Final Thoughts before Farewell

It’s really unfair how fast time seems to pass when you’re enjoying yourself; it feels like yesterday that I first arrived in Maastricht, and now, I’m on the verge of leaving. It’s been a great exchange experience, one that’s far exceeded my expectations and one that I will remember fondly forever. It’s very difficult to capture all that I learnt and felt in my time here, but I’ve done my best to do so on this blog. This post is my last, and, as I have already talked about settling in, the academic life at the SBE, and about some of my travels, I’ll simply sign off with some general reflections on my time here.

I was told many things by others who’d been on exchange here, from how the academic life at UM was not going to be easy, to Maastricht’s ideal location for travelling, to  the many challenges I was likely to face when living on my own for a few months. However, on hindsight, there are a few things they didn’t mention or emphasise that I thought are worth knowing/considering before deciding to have your exchange programme here. I’ve picked a few of these and distilled them into three main points, which I leave you with.

 

  1. Maastricht is a beautiful city

While anyone who’s been living here for a while would probably respond to that statement with a “duh, obviously”, what I really mean is that it’s a lot more beautiful than given credit for. The spaces are neat and well-maintained; there are nice attractions for visits, and there’s a good blend the natural and the man-made. Some of the park areas are especially nice, and the low-key but energetic ambience at places like Vrijthof is really appealing. Perhaps this is a case of wearing rose-tinted glasses, but I find that Maastricht’s beauty grows on you the longer you live here (as opposed to initially finding a place beautiful and then gradually growing accustomed to it and taking it for granted, which happens with a lot of other places). Futhermore, it’s not just aesthetically pleasant in terms of the surroundings it provides, but is also peaceful, quiet, relatively safe and filled with nice people. What more do you want?

 

  1. There are a lot more opportunities than you think there are

If you live life superficially, then in the first few weeks here you’d probably think the only things to do outside of studies are to go for ISN parties, travel or to join a sports club. If these are exactly what you were looking for, then that’s great. Otherwise, I’d advise looking more closely at what the school and city have to offer – visit their websites and Facebook pages, ask around and talk to people, keep an eye out when moving around. Try different things that you’re even mildly interested in, especially those that you cannot get in your home country. There are for example, plenty of parties held by other organisations in Maastricht or nearby that you might really love, more unique clubs you might enjoy participating in, and also events/activities held by the municipality or external groups that you might never have seen before. For those interested in travelling, have a look at places nearby – there are often underrated areas that are overlooked by most tourists, but are well-worth a day trip to and are good to roam around and relax in. In short, there are plenty of things to see and do – explore your options thoroughly!

 

  1. Treasure and make the most of what you have

You probably won’t be able to travel to every single place in Europe as you would like to, keep up 100% with everything going on in class, have what you’d feel like eating for every meal, or get to better know everyone you’d like to. But that’s life in a microcosm, and is no cause for despair. While you should have a few basic goals in all aspects for your time here, don’t stress out over hitting everything on your checklist – just have a general attitude of actively trying to do and learn and grow as much as your resources and constraints allow you to, and of being honest and positive throughout this endeavour, while enjoying the experience as it unfolds. You might get a lot more than you expect in return!

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The Travails of Travelling

As I have about a month left in Maastricht, I’ve been focusing on how to make the most out of it. There’s always the temptation to take part in more activities, to spend even more time with the friends I’ve made here, and to try more types of food. However, one urge I’ve felt in particular since Period 1 ended – largely borne out of the realisation that there are so many places nearby that I haven’t been to yet – has been to travel as much as I can.

So after earmarking my desired destinations and making a fairly aggressive travel plan, which involved going somewhere nearly every weekend, I set about following through on them. There are still a few weeks to go and so a few places left to visit, but so far it’s been extremely enjoyable to tour around. While I’ve also been to the likes of Austria while here, below I’ll just talk about the places I’ve visited in the Netherlands and in its two neighbours, Belgium and Germany.

