A student's reflections on a year abroad

8th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

Maxine Chan recently returned to Toronto, Canada, after living in Maastricht for 10 months during an academic exchange at University College Maastricht. An interview with Crossroads.

Crossroads: How do you look back on your year abroad in Maastricht?

Maxine Chan ... make the most of the experience and savour the differences

Maxine: It was a very transformative time in my life, but an overwhelmingly positive experience. With it being my first time living abroad and my first time in Europe, this was a very big deal to me, so I tried to take advantage of all of the opportunities I could and make the best of the situation. I like to think I mostly succeeded; I have few regrets about the experience.

I struck a respectable balance between school and play, making enough time and effort to do a decent job at both, which made it a much more well-rounded experience. I had the chance to do some travelling, having visited eight countries, thanks to the comprehensive network of trains and budget airlines in Europe.

There are a few minor regrets: I wish I had done more biking in Limburg. I brought my racing bike over with me, in hopes of doing a lot of riding outside Maastricht — the lovely, varied terrain of South Limburg is just one of the reasons why so many pro cyclists choose to call it home.

Sometimes I wish I had moved out of the Guesthouse after some time and into a student house, in order to further integrate into the student life and have a place to host friends and call my own.

Most of all, I wish I had taken the follow-up Dutch course to the first one I took; my Dutch remains embarrassingly limited and it was only in hindsight that I realised that I will probably not have another chance to learn the language. My ineptitude in Dutch never posed any serious problems, but it became disorienting to go through life unable to understand most conversations around me and I regretted that I wasn't able to read the local newspapers, which I always find to be a good way of grounding oneself in the local culture.

C: What did your experience teach you about Maastricht, the Netherlands, Europe?

M: My experience abroad brought me back down to Earth from having harboured a silly impression of Europe as being a beautiful paradise with no problems. While it was wishful thinking that I could install myself in such a fantasy land for a year, it also came from a rather widespread mentality in Canada that Europe does everything better than we do, whether it be politics, design, fashion, education or urban planning. Certainly, there is considerable truth to the stereotype. Yet, there is a lot that we do well in Canada and do not celebrate enough — multiculturalism is just one example.

From Maastricht, I learned that I enjoy the setting of a small city immensely. The city has all of the amenities that make a city vibrant and exciting, with museums, a great library and cultural institution at the Centre Céramique, a highly regarded university and a well-preserved city centre. On the other hand, Maastricht was just the right size that I frequently ran into friends and acquaintances around the city, a pleasant detail of living in a small city that makes the expatriate life easier.

Maastricht is something of a 'chocolate' city, as the German expression goes for describing only the good side of something. Maastricht is a charming historical city with many educated and well-to-do residents, which can make it easy to forget that social problems exist, at least beneath the veneer of well-preserved monuments, posh shops, or impeccably-dressed economics students. Oddly, it wasn't until a trip to Charleroi, Belgium — after nearly two months in Europe — when I finally witnessed homeless people and poverty on the continent. Maastricht is a nice city, but I can finally understand why one staff member of University College Maastricht moved from Maastricht to Liège (a Belgian city 35km to the south), in order to escape the orderliness for something more real, more chaotic.

I came with exceedingly high expectations of the Netherlands and so it was unfortunate but inevitable that its standing in my mind fell after my time spent there. The country benefits from conveying abroad a very positive impression of itself as a peaceful, open-minded, liberal haven with a strong regard for the environment and social welfare. On the other hand, I was dismayed to find that it wasn't so welcoming a place as it is known to be. The EUR 433 residence permit that was required of non-EU nationals, the spectre of Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk's proposed integration test to restrict the entry of non-Westerners, coupled with some personal encounters with racism, were fairly unsettling to me. However, things improved for me towards the end, I was happy to hear that the integration test was eliminated and I ended up appreciating the Netherlands yet more after a great bike trip through the country.

As I mentioned earlier, I came to realise that Europe has its own faults and problems that I previously ignored. It was also a somewhat turbulent time in Europe while I was there, with the race riots in French suburbs, the controversy over the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, the aforementioned Dutch immigration test and the French student protests over the 'Contrat Première Embauche', none of which I could imagine happening in Canada.

Otherwise, I was surprised to learn that regionalism remains so powerful in Europe, despite the power and scope of the EU. Despite a common currency and various shared policies, many Europeans adhere tremendously to traditions and cultural roots. Different regions are visibly distinct from one another. Limburgers see themselves as being distinct from the Dutch in the northern provinces and vice versa; yet, the Dutch can collectively agree that Belgians are not very intelligent, while harbouring resentment towards the Germans. Regionalism is alive and well in North America, but not nearly to such a great extent, nor is it so pronounced. Tellingly, one can drive for hours and hours in the American continent and only experience a fairly narrow spectrum of cultures, languages, and traditions, in great contrast to Europe. So perhaps visual blandness is a price North Americans pay for relative cultural harmony.

