I randomly met Dan at a school careers event down in Dorset. As soon as I had learnt that Dan was from the UK and had studied in The Netherlands I just knew I had to ask him to write a blog for me to share! Upon his arrival in Groningen, back in August 2012, three things immediately struck Dan: the bustling atmosphere, the friendliness of the Dutch, and a child on a moped.
Moped aside, I was bursting with novel delight at the thought of studying abroad, in a country that spoke a language alien to me. But, as I have come to learn, there is no single language in Groningen: it is the meeting place of transnational tongues.
Unfortunately, this did not help me when I first arrived, and as a unilingual guest of Groningen, my initial concern was language. That the University of Groningen’s American Studies program is taught in English was vital to my problem-free experience with language during my studies. In fact, the University offers an increasing amount of English-taught bachelor courses every year to attract more international students; nonetheless, the experience beyond the University is entirely different.
At the medievally appointed station, the yellow double-decker carriage hissed behind me, and all I could hear was gibberish: it was as if I had entered the virtual world of Sims. After finally mustering enough courage to approach someone, I asked in English (with a Dutch accent, of course) directions to Winschoterdiep, which is a popular international student house near the city centre, and was to be my home, as well as the home of over three-hundred other Internationals, for the next year. ‘Vin-shouwter-deep.’
I quickly realised that English in a Dutch accent is not the same as Dutch in a Dutch accent; nevertheless, that was no problem, for this cheery Dutch person spoke perfect English. Ever since, my fumbling attempts to call-up Groningen’s unique beer-delivery service (Bierkoeriers), or to ask what the horse-statue outside the city station is, have been met with smiles and welcoming responses in English for the past three years, without the slightest hint of irritancy.
Language aside, the choice to study in Groningen was not easily made, but it was a decision that has changed my life and moulded me into an ambitious, active, and adaptable student. I wanted to experience something very different to what many of my peers in Britain would experience. I have developed into a more independent student and grown very mature at a young age through my time in Groningen.
Academic and personal supports for international students at the University of Groningen have only developed and improved since I first arrived in 2012. From the International Student Office to monthly faculty borrells (a term you will become familiar with and happy to hear following a hard day’s work) to the endlessly friendly and approachable staff members, your exciting new educational journey will be made more manageable and enjoyable throughout your time as a student.
However, you are still expected to be independent and innovative. By paying considerably less tuition fees than the average university student in the United Kingdom, you will sometimes feel the pressures to give more of yourself in your studies, and you will soon realise why the University of Groningen remains one of the top universities in the world: do not let the relatively low grade admission requirements fool you. You do not pay for your degree; you are expected to earn it. In the long-term, however, this is hugely beneficial, and something that employers will greatly appreciate.
The opportunity to bring what I have learnt in Groningen back to the United Kingdom is rewarding and unique. Likewise, professors in the United States welcomed my international input in class whilst I was on exchange at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and believed that my experiences in Groningen were of tremendous value to their classrooms. The international perspective that the University of Groningen offers is truly special and is increasingly sought-after by academic institutions across the globe. To decide to study at the University of Groningen is to decide to become a more culturally-understanding, critically-thinking, independent and exciting person both inside and outside of the classroom.
Indeed, one of Groningen’s most appealing qualities is in its ‘internationalisation.’ Wherever you go, you cannot help but catch glimpses of a capacious collection of cultures. I have just about forgotten the word for ‘spooning’ in over fifteen different languages, from Italian to Hungarian. But if there’s one thing that does stand out of a late evening, it is the hoards of Spanish students screaming ‘jajaja’ on Poelestraat (commonly known as Groningen’s ‘Party Street’) of an evening: like seagulls singing in Sydney. Where Groningen is the meeting place of transnational tongues, Poelestraat is the meeting place of inebriated internationals.
Like many others, I successfully integrated into Dutch life thanks to the kindness of the Groningers. I was a part of a wonderful band named Harmonie’67, wrote for the University, faculty, study association and Honours magazines, and was happily absorbed into the rich artistic culture of the city, from art exhibitions to experimental theatre productions during the Jonge Harten festival, and live jazz sets almost every night of the week at the Jazz Cafés.
Living in Groningen as an international student can be hard at times, but it is always fascinating and, above all, fun. Perhaps the biggest culture shock to British students is the Dutch dependency on bikes. Whether it is to university, or to the city centre for a night out, biking in the World Cycling City is immensely difficult: the name alone puts pressure on international students to bike well. Road markings make no sense, roundabouts are death warrants that are signed when one wobbles onto them, and bike bells frequently order you to get out of the way. One of the most gratifying phone calls home is to tell of a week without a crash. Who knew travelling to class could be so stressful? Indeed, even during my final semester, I would arrive at nine o’clock seminars red-faced, covered in sweat with handlebars through my head. But nothing quite compares to biking back home at five in the morning after a liquid dinner out in the city. ‘Difficulty level: Dutch’, as many international students would say.
Between the slow-paced bike rides and the ludicrously laid-back lifestyle, however, international students need to find houses, adapt to the culture, sign-up to courses, register with a bank and the city hall, buy phones, study, not study, and everything in between. The first few months of any international student’s stay in Groningen are thrilling: it is a chaotic start. Even for full-time international students, whilst they make many friends in the first semester, they, too, say farewell to many friends, as exchange students return to their home countries to be replaced by new ones after a quick four months. But in the short time that you know these people, you make life-long friends, and create connections across the world thanks to the enormous support from both the University and international organisations such as the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). You are encouraged to immerse yourself in the plethora of cultures and traditions of Groningen.
This is a city I look forward to returning to in the future and a place that will be difficult to leave. My time in Groningen will no doubt remain one of the most profoundly enriching experiences in my life, and it is a chapter I urge others to write into their lives.