “Guesthouse Maastricht” wouldn’t cut it. After spending sometime looking at Google maps with the representative, and several links, we seemed to find the right address and I was off on my way with my carry on which I would live out of for the next three days. Lesson learned: Bring extra clothes in your carry on, know exactly the address where you are going (which may be different from shipping), and always be prepared for the unexpected.
2) Be prepared when grocery shopping. Going to the store to get food has become a lot easier after knowing what to expect. The first trip to the grocery store was memorable. After a futile 10 minute search, I discovered that eggs are not in the refrigerated aisle like in California, but instead shelf-stable usually near the bread. My roommate Jason found out “Vla Chocolade” is not chocolate milk during the first pour, but instead chocolate custard. All of us exchange students fumbled to carry our groceries in our arms back to the Guesthouse. We found out the hard way that it is expected to bring your own bags during checkout. Lesson learned: Bring bags during grocery trips and be ready to pack them quickly to not hold up the entire line.
3) Belgium is VERY close (see question/response 2 earlier in post). From the Guesthouse Maastricht where exchange students live, it’s only 3 km. I learned this when I went for a run during my first week here when I picked a direction and started running. It wasn’t long before I saw the sign with the word “Maastricht” and a big red slash going through it and a little Belgian flag. Another route the next week through a Dutch pasture led me to another one of these signs. Lesson learned: Maastricht is an incredibly central location to the nearby Belgium and Germany. Within a few hours, you can travel to see some great cities by taking the train or bus. Already with other international students, we’ve visited Ghent, Brussels, and Brugge in Belgium, and Munster, Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Aachen in Germany.
4) The “study” part of “study abroad” is not optional. The PBL (Problem Based learning) model at Maastricht University is a lot of work. Yet, it’s manageable. Bottom line is that with class sizes between 10-15 students, you have to come to class prepared with background of the required readings and a willingness to participate. The whole section really depends on a discussion between everyone, and it’s not a good feeling with the awkward silence stems from your turn to speak. And most importantly, be prepared to guide the class for an hour when you are designated discussion leader. Lesson learned: Be prepared for class. Time management to get work during the week will be tested, especially with an agenda for traveling during the weekends.
5) Meeting other full-time and exchange students. Living in international housing in the Guesthouse has been the perfect environment to meet other students from around the world. At the same time, during school you will meet full time Maastricht students, who may be from the Netherlands or very likely are too international students. In any case, I have learned my way around Maastricht with these new friends. With other exchange students, I learned where to buy a bike for the semester and the best place to buy calling credits for our Dutch phones. From other full-time students, I learned where you can buy new computer chargers for cheap (already blew my out with my converter) and a venue to listen to other student musicians. Lesson learned: Meeting other students here in Maastricht has been the backbone to my exchange experience so far. Many of my plans for the next month have been by talking to students to see the endless possibilities to maximize our time abroad.
I look forward to keeping this blog updated with updates about what happens over the next few weeks.