 

The Netherlands

Within the Netherlands, Amsterdam is the obvious standout destination. It’s a crazy city, always teeming with people and energy at all times of the day. It also has a lot of diversity in terms of what it offers; regardless of your personality and preferences – it doesn’t matter if you’re an art lover or a history buff or even an aimless drug addict – there’s always something for you here. Den Haag is a lot more low-key in that respect, but is still worth a visit if you think you’d appreciate the couple of politically important buildings or the beaches or dunes that it has. Eindhoven in contrast has, to be honest, little for tourists to see or do in general, but I went there when it was having a Glow Festival, which was quite interesting (though not particularly spectacular). Also, I think it has the nearest Primark from Maastricht, which I suppose counts as a plus point. Amongst other places, I’ll be visiting Rotterdam, which I’ve heard is really modern and well-maintained, and Utrecht in the coming weeks.

 

Belgium

I liked Brussels a lot; it conveys a strong sense of professionalism and ambition, while maintaining a certain level of homeliness – you tend to walk around admiring what this city has on offer and the way it lives its life, while feeling extremely comfortable despite being a visitor amidst it all. Antwerp is a great blend of the new and old, with some magnificent buildings from the yesteryear that for a second make you forget the bustling hive of activity stemming from the malls and shops that surround you. It also has strong historical elements embedded in all corners, so if you’re not in a rush I’d advise you to spend some time exploring the place closely. If you’re looking for a place that has a quieter and more rustic charm while maintaining a certain level of vibrancy, then Ghent is the city for you; nearly everything about the city is pretty, from its endearing juxtaposition of buildings of extremely different colours, shapes and sizes to its quirky canal-side bars and eateries to its unique medieval structures and museums. Especially given that it doesn’t take long to cover, this city is well worth a visit! You also have Liege, which is particularly nearby (on the weekend, tickets there are especially cheaper) and usually doesn’t have much in particular to offer visitors, bar this enormous flea market they have on Sundays (though I’m not sure if it’s across the whole year) at La Batte. There’s also Brugge, which I’ll be visiting only next week but is the Belgian city I’ve heard the most glowing reviews of from my parents and my friends who’ve been there.

 

Germany

Aachen in Germany is a popular hangout for many here since it’s just about 50 minutes away. Small, cosy and surprisingly a lot more crowded than you’d expect, Aachen has enough to see for at least half a day. If you’re nearby towards the end of the year, perhaps it would be best to plan your visit when its highly-rated Christmas Markets are up and running. Also, do try out Aachen Printen, a variety of gingerbread native to this town. Cologne is a lovely place as well; even if you’re just passing by it, you should at the very least set aside an hour or so to see its Cathedral, if nothing else. Bonn is a lot more low-key, but is probably a must-go if you’re a fan of Beethoven (who was born and grew up here). Munich is far from Maastricht, and most here seem to go there exclusively for the Oktoberfest. This is not too surprising, because a large part of what people associate with the city and its culture, is beer. In my opinion, while this isn’t incorrect in any way, there’s plenty else to appreciate about this cosmopolitan city, from its food and its attractions to the ways of its people. Travelling all the way there from Maastricht might put you off, but I would recommend it as part of any separate trip you make to that region. Another city that’s quite far away but I would strongly recommend you visit if you haven’t already is Berlin, where I very recently spent 3 days. Berlin has nearly everything – it’s cool, cultured, creative and has plenty of history. It’s one of those places you could set out aimlessly in and then, hours later, find yourself just half-way through a museum or happily lost in an alley of astonishing street art and quirky bars and shops. It’s one of those places that really has a flavour of its own, one that is strong enough to be felt by all but leaves room for each to internalise it in his or her preferred way.

 

A Few Tips

There’re a lot of things you can do to maximise your travel experiences; of course, you have all your standard pieces of advice – check the weather and then dress and equip yourself accordingly, bring the necessary travel documents along, bring enough cash, be open-minded etc etc.

5 other things I’d recommend doing are:

1) Hunt for and stay alert to travel discounts and deals, and make trade-offs/decisions that suit you. Something noteworthy about going to any of these places in the Netherlands is that there’re Facebook pages that allow you to form (virtual) groups with others travelling to the same destination to get tickets to and fro for as low as 7 euros. This makes it worth it even to make multiple day trips to these places, especially if you want to avoid the hassle of making hostel or other accommodation bookings. Of course, while you tend to save some money, you also lose the additional time you spend travelling, so it depends on how you’d like to evaluate that trade-off. Many I know can’t bear to sit in a train for too long, while others manage to expertly do their homework in their travel time.

