“Dutchies” and The World: Studying Abroad in Your Own Country

I come from a relatively small city in The Netherlands. When I was about 18, I had never looked beyond its borders, let alone the borders of “Dutchland”.

Posted by Vincent Brussee - WilWeg Ambassador - Leiden University at Jan 02, 2019 03:20 PM

My high school was a very homogenous one. We rarely had any interaction with people from different backgrounds and my fundamental worldview was never challenged. I had my eyes set on a bachelor in economics for years by that point and was excited to start this new chapter of my life. However, after I finally started, I felt something was missing. It was only after a couple of years that I realised I had been missing the international perspectives that the world has to offer all along.

Now, fast forward to the present, four years after I graduated from high school, interacting with people from different backgrounds has become a daily routine. I just graduated from my BA in International Studies and am currently pursuing a Research Master in Asian Studies (both at Leiden University). In both degrees, the ratio of international students to “Dutchies” is about 50/50, with students hailing from about every region of the earth (although Europe is particularly well-represented). At times, it felt as if I was studying abroad, in my own country. Sometimes this felt like a warm bath, sometimes it felt like a shock. This was something I never really consciously expected: I was constantly negotiating different viewpoints, expectations and opinions and at the same time made many wonderful friendships with people from all over the world.

I think there are two kinds of students in The Netherlands: those that are afraid to see those views challenged, and those that thrive when they open up their world. The Netherlands is an amazing country to live in, but that also means not everyone sees the need to look beyond its borders. Regrettably, Dutch student fraternities remain rather introspective, inward-looking: they are not particularly open to foreigners. However, there are also many Dutch students who are incredibly open-minded, willing to listen to other perspectives and desiring to expand their horizons. Actually, the same goes for the international students I’ve met: some end up in the “international bubble”, but just as many end up making many Dutch friends.

I remember one time some classmates and I went out to a Dutch event on China and one American student joined. He had been learning Dutch for some time and just wanted to join us and get some practice. Obviously, his Dutch was insufficient to fully make sense of what was going on, so during the event he was constantly translating words on his phone, sometimes quietly asking me how to spell or translate certain words. To my amazement, he was able to understand most of the things discussed. After the event ended and we hopped on the train back, we had a fascinating talk on how he saw some of the issues discussed. His background was indeed very different from mine and our discussions helped me learn a lot.

As I speak some Chinese, I have fondest memories of interacting with Chinese students. Not only because we could make jokes without anyone else being able to understand them (just be careful for that one professor that also speaks Chinese!), but particularly because exchanging different – sometimes radically different – viewpoints with them made me put everything in a different perspective. One friend called my hometown Leiden a town from a fairy tale and was fascinated by how “relaxed” life here was. We Dutchies like to complain a lot, but that made me realise how good we have it here. At the same time, some things that I considered absolutely normal suddenly became super odd: from our love for super dull sandwich lunches to how direct Dutch people are, from our love for the colour orange all the way to the ubiquity of bikes, and from our weird snacks (black liquorish) to how tall we are. Inversely, it also taught me that no matter how far apart our worldviews are, we remain essentially the same: humans.

Blog - Vincent

I graduated from my bachelor in 2018 with one final project: a consultancy contest for Transparency International Netherlands. In this contest, I worked together with a group of Dutch and international students for four months, an incredible challenge. Managing fifteen different worldviews was an incredible challenge, but also allowed us to combine these incredibly diverse worldviews into a report packed with novel, refreshing and unique ideas. This cooperation was an extraordinary experience, and after we won the contest, all of us – of course – went out together for a Dutch “borrel” (drinks and some light snacks) together to celebrate! The photo below is of the moment we were awarded our “winning team” certificates. I am the one wearing the light-blue tie!

Over the past four years, I grew from looking inward to embracing diversity and the world. To end on a horrible cliché: the world will never look the same again.

Posted by Vincent Brussee - WilWeg Ambassador - Leiden University at Jan 02, 2019 03:20 PM