Expat Essentials

DIY Expat: What we’ve learned from our (nearly) disastrous start to school in Europe

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth DIY Expat post, a series documenting our move to the Netherlands to found Dispatches Media. This school installment is an American-to-European comparison. Expats coming to Europe from India, China and other countries have different requirements and obstacles.)

In the final analysis, global mobility is hardest on our children. They have no say in the matter of moving to another country and end up having to rebuild their lives in an environment that might not be all that welcoming.

Lale had to say goodbye to all her American friends. From left to right, Lale, Lilly, Colin, Jamie and Will.

Lale says goodbye to her American friends on her last morning in the States. From left to right, Lale, Lilly, Colin, Jamie and Will.

Let’s say it out loud: You’re moving them thousands of miles from everything they know and love. You can’t make a mistake. And even if you don’t, that doesn’t mean scary stuff won’t happen to you.

Only three months into our big adventure in the Netherlands – and after we’d sold our condo in the United States and many of our possessions – we teetered on the edge of disaster after a series of snafus and miscommunications between us and officials at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

It was a problem that could have forced us to send our elder daughter back to the States.

Here are our tips and observations that will make the process go more smoothly for you. Because as with everything in life, the devil is in the details.

GETTING SCHOOLED ON EUROPEAN EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS

Earlier this year, we moved to The Netherlands as DIY expats. That is, digital entrepreneurs moving without the assistance of a big corporation. We believe that with the ever-increasing acceleration of tech innovation, global mobility of talent will be the defining societal trend of the 21st century. So, we started Dispatches Media here in Eindhoven.

One of the most traumatic elements of our moving to the Netherlands was pulling our daughters Lucy, 19, and Lale, 16, out of their American schools, where they were happy and thriving. For corporate nomads, diplomats, foreign correspondents and military families, this is just part and parcel of moving from opportunity to opportunity.

From our perspective as do-it-yourself expat parents, there was nothing but upside. The girls would be going to better schools. They’d  grown up in Turkey, and started school  Germany. Now, they’d become even more international, surrounded by far more sophisticated kids than in their native Kentucky. Finally, they’d have fabulous travel opportunities.

They thought we were crazy. For them, saying goodbye to everyone and everything familiar and safe flat out sucked. And the truth is, their lives have been very, very tough since they left in July.

A big motivation for our changing continents was the fact that a college education in the U.S. is increasingly out of reach for most middle-class people unless you want your kids to graduate with tens of thousands in student debt. As we’ve posted before, if you’re thinking about sending your student to Europe for college, you need to know a LOT of crucial details are not on the university websites. You just have to just know this stuff, so we’re telling you. 

We’re going to help you anticipate the right questions to ask.

You are thinking about this at an interesting time because so many countries across Europe are reaching out to foreign students. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Netherlands, where about 60 percent percent of all classes are now in English.

EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

Let’s start with Lucy’s European college adventure: We considered German universities but chose Tilburg University, which is a very strong school.

Great thing is, universities in Europe do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting student visa approved. Tilburg’s immigration team filled all the documentation on Lucy’s behalf at no additional cost. (To apply for our separate residence visas cost us 1,296 euros each. )

The bad thing is there are all sorts of complications that can trip you up.

• Triple-check all the enrollment requirements of each university you’re researching.

Lucy studies frantically for the entrance exam she didn't think she'd ever have to take.

Lucy studies frantically for the entrance exam she didn’t think she’d ever have to take.

First question: Is the high-school diploma your student has equivalent to secondary school diploma in the country you’re researching? This is subjective and European college administrators get to interpret the rigor of your high school’s classes. If your student has attended university in the States, that can be another complication.

Lucy, a cellist, went to one of the most selective performing arts schools in the United States. She was working on her freshman year of college when we applied to Tilburg. What we didn’t find out until much later was that she was required to have 31 college credit hours at her American university in order to be unconditionally enrolled at Tilburg.

Imagine when we found out the THIRD DAY of CLASS she was only conditionally enrolled because she’d only had 24 credit hours her freshman year. Tilburg admissions personnel admitted it was their mistake and were super nice, saying they really wanted Lucy at the school. And they made some concessions because they knew they had made a colossal blunder, not discovering the discrepancy until after Lucy was not just accepted, but in class!

But they were absolutely unrelenting in demanding Lucy pass an entrance exam.

Remember, she was cleared to the live in the Netherlands only because she was a student at Tilburg. She flunks the exam, we don’t know if she gets to stay, or has to go home. Without her family.

No pressure, right?

This was not our fault. We’d sent all relevant documents three months earlier only to find out Tilburg administrators had lost them when they moved offices. They didn’t see the documents until AFTER Lucy had already started classes and we’d put the required $12,000 in the financial support account to get her through the year.

When Tilburg administrators found the documents, Lucy got an email saying, “Surprise … you’re not enrolled. You have to take a very difficult entrance exam. In 10 days. On material you’ve never seen before in your life – Greek and Roman antiquity and Christianity up to 1200 AD.”

