Teresa - Utrecht University

B Science
Semester 2, 2018

Academic experience

I went to University College Utrecht, which is technically part of Universiteit Utrecht but really operates almost as a completely different university, so what I’m about to say will only apply to UCU and not UU. I studied four courses at UCU, two related to the science faculty and two electives. The courses I took were 
-    Pharmacology
-    Mechanisms of Diseases 
-    Modern History 
-    Discovering the Dutch 
The academic system at UCU is very different to UQ, and I found it much more similar to a high school system than a university in that the class sizes were small (maximum 28 students per class), and instead of having lectures, tutorials, seminars etc. all classes were more like tutorials or high school classes. This system meant you were able to know your teachers much better, and received more support academically. However, attendance for all classes was compulsory and there was a heavier reliance on textbooks than most UQ classes. There are much fewer science courses at UCU than UQ, and I found them to be a little easier than most UQ classes since they were broader and didn’t require as much pre-knowledge. 
Since the class sizes are so small, getting into some courses can be quite competitive and they prioritise UCU students over exchange students, so you don’t always get into the classes you would like. I initially wanted to get into a class called Advanced Physiology (BIOM2012 equivalent), but was unable to as the class was full. Just make sure that you aren’t 100% relying on taking a certain class during your exchange to graduate, and since you only find out your classes during Introweek (which is super busy) make sure you have a backup plan before you go. In saying that, every student is assigned a tutor (who basically works like an academic advisor) and will support you with choosing your classes and will handle most of the enrolment process for you.

Personal experience

I had so many amazing experiences on exchange, but I’ll try to keep this brief. UCU is a very international campus, with 40% of students coming from outside the Netherlands. This meant that in addition to meeting a ton of wonderful Dutch people, I also made friends from just about every continent in the world, and learnt a lot about not only Dutch culture but many others as well. UCU is also a fantastic place for exchange, since almost all of the 800 students live on campus. This means you are studying, partying and living with all other UCU students and it’s very easy to make friends. Introweek was also fantastic for meeting people – they organise heaps of events and activities so by the end of the week you meet almost the entire cohort and have already cemented plenty of new friendships. The entire campus is English speaking, which is great because even the Dutch people speak English out of default, and you’re never excluded or made to feel like an outsider for not speaking the native language. This, combined with the fact that nearly all other Dutch people also speak fluent English, means that you never have to speak Dutch to get around in the Netherlands. I hardly learnt any Dutch at all (despite my intentions to). In saying that, the Dutch will really appreciate a non-Dutch person going to the effort of speaking their language, so it’s good to learn a few basic phrases to be polite.  
Utrecht is gorgeous, and is now one of my favourite cities. It’s small enough that nowhere you’d really need to go is more than a 10 or 15 minute bike ride away, but big enough that it would have everything you’d really need. Being on mainland Europe means it’s usually pretty easy and cheap to travel from. During the semester, I went on weekend trips to Belgium, Munich, Paris, Berlin and Prague. I went to Spain during the midsemester break and to Vienna, Krakow, Budapest, Ljubljana, Venice, Rome and Ireland afterwards. While UCU doesn’t have any organised exchange student groups or activities planned, the huge proportion of international students and the fact that you get to know so many people so quickly meant I never had trouble finding someone to travel with. The rest of the Netherlands is beautiful and very underrated, and I wish I’d taken the time to go on more day trips around the Netherlands.

Accommodation

UCU really makes finding accommodation a breeze, since you have to stay on campus and are automatically assigned a unit on arrival. I suppose this would be annoying if you’d like to shop around for more budget accommodation, but I personally loved this system because it was so easy and social. I’ve heard that accommodation in Utrecht is difficult to find and expensive anyway. The units on campus have anywhere between 6 and 10 people in them, who are all ages, nationalities, genders and can be exchange or full time, so you can meet all sorts of people in your unit. You can choose to share a room or have your own room, and the kitchen, living space and bathrooms are communal. This system also means the whole campus has a very social atmosphere, and your friends are never more than a 2 minute walk away. There is a dining hall on campus, but the food there is quite expensive and there is limited variety, so I think most people usually choose to cook.

