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Studying Abroad

Behind the Scenes with Gijs van Vlaardingen

Gijs van Vlaardingen is a 4th year student at Leiden University who works at the Humanities International Offi ce. He is currently doing a masters degree in literary studies.

Can you tell us something about your job at the International Office?
"I help incoming exchange students from other Universities, and I help exchange students from other countries who are already here. I help them sort out their courses, I help them become acquainted with Blackboard and such, I answer their emails and calls, I help them settle. Basically I help them with anything they need during their exchange in Leiden!"

Leiden University is of course part of the Erasmus Programme. What is your personal and/or work experience regarding your contact with other universities?
"I actually don’t have that much contact with other universities. We get to send three students to, for instance, Newcastle, and they get to send three students back here. That’s how it works. But my job is helping the students coming here. Basically, the idea is that the Erasmus programme is a way to make students feel more European in a way. And then, because you live in another country, you get to learn an other language and a different culture. You quickly find out, as you’re in this big Erasmus environment with people from all over Europe, which is basically a big exchange pool of awesomeness, that people are not that different from each other in the end."

Are there any recurring problems that you encounter often? Or problems that exchange students encounter often?
"I think that they often find it hard to adjust to our standards. What I learned when working at the international office, is that our Dutch directness and Dutch independent mentality is not that common in other countries. When I was in the UK, they told me I was very direct, and I got that, but now I really understand that people expect everything will be worked out fór them, whereas that is not the case here in the Netherlands. In other countries they are more focused on service, while we are more focused on doing it ourselves as it is a sign of being able to take care of yourself."

Do you think the Dutch are more assertive?
"Yeah, I think the mentality in southern European countries is very lenient, sometimes it can be difficult adjesting to a different university as we use different standards and protocols. We try our best to help them in any way possible, but some things they just have to do themselves, for instance enrolling in Blackboard. So that can be a bit tricky."

What are the most popular universities of choice? Is Leiden one of them?
"I’m not sure whether you can exchange programme based on agreement. The UK is of course very popular as students often wish to improve their English. But then again, Italy, Germany and Poland often send us exchange students because they study Dutch and wish to improve their Dutch. So your university of choice is really based on what the possibilities are and what you want to achieve. Some students just want to go away, and if they can’t go to the UK, but they can go to Belgium, they simply go and study in Belgium. Because you will live and study in an international atmosphere, you still meet loads of other international people regardless of your destination."

So what was your university of choice and how did you experience your time abroad?
"I went to Newcastle. I think I had Newcastle, Galway, and Edinburgh. I first looked at the courses I could take and the modules. I did not want to go to Edinburgh as they only focused on linguistics. Ireland didn’t really appeal to me either, touristy and I’d go there sometime anyway. Whereas in Newcastle, the modules really appealed to me. I could take anything I wanted from linguistics to literature. I even took Creative writing courses and Evolutionary linguistics. It was very important to me that I learned things that I could not learn here at Leiden University. For instance, Liverpool offered courses on Shakespeare, but you can do that in Leiden as well."

Do you have any tips or tricks for students who are planning to study abroad?
"Yes. Start early because it takestime to get all the forms right. Once admitted, expect even more paperwork once you’re there. But after all the paperwork, it’s just a great experience which I would recommend to everyone. What I did, is decide to live in Erasmus house with other Erasmus students. Fist I was worried I was not going to meet any British students. There’s always the threat of tunnel vision where you’re only focused on meeting British people. But looking back, living in the Erasmus house was the best decision I ever made.

I joined a sports society where I met lots of British people, but I also had a big international group of friends, and I still occasionally meet up with some of them. It’s just a wonderful experience and it really broadens your horizon. You go beyond your Dutch vision of life, and you also experience how easy it is just go somewhere and live your life. I’ve met some amazing people, I did stuff I wouldn’t have done here. So if you want to do something radical, just do it. Go there and build a new life, and you can always come back and pick up your life here. I think that’s one of the main reasons why you should study abroad. Oh, and it’s good for your English."

by Jolijn Bronneberg