2) Maximise your days (applicable for wintertime). As the months get colder, daylight also becomes a sparse commodity, and it gets dark really early.  Aside for those places that have plenty to admire or do at night, it doesn’t bode well for your trip if you, for example, wake up late in the morning and get to your destination by the time it’s mid-afternoon. I’d strongly advise waking up early enough to reach your destination by time day breaks. Often this might mean sleeping early or catching up on your sleep while you travel, but I feel it’s worth it if your destination is a more of a day-place (like Ghent or Aachen) and you want to get as much as possible out of it.

3) Prioritise the experience over documenting it. To be more specific, pay more attention to where you are at and to the sights, smells and sounds you experience than to getting the perfect photograph. While it’s only natural to want a picture of yourself in front of a beautiful building, for example, there’s no need to obsess over it at the expense of the enrichment you get from a unique place you’ll probably never visit again.  Besides, I feel those who take pictures for their own viewing tend not to look at them in the future as often as they think they will. And taking them to impress others seems even more absurd, because people who like you probably don’t need to impressed, people who don’t like you are probably not going to just because of a few beautiful travel photos, and those in between will probably forget about you after looking at your pictures for about five seconds and moving on to the next one on their newsfeed.

4) Look out for unique activities. I mean this especially for places that are nearby but you are undecided about visiting. Examples of this for me were Eindhoven or Liege – I didn’t think either place had enough to see to make a trip there worth it – but when they had the above-mentioned Glow Festival and flea market respectively, my decision titled in their favour.

5) Go on a solo trip every now and then. Travelling with friends is fun, but I’d strongly recommend just setting out on your own – and for the longer, the better – and immersing yourself miles away from your comfort zone. It’s a really refreshing experience and you tend to learn quite a bit about yourself. Also, you don’t have to worry about the preferences of someone else – you can see and do whatever you want at whatever pace you’d like with no qualms whatsoever.

 


 

That’s all from me for now! In my last post in a few weeks, I’ll talk more about my overall experience as a UM student and as a resident of this beautiful city.

Academic Life at Maastricht University

Hi! I’d been here for only about three to four weeks when I wrote my first post, which was therefore largely about my arrival at Maastricht, my orientation experience and about settling in. Now that it’s my eighth week here (time flies!) and given that Period 1 has just ended, I think it would be apt to talk about the academic experience I’ve had here.

 

COURSES AND SEMESTER STRUCTURE

An academic semester here is split into 2 periods of about 8 weeks each, and I’m doing 2 courses in each period (that’s the most I’m allowed) – Globalisation Debate and Thinking Strategically in the first, and Public Economics and Economics and Sociology in the second. I can’t really comment on the second pair since I haven’t started on it, but the former two courses were both really enjoyable. Thinking Strategically was basic game theory, with plenty of math and logic. Globalisation Debate was, as its title suggests, all about thinking about globalisation critically – what globalisation actually entails, whether it’s been good or bad,  how it has affected who in what ways etc – and discussing these views, with (plenty of) readings as primers.

In contrast, at SMU (Singapore Management University, my university back home), we take about 4-5 modules in a semester of about 15 weeks, with a one-week break and mid-term examinations somewhere in between (and final examinations at the end, of course). Each module is about the equivalent of a course in Maastricht, but translates into one three-hour lesson each week rather than the two or three weekly two-hour blocks over here. To be honest, I prefer how it is at SMU  – I find it more efficient (one lesson that covers everything rather than two, the ability to bid for all the courses for the semester in one go etc.) and flexible (the larger timespan and number of modules gives one more flexibility with regards to time allocation). However, Maastricht does have its own set of advantages, one of which is that you are essentially guaranteed to get the courses that you bid for; back in my university, courses have limited vacancies from the offset, and students are given virtual money to bid for them. This bidding exercise is basically a balancing act – everyone looks to bid high enough to secure their vacancies for their courses, while ensuring that they have enough money at the end of it all for future spending – and takes up a lot of students’ time and effort.