Costs

I spent around $15000  (for the semester and a couple weeks travel afterwards) but I would recommend having a little extra you don’t get stuck. Unexpected costs will always come up and it’s better to be prepared. Accommodation cost around 3200 euro for the semester, which is unavoidable if you go to UCU. Groceries were pretty similar in price to Brisbane. Most of the UCU social life was centred around the uni bar, which was much cheaper than a normal bar so I didn’t really spend much on that. Transport is pretty easy if you have a bike, and getting a bike is an absolute must in the Netherlands. I found public transport to be quite expensive, particularly going inter-city. In terms of travel I found as long as you plan ahead and shop around for good deals on accommodation and transport, you can see a lot without spending too much.  All in all you shouldn’t need more than $20000 unless you’re planning on spending a long time time travelling before or after semester, but I would recommend at least $15,000 to be safe.

Challenge

I don’t know that there was one big challenge that I could pinpoint, but there were a lot of smaller ones. I found an unexpected challenge to be grocery shopping in a country where you can’t read the language, especially since a lot of the names of food doesn’t translate directly, and often grocery stores won’t stock some things that are considered standard in Australia. So I would recommend brushing up on Dutch food translations before you go, and preferably having a Dutch friend who can help you out. As I mentioned above, another big challenge for me was having to completely reorganise my study plan after not being accepted into one of my classes. I had really counted on doing this class as a prerequisite for third year courses, so I had to scramble to find another course UCU offered that could be approved as a second year UQ course, redo my study plan and get it approved by UQ all in Introweek (which is extremely busy at UCU).

Professional Development

Exchange gave me the confidence to trust my own judgement and solve problems on my own, and the ability to connect with people from all different cultures. When you’re on exchange, you’re pretty much thrown in the deep end, and you have to be able to take initiative and solve any problems that come your way. It also means you spend most of your time with people from vastly different backgrounds to you, and I feel that I not only have a greater appreciation for cultures other than my own, but am more comfortable connecting with people of other cultures, nationalities, and languages.

Highlight

There are so many highlights from exchange. For me, a big one was the people I met. I made friends with people from all over the world, and I have a lot of special memories with them, both in Utrecht and travelling with them on weekends to other cities. Experiencing different celebrations of different cultures was also really special, from Oktoberfest in Munich, to Thanksgiving with my American and Canadian friends, celebrating Sinterklaas (Dutch version of Christmas in early December), and all the beautiful Christmas markets that are all over Europe.

Top tips

-    Exchange is daunting but an amazing experience. I would absolutely recommend it. If you have the budget for it, go for a year! One semester sounds like a lot but I know I sure wasn’t ready to go home at the end. 
-    Get involved in campus life! UCU has so much going on, and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. 
-    If possible, don’t get a bike from the UCU bike market in Introweek. It’s convenient, but very overpriced and the bikes are pretty bad quality, and I wasn’t able to sell mine at the end of the semester like I planned. As I said above, I would recommend hiring a Swapfiets, they’re reasonably priced and you can get them delivered to campus. I think if you get it off a sales Facebook page you can also get a pretty good deal, or the Marketplaats website is always good for that stuff (it’s like a Dutch version of gumtree or ebay). 
-    Travel as much as you can around Europe, but don’t forget to explore Utrecht or the Netherlands. There are a lot of really cool places there. 
-    Websites like GoEuro are good for finding great travel deals. 
-    When you’re packing, don’t forget to pack for places that you might travel to as well. The Netherlands isn’t that cold compared to other parts of Europe, so I didn’t pack overly warm, but then I travelled to places like Poland or Hungary that were much, much colder and froze.   
-    Try to have a little extra in your budget so you don’t have to miss out on anything because of money.