Ashley - Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

B. Arts
Semester 2, 2015

Academic experience

I studied 5 courses in Amsterdam that were divided into 3 different periods. So for Period 1 I studied American Literature 1900-present (6 ECTS) and Sociology of Globalization and Multiculturalism (6 ECTS). Period 2, I studied American Film (6 ECTS) and Media Entertainment (6 ECTS). Finally for Period 3, I took Development from an Interdisciplinary Point of View (6 ECTS). 

Ironically, the manner in which VU divides their semester was both more relaxing and stressful in comparison with UQ. The reason why I say relaxing, is because I was only doing 2 subjects at a time. This allowed me to focus on those two subjects only per period and not once did I have two assignments clashing on the same date as I often times have at UQ. However, it was more stressful because I only had a short period of time (6 weeks for period one and two) and (4 weeks in period 3) to learn everything. There was always something that I needed to accomplish in order to stay on top of things. This was also made challenging seeing as I was on exchange and wanted to experience other things besides studying. 

However, I must say that once I learnt how to balance the workload and do other things, things became more bearable. I made a strict schedule to follow and that way I never had to indulge the feeling of "not trying my best just because I was on exchange and my grades do not count". Instead learnt to give my 100 percent in class but also have an amazing time on exchange!

Personal experience

What did I gain from my exchange? Of all the things I am proud of myself, I am most impressed with two factors. 

First, that I was able to make such good friends in such a short period of time. For some people, making friends is a breeze whereas for me it is a constant fear. The funny thing was, most of the good friends I made were not on exchange, but rather doing their masters or PhDs in VU Amsterdam. That to me was the most surprising thing about my exchange. I did not expect myself to become such good friends with students much older than me and doing a completely different course than I was doing. Engaging in conversations with people older than I was and that came from a completely different background, enriched my experience in so many ways. 

Secondly, the fact that even though I was terrified, I learnt to cycle on the streets of Amsterdam. Prior to Amsterdam, the last time I rode a bike was 10 years ago. But (mainly due to peer pressure and high public transportation cost) I decided to start cycling. The whole process of me getting a bike to learning to cycle to complaining about cyclists on the street, is one I will never forget. I truly encourage everyone to get a bike in Amsterdam. Even if you don't like cycling and think its not for you, Try it! Even a few times. It will add to your exchange! :)

Accommodation

I lived under the accommodation agency provided by the university. It is called DUWO. I stayed in an area called Bos en Lommer (Amsterdam West) and though I loved my area, I personally have a love-hate relationship with DUWO. I found them very difficult to communicate with but at the same time convenient for international students. 

I remember I had to call DUWO 4 times to fix my heater before someone actually came to look at my heater. It was very frustrating talking to them. Furthermore, for the people living in my building, we were the first people to move in and the building was still mostly under construction. Therefore there were so many issues relating to the building that DUWO was just so unhelpful with. For instance, hot water issues. The hot water would turn off randomly the first month I was living there. 

But I also absolutely loved the apartment I was staying in. My apartment was one of the best things to happen to me on exchange. I had a studio and living on my own, is an experience I will always cherish and is something that I must have again in my life. If one can afford it, I truly encourage it. You learn so much about yourself living on your own. It gives you so much more confidence as well knowing you only have yourself to rely on. 

I suppose despite all of DUWO's flaws I would still recommend international students to use them because finding accommodation in Amsterdam on your own is difficult and stressful (and if can be avoided, should be).

Budget

Amsterdam is an expensive city, but manageable. Because I lived in a studio apartment my rent was higher (but ironically I found it overall much cheaper than renting in Brisbane). I spent 569 euros per month just on rent. 

Public transport in Amsterdam though convenient is far too expensive for international students to be considered public. I spent 4 euros a day just on public transport coming to and from University to my home. (That is expensive). 

Entertainment wise, I would highly recommend getting a museum card. It will save you a lot of money. Furthermore, beer and wine are cheap in Europe so going to a bar to have a few drinks is definitely affordable. Another thing I found so enjoyable doing is eating free cheese in cheese shops. My friends and I made it a thing to go to a cheese shop at least once a week to "try cheese". Haha. Definitely recommend doing, its fun, delicious and "free". 

Personally, I found travelling around Europe and Netherlands expensive so I was not able to go to as many countries on holiday as I initially wanted to do. However, there is something I realised going on exchange; travelling around is just one way to spend your exchange. There are many other things you can do as well. Museums, flea markets, bars, restaurants, windmills, cheese eating, bookshop hunting and etc. So do not fret too much if you can't make time to travel as much as possible! There are other things to do and explore in Amsterdam itself. :) 

So how much would I recommend Budgeting? Budgets are such a personal thing because we each spend money differently. However for me personally I lived on 400 euros a month and that was more than enough for me. :)

Professional development and employability

Coming from Malaysia to living in Amsterdam for 6 months have really made me understand the dynamics between the East and the West. It has made me more aware of the power dynamics involved in that and has definitely piqued my interest further in exploring this path as a career. 

Furthermore, this has made me more acutely aware of my own privilege. I am a cisgender, able-bodied, middle class, educated woman from a developing country that has had the opportunity to live in Western Europe for 6 months. I truly believe understanding my own privilege further will help me dissect my own identity and help me understand my own self better. This is especially important since I am planning on entering a career path that dissects the different intersections of one's identity. 

Highlight

Ironically the highlight of my experience was one of my biggest criticisms of Dutch culture I have, Zwarte Piet or Black Pete tradition. I knew about it before I went for the Christmas parade in Amsterdam but it still absolutely angered me seeing a tradition so racist still being practised so openly. 

The reason why this was the highlight though was because it brought my friends and I much closer to one another. We got coffee and dissected the parade and intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and class, and that still remains one of the best times ever on my exchange and one of the best conversations ever.

Top tips

My main advice is this, there is no right way or one way to spend your exchange. Your experience may be different from another person's experience but that does not mean your experience is any less. So don't fret too much about what you're doing wrong because there is no "Wrong way" to be on exchange. :)