 

THE PROBLEM-BASED LEARNING SYSTEM

There was plenty of hype about Maastricht’s Problem-Based Learning (PBL) pedagogy right from the start. Meant to be a deliberate shift away from the traditional teaching model – involving one teacher/professor directly imparting the relevant information to a large number of students, typically in the form of a lecture – PBL tends to involve

  • small classes sizes (15 students at most)
  • case-based learning and discussion amongst students
  • a tutor who facilitates this discussion and deliberately looks to minimise his/her involvement as an authority

At SMU, lessons are typically what I could perhaps best describe as a cross between PBL tutorials and the stereotypical lectures. They’re seminar-style sessions with about 45 students and a professor who dictates the lesson, but with the same element of individual participation – students can be called on at any time to answer questions or to give their opinion, though they usually do so of their own accord (since their participation is graded).

And so, as I was already used to speaking up in class, I didn’t have too much of a culture shock when I started lessons here; there were only a few minor things I needed to get used to, such as being a discussion leader and using everyone’s inputs to steer the discussion in a certain direction, or such as arriving at certain conclusions with the rest of the class only to have the tutor leave the issue open instead of providing any definitive assessment or opinion. However, many of my friends on exchange from other universities who were used to lecture-style classes had a lot of difficulty adjusting. They found it hard to not just regularly express their opinion in front of so many others in such a setting, but also to keep up with the pace and intensity of the discussion being generated by the students in the class.

In my opinion, whether the PBL system works well in all types of courses is very debatable. I think it’s ideal for discussion-based courses like Globalisation Debate – where the coursework largely comprises readings and tackling ambiguous and open-ended (but pressing) questions – and is a lot less effective in more technical courses, such as on game theory, which involve arriving at one definite answer through logical and mathematical thinking.

 

COMPETITION AND PRESSURE

Also, the success of PBL hinges a lot on the amount of preparation students have done for the class. For example, if no one reads the assigned readings or does the assigned exercises for a class, it’d naturally be difficult to have even a passable discussion on the topic or to understand the tutor when he or she elaborates on further details. In this sense, there is greater pressure on students to be prepared for every single lesson and to do consistent work, although I suppose this is a good thing, not least because doing so generally puts them in good stead when exams are around the corner.

A major plus here is also the relative lack of competition. In SMU for example, it is common to have students trying to out-speak others to earn higher class participation points, groups trying to  one-up each other in terms of showmanship (think costumes, elaborate skits, music videos etc) for project presentations, and many refusing to share their notes or help their peers with exam preparations. I suppose this is because grading in SMU follows a bell curve – there is a set number of each grade per class (for example, only a maximum of 3 students can score an A+, and only 5 at most can score an A etc), which translates into students competing for the best grades. In Maastricht, the grading appears to be more absolute – in theory, it seems possible that every student in the class could be given a “7” upon 10, and that no one may receive a “9” or more, for example. While this may on the whole pose drawbacks in terms of statistically ranking students, I think it’s largely a good thing – it indicates to students that their success is down to themselves and not others, and encourages them to see their peers as people they should respect and can learn from, rather than as rivals they need to step on to become successful.


 

That’s all for my second blog post! In my next post, I’ll probably talk about the travelling I’ve done since I came here or –  if I feel I haven’t done enough to write about by then – about life in Maastricht in general.

My First Month at Maastricht

Hi! I’m Tanuj from Singapore Management University, and this my first post about my exchange programme experience at Maastricht. I’ve been here for almost four weeks, and it’s been really interesting so far. I understand this blog is essentially for prospective SBE students/applicants, so aside from keeping it to three main sections for each post, I’ll try to end each section with a few tips/pointers that may be of help.

 

  1. ARRIVAL AT MAASTRICHT

After roaming around in Munich and various places in Austria for about a week, I reached Maastricht a day before the official orientation began. It took me a fairly expensive bus ride and a lot of asking directions from strangers to reach my residence – the Guesthouse – where I realised that there’d actually been a quick, simple and free pick-up service from the station I’d started off from. I felt like an idiot, but as this was my first solo “long-term” stay in a foreign land, I was sure that this wasn’t the last time I was going to end up feeling this way. So I didn’t get too traumatized by it.