We all died a little when we saw that. Lucy was nearly hyperventilating.

It was, in short, one hell of a bad day.

Well, until she flunked the test 10 days later, and yeah, that was an even worse day.

Ultimately, she was able retake the test, orally this time, which she passed. Barely, and only after hours and hours of studying with Cheryl.

And we wept. No, seriously. We wept.

Now, she’s been at Tilburg for two months and she really likes it even though it’s a much tougher school than her university in the States.

• Don’t delay

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International School of Eindhoven

Now, let’s look at high schools. Private English-language international schools in Europe are becoming over-crowded as countries such as the Netherlands and Germany compete aggressively with the United States for global talent.

For example, Eindhoven has an estimated 37,000 knowledge migrants such as engineers and physicists, with an official goal to double the number of internationals by 2020. Lale now attends International School Eindhoven. She had exactly one option, because Eindhoven has one international school. We really got lucky on many levels because Lale got one of the last seats before ISE closed enrollment.

It’s a fabulous new campus for the 51-year-old institution, with a new location only three years old. It’s a private school with affordable tuition. Had we landed in Berlin or Paris, we’d been looking at 20,000 euro-plus annual bill, about the same as a superior private school in the States. Instead, we’re paying 7,000 euros.

• Check it out

We can’t stress enough that you simply must check out schools ahead of arrival, even if it means spending the money on an exploratory trip.

We came to Eindhoven last year, and one of the main points of our reconnaissance trip was to check out ISE. We went to the campus. We talked with teachers and staff. We asked people we met in Eindhoven about ISE’s reputation. But the biggest benefit was when a very unhappy Lale arrived on the campus, looked around at this fabulous, modern facility and all the cool kids she’d be going to school with and said, “Oh, yeah. I want this. I’d start now if I could.”

Lale is still not thrilled to have been uprooted, but she had friends the first day, and (knock on wood) the transition is going well, if not permanently.

The truth is, if ISE would have been not to our liking, we probably would have moved on until we found a city with a school we liked. It’s that important.

• The upside

At English-language schools in Europe, International Baccalaureate Programs are the norm, and are very demanding of students … demanding and very rigorous. At the same time, Lale’s international school gives her much more freedom than her high school in the U.S.

Between now and graduation, Lale has to become even more studious and intellectually inventive. IB forces students to examine and innovate … it’s not rote memorization. It forces kids to set goals, to write, to analyze, to integrate into the community and to excel. If we tell you anything about education in Europe, it’s more competitive than most American schools until you get to the level of elite prep schools and the Ivys.

That said, you’re likely – like us – to be coming from a high school with an IB program. If we hadn’t moved, Lale was going to take IB classes (if not the full program) at her high school in Kentucky, one of two public schools in the state which offer it. IB curricula are the same around the world, but that’s where the similarities end.

Lale’s international school is really more like a university. Students are treated as independent young adults instead of school kids. At U.S. schools, security is an issue, and kids typically can’t leave the classroom without a hall pass.

At ISE, if Lale feels like going to get coffee between double class periods, she’s allowed to do that. ISE students are given free periods when they can go to the library to flex rooms or to the cafe, where they can work on group projects.

Two days of the week, Lale has a free period at the end of the day where she can stay and study, or she can go home.

For both our girls, what’s really changed is the shift away from solitary scholarship to group projects and essays, meant to teach them how to collaborate as they will in the business world.

WHERE WE ARE NOW

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Lale and Cheryl waiting for the train on the first day of school.

If you’re coming from the U.S., your kids are going to have a far more independent lifestyle in Europe. Lale takes a train Heeze into Eindhoven, where she gets her bike from the train station bike garage, then bikes another 4.5 kilometers to the campus.

Lucy takes the Buurtbus (“buurt” means neighborhood) to the Heeze train station and transfers at Eindhoven to the Tilburg train.

The girls tend to rendezvous in Eindhoven in the afternoons and grab coffee, meet friends or shop.

Totally different than in the U.S., where they didn’t have nearly the same freedoms. Why? In part because their parents also have a new sense of freedom, freed from the constant worry of gun violence and street crime.

Here’s the real deal: No matter how well you prepare, you’re never going to get everything squared away before the first day of school. And the truth is, the lowest point psychologically for kids is the lonely period of adjustment before they have friends and a life-support system. They miss their friends, their routines and their old neighborhoods.

But little by little, we can see our girls “embracing the suck,” as they say in the Army, and becoming more self-reliant, more serious and, really, much freer and independent than if they had stayed in the U.S. Now, they have new friend sets that include young people from Belgium, Ukraine, the Netherlands, India and China.

For Cheryl and me, it’s amazing to look back at all the challenges we’ve overcome in just a few months … and how much our girls have stretched beyond what they thought were their limits. Slowly, I think they’e seeing that in life, there really are no limits other than the ones we impose on ourselves.

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