(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a multi-part series documenting what it’s like to be an expat student in the Netherlands, specifically at Maastricht University. Foreign students make up about 50 percent of enrollment, and Lale Boyd attends classes with expats from Germany, the United States and other countries.)
Coming to the Netherlands to study was not a decision I made for myself. I moved here when my parents decided they’d had enough of Kentucky. I’m pretty grateful they chose this little corner of the world.
But when I was fresh out of my hometown and finishing up high school in Eindhoven, I was so homesick that I tried applying to universities in the United States. (The University of Nebraska, to be specific… I think that proves my desperation).
It was only after I got over my random fit of teen angst that I began to appreciate my situation. Attending university here has certainly helped in that regard, and I can now say with confidence the education I’m receiving is much higher quality than the American education I was destined for back home. (Sorry, Nebraska.)
MY BACK PAGES
So, for a bit of backstory, I grew up in military communities in Turkey, then Germany, until I was six, when we moved to Louisville, Kentucky.
I moved from Kentucky to Eindhoven, Netherlands in 2016, right after finishing my sophomore year at a Louisville public school (go Atherton Rebels!!)
In Eindhoven, I started the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme at International School Eindhoven (ISE). After two long, rigorous years, I received my diploma and graduated successfully. My experience with the IB programme was tough (that’s the only non-vulgar word for it), but it was incredibly effective at preparing me for university. It was also a free ticket into all of the Dutch universities I applied for.
With diploma in hand, I applied to universities in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Middelburg, and Maastricht. All of these cities are wonderful, but I ended up at the good ol’ Maastricht University (UM) in the arts-and-culture program! I finished my first year recently and I’m on to the second, and by now I’ve got a solid idea of what student life is like in the Netherlands.
Maastricht University is odd compared to other Dutch schools, but its oddities lend it lots of charm. It employs a special method of teaching called Problem-Based Learning, or PBL. It’s smaller than a lot of other schools, and it’s spread out over a funky little ancient city. Love that.
PBL is what really sets it apart, though.
With PBL, you meet with your small tutor group – from 7 to 12 students – for each course once or twice a week. In the first tutor group of the week, you’ll read about the assignment you’re about to study, develop a research question or “problem statement” and sub-questions as a group, and then … well, then you leave.
You have three days to use the questions and a list of texts to guide your studying, and ideally, you’ll have an answer to your “problem statement” before your next meeting. In the next tutor group, everyone shares their findings and comes to a more collective answer for the questions, basically solving the “problem statement.” We also have a few lectures every week, but these are more like supplements to your individual studies.
Not gonna lie: It’s pretty weird, but it works.
You may think the emphasis on independent learning is what makes UM rare, but it’s actually the one quality it shares with most other schools in the Netherlands. If you’re going to study here, you’re expected to have a lot of self-discipline and good time management because you’ll be self-directing most of your work.
This is especially true in large schools such as the Delft University of Technology where lecture halls can be packed with 400-plus students at a time; this organization simply can’t allow hands-on teaching with all those students. Unless you’re in a group for a project or you choose to meet with others to study material, you’re on your own.
HOW IT ALL WORKS
This is where UM actually differs from typical schools. You may spend most of your week doing your independent research, but those four hours you spend in tutorials are crucial to understanding the content. In tutorials, you are placed in an environment where you are required to put your heads together as a group and decide how you’ll structure the assignment.
And when you’ve finished the research, you come together again to share your ideas and new findings, or you ask questions and get answers from different perspectives.
These discussions are all under supervision of a tutor, who is only there to ensure the quality of the discussion and answer questions when everyone’s stuck. So, not only do you have a group of students to give and receive support, but you have an actual professor present to give direction or immediate answers.
This teaching method works for a lot of people, myself included. However, for those who despise working in groups, especially small groups, or hate speaking up in discussions, doing PBL would be a bummer, to say the least.
A lot of students thrive in the huge lecture halls and hands-off teaching style of large Dutch schools since they can take full control of their studies without the influence of other minds or opinions.
That’s fine and dandy, but for ones who need more face-to-face interaction with professors and students, or ones who live for a good discussion or debate, PBL would be a match made in university heaven. I think. I’m only a second-year student, so my word isn’t law. Visit UM just to be safe.
TUTORS AND PROFESSORS
Overall, my tutors have been good. They were usually engaging but never got to be great because they’re essentially there for quality checks in discussions. If we get stuck, they lead us to where we’re supposed to be.
I had a lot of luck with my tutors, because several of the people I know at school had sub-par tutors who didn’t give them any feedback.
All my lecturers have been published in academic journals. I had one standout lecturer, Harry Osterhuis, who is the leading expert on Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a key figure in constructing the concepts of modern sexuality. Oosterhuis literally wrote the book on Krafft-Ebing.
I had other lecturers not as impressive, but none who were painfully bad.
My elder sister Lucy went to the University of Tilburg where she received no feedback from professors, who would never, ever return her emails. Which is typical at Dutch universities, especially big ones. I’m not saying you can never get help. It’s just my experience that students in some Dutch programs have to spend far more time reaching people than you would at an American uni.
My experience at Maastricht is the opposite. My tutors were very responsive – I could catch them at school and they always responded to my emails.
• All my classes at UM are in English, and many programs at Dutch universities are in English as they heavily recruit international students.
• Undergraduate programs at Maastricht University and other Dutch unis run three years rather than four in the United States. Tuition for no-European Union students is less than 10,000 euros per year compared to at least $20,000 at the most modest American college.
But Dutch universities do not offer housing, which can be very difficult to find.
• Lale’s academic calendar is divided into five periods of eight weeks each. She takes two classes per period.
About the author:
Lale Boyd was born when her family lived in Turkey. She grew up in the U.S. military community in Baumholder, Germany attending Department of Defense Dependent Schools. She’s traveled to at least 13 countries in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
Her family returned to Kentucky in 2007 when she was seven, which was the first time she’d live in the United States. Lale has lived in the Netherlands since 2016.
Coming in up the series:
Details about student life, student visa requirements and the best places to hang out.