What did traumatize me, though, was the amount of dust in my new room when I first entered it. I feel blessed to be alive to write this, because in the two full days I spent thoroughly cleaning my room, I inhaled enough dust to put any vacuum cleaner to shame. Just to prevent myself from being kicked out of here for saying that my room was so dusty, I’d like to take this opportunity to put in a few good words for the SSH, which is basically my landlord. From being kind enough to leave the keys for me at the counter even though I was late, to having my bed fixed (one of the wheels on its legs was broken) almost immediately upon notification, to always being very receptive to the requests of my floor in general, and to giving us the benefit of doubt regarding rules and regulations pertaining the kitchen and whatnot, SSH Maastricht has been truly top notch, and I’d highly recommend that you look them up (https://www.facebook.com/maastrichtssh) if you’re interested in a short stay anywhere nearby.

 

  1. ORIENTATION

The orientation was a one-and-a-half day programme. It was basically a series of talks by various people (See Image A below) – including the city Mayor and a Policeman – followed by a city tour on Day 1, with a mock PBL session on Day 2. I really enjoyed it all – I met some nice people, got all the important information that I was looking for, and got a good feel of the school and the city. I recommend using this orientation period to meet as many people as you can and, more importantly, to ask as many questions and to clear as many doubts, especially academics-related ones, as you want to. Largely, this is because the atmosphere during these two days is really chill, casual and welcoming, as opposed to the hectic hustle and bustle you’re likely to experience when school actually starts.

Image A. Taken from: SBE Exchange Students Facebook Page

 

  1. SETTLING IN

I’ve always been a slow starter at most things (still haven’t really started studying hard, for example) and so it took me quite a while to adjust to life here. I usually do my own room cleaning, laundry and grocery shopping back home in Singapore, so that wasn’t much of a problem here. The only minor issue I faced was with the latter; a lot of goods, such as laundry detergents or food items, sold at shops don’t have a word of English on their packaging – it’s usually in Dutch or in some cases, French or German. Some of the friends I’ve made here had resorted to trial-and-error, buying different variants of the same food items and detergents over time and gradually ascertaining which ones were best. Aside from the comparatively adverse effects on their time, wallets, clothes and stomachs, this is perhaps a pretty decent strategy. However, I’d recommend just asking someone at the shop for help or – if you feel you are too shy or anti-social to do that – using Google Translate if the shop offers free WiFi (Jumbo and Albert Heijn do, for example) or – if you fashion yourself as more of a photographer than a typist – using Google Goggles (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.android.apps.unveil&hl=en).

The biggest problem I had initially, however, was food. I didn’t want to eat out because I don’t like the food here in general (it’s never spicy enough for my liking!) nor did I have the culinary skill – the most sophisticated thing I’ve ever made for consumption is probably a sandwich – to cook the things I like from Asian cuisine. The first few days were perhaps the worst, because I’d only bought very basic groceries.  Having three meals a day became a forgotten luxury; I’d usually have bread for brunch and just carrots – on some lucky days, with some tomatoes and walnuts as well – for dinner (See Image B).

Image B: The best dinner I had in my first few days at Maastricht, no joke

It slowly got better – oats, cornflakes, and fruits (see Image C below) began to feature in my meals.

Image C: A typical post-dinner desert after a week or so here. Clearly, I’m not just a chef; I’m an artist.

And then I started actually cooking some simple meals (see Image D below) and going back to three meals a day.

Image D: Evidence of my transformation from no-hoper to a chef extraordinaire

I’ve still got a long way to go before becoming as good as I’d like to be at cooking, but I’d say I’m getting there gradually! If, like me, you’re planning to cook most of your meals here and don’t really have much experience at it, I’d also like to warn you that you might spend a bit more money in the initial phase of this endeavour than you’d expect to. I didn’t, but I saw plenty of my friends having to do it. This expenditure is largely on two things – (1) extra groceries, because some of your trial-and-error experiments in the kitchen are likely to go wrong, and (2) on eating out every now and then when you realise that you can’t rely on your amateur cooking ability for every meal if you’re keen on surviving or staying in decent health. So have some extra cash ready at all times and be willing to spend if needed – money can’t buy you happiness, but it can definitely ensure that you won’t have to end up eating just carrots and tomatoes for your dinner….


 

So that’s all from me for now! In my next post, I’ll probably talk more about the academic life at Maastricht and the environment here in general. Regards till then!

Tanuj