“Going Dutch”: A Canadian Abroad

Apparently when you say to people, “I’m going on a university exchange to the Netherlands,” what they hear is, “I’m going to Europe to party for the next five months under the pretense of studying.”

At least, that’s the impression I’ve gathered from telling a host of family, friends and co-workers about my plans to study abroad. When they’re excited for me, it usually centres on the opportunity to travel and the vibrant social scene—not to mention the notorious cliché of Amsterdam as a city solely based around “coffee shops” and legal prostitution.

Of course, I plan to do my fair share of partying and travelling in Europe, but my exchange experience would not be complete without a fulfilling academic experience.

As a journalism student, I was drawn to the Netherlands specifically to take the Research, Travel and Reporting course offered by a university in Utrecht. The course is broken into two parts: two months of lectures followed by independent research and reporting.

Looking at the syllabus, I was convinced I would find the classroom portion to be eight weeks of the same-old learning I’m used to, and that the research portion is where my real learning experience would begin.

After just one week of lectures, I can safely say nothing about studying abroad, including the most basic of lectures, is completely devoid of some new experience. Even in a class dominated by Canadians, eight in a group of 15 international students, you can’t avoid being immersed in a mish-mash of different cultures. In a group of international students, every conversation instantly becomes more worldly, more comparative and more telling. It also sheds light on how far removed you can be from what’s happening in other countries.

Take, for instance, the Finnish presidential election. The result of the recent election and the victory of Sauli Niinisto is something I might have read about in the World News section of The Globe and Mail. Having studied and lived with several Finnish people for just one week, by the time the election results came in on Sunday I felt personally invested in the race: the conservative National Coalition Party candidate versus the Green Party member, and first openly gay candidate to run for president in Finland.

The other thing that studying abroad offers is the opportunity to learn in different ways. In Dutch culture, education is based on the concept of “learning by doing.” It is far removed from the common classroom ideal of one person talking for two hours while hundreds of student make notes (or don’t) of what facts they need to retain. In some ways, I feel like I’ve left university and entered a college setting—or at least what I imagine college learning to be like.

The one thing that remains the same, if not increased, is the actual amount of work that needs to be done. Over time, in university, you can get used to coasting—you learn the tricks of how to get by and how much work really needs to be done to get the grades that you want. In other words, the minimum input required for maximum results.

Studying overseas has a way of kicking these bad habits due to pure confusion. I’m not sure exactly what’s important and what needs to be done—so for now I’m going to do exactly everything I’m told to do, on time, and with an academic enthusiasm usually reserved for keen first-year students and those with looming graduate school applications. It’s the kind of goody two-shoes approach I have always aimed for but never quite been able to pull off. Who knew going Dutch was all it would take?

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