C: What are your most vivid memories of your year abroad?

M: I find that my thoughts most often drift back to my travels just prior to leaving. I spent a few days in Berlin and fell in love with the living history and edginess of the city. Shortly thereafter, a friend of mine and I went on a biking and camping trip in Alsace, France, and then along the Rhine and Mosel rivers in Germany. These were some of the most beautiful places I have seen in Europe, convincing me that there was truth to the travel pamphlets and postcards, after all. That I discovered them just before leaving is just the way things had to work out, unfortunately. But it certainly provides me with a great impetus to return soon.

Otherwise, I often think of the friends I made, picturing what they must be doing in Maastricht at this very minute, which I find to be a nice way of passing an idle minute and keeping my memory of friends and the city active.

C: Would you recommend other fellow students to choose Maastricht for their year abroad?

M: I would absolutely recommend Maastricht to anyone considering a year abroad, particularly for non-Europeans. I say this because most of the European students who came to Maastricht did so in order to improve their English, but that may have been better accomplished in an immersion environment with native speakers. Furthermore, Maastricht's somewhat trans-European character may not represent an enormous change of scenery from home for many European students, an element of my exchange which I, as a Canadian, found to be very important in broadening my perspectives.

On the flipside, the Dutch language does not have much international currency, and so the little Dutch I managed to learn may well end up never really being used again. I sometimes think that having the luxury of speaking English during my exchange made it too easy on me and meant that I did not have the chance to make a serious effort in learning another language. This could be a considerable drawback for native English speakers from choosing Maastricht.

I was glad to have done my studies at University College Maastricht , a small, supportive faculty within the University of Maastricht, with an interesting range of courses and a very engaged and international student body. The small classes made it easy to participate and meet other students and I found the Problem Based Learning method of instruction to be effective in motivating me to study.

After speaking with friends who did their exchanges elsewhere, I always came away with the impression — perhaps unfair — that Maastricht was a better choice than the places they selected. For one, a friend in Paris found it challenging to befriend other students in La Sorbonne or to interact with the locals, given the enormity of the school and the city.

But no matter what, the right attitude makes any exchange anywhere worthwhile.

C: What tips and advice would you like to share with current exchange students in Maastricht?

M: Learn and speak Dutch at every possible opportunity, befriend non-exchange students, seek out a life outside the Guesthouse and explore the city. It is too easy to bond together with fellow expatriates, particularly with countryfolk and miss out on the opportunity to learn about other cultures, or the valuable experience of not being able to lean on people from home. Unfortunately, many exchange students did not care to learn Dutch and were unwilling to experience the city or the local culture, never straying beyond the confines of popular cafés like The Highlander, The Shamrock or De Twee Heeren. The bottom line is to make the most of the experience and not to resent, but savour, the differences between home and Maastricht.

C: How do you think your stay in Maastricht will contribute to shape your future?

M: My stay in Maastricht is already contributing to shaping my 'future', or rather, my time back home since I've returned. The way I approached life and school in Maastricht is completely different from the way that I approached them before I left Toronto. When in Maastricht, I was starting from almost nothing, without friends or prior knowledge, but with an open mind.

And so, I worked very hard at building a life there, so to speak. It made me more friendly and outgoing, eager to meet and befriend new people and seek out as many opportunities as possible. Whether this meant small things such as going for picnics, asking a classmate to come out for lunch with me after tutorial group meetings, or finding and eating at different restaurants, or planning and executing multi-day bike trips across countries, these all represented the kinds of things I always wanted to do in Toronto, but never got around to.

I've since been offered a part-time job at the international exchange office at my university advising outgoing exchange students. I think it'll be a good opportunity to pass along advice on the things I learned the hard way and things I'd recommend to anyone else going on an exchange.

All of these opportunities and experiences drove home the point that life is what you make it; a year left me with precious little time to waste in Maastricht, which begs the question of why my time anywhere should be wasted at all.

Maxine Chan is now completing an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science at the University of Toronto, doing freelance writing and repairing bicycles in her free time, and nursing a case of wanderlust. Her travel blog can be found at http://maxine.mulch.ca

Article first published on Crossroads on 4 November: www.ejc.nl/crossroads

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