Living the academic life in the Netherlands

Living the academic life in the Netherlands

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BlondebutBright (AKA Janelle Ward) shares what's it's like being a part of Dutch academia.

Life in the Netherlands has not only cemented my identity as an expat. Since 2001, I have been a part of the Dutch academic system. My journey has taken me from a bright-eyed, enthusiastic master's student, to a determined and sometimes desperate PhD student, and finally into the grown-up world of employment as an assistant professor.

I am often asked how I have managed to stay here - rooted in a very Dutch sector - with such a pathetic understanding of the language. I try to gloss over my own laziness when it comes to language courses. But I can honestly answer that it's mainly because English is my native language. Universities in the Netherlands are touting a new buzz word: Internationalisering. Whether one agrees with this or not, the race is on to internationalize. The process is resulting in more hiring of international staff, more recruiting of students from abroad, and more programmes and courses in English. This means that one can manoeuvre through the entire university system - from a bachelor's degree to a PhD - entirely in English. And if a PhD graduate wants to continue on as academic staff, there are more and more Dutch and international students to English.

Another part of this experience is exposure to a very diverse group of students. From the University of Amsterdam to Erasmus University Rotterdam, I've taught small and large groups of international students, mainly who have incredibly interesting backgrounds, speak multiple languages and have lived in several different countries. I've also taught Dutch students who have never left the Netherlands and US students who had never left California until their four-month study abroad trip. With such variety come new challenges. Imagine teaching a group where some are incredibly deferential to authority (they call me "Professor Ward") mixed with those who view our relationship as more of a professional negotiation between fee-paying student and salary-receiving faculty. Believe me, there are some days where I'm relieved that Rate my Professors hasn't made it to the Netherlands.

Overall, being a part of Dutch academia has been a very interesting way to experience expat life. At home I can retreat to an expat group of friends, but at work, the debates that grip the country - immigration, budget cuts, social benefits - all play out.

Am I in it for the long haul? Perhaps. But so much time has gone by that I can already reflect on the growing number of students attending class with their laptops. It will be interesting to see how things evolve in the coming years, and whether the Dutch university will continue its drive towards the ultimate international experience.


Janelle Ward is a born and raised Minnesotan living in Leiden, the Netherlands. Nine years ago she came to Europe for a brief international experience. Along the way, having acquired a Spanish husband, a PhD and a little one, she has found that observing life outside her comfort zone is a true passion. Visit her blog post BlondebutBright.

Photo credit: Janelle Ward



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