American Chris Watson has started eating stroopwafels – a traditional Dutch cookie – for breakfast. Why? Because he loves them. Oh, and because he now lives in the Netherlands where he’s a master’s student at TU Delft.[media:factfile]
After doing his undergraduate degree in applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, Chris spent a few years working for a small company. It was there that he first heard about the Delft University of Technology.
“The group there was working in a similar research area as the group here so from day one TU Delft was a school that was thrown around. And there were a lot of papers, a lot of dissertations that made for good introductory reading to the field.”
Chris had always been planning to go back to school, but when his fiancé decided to study abroad, it was all the push he needed to check out TU Delft. And, now that he’s been here for a few months, he says he’s confident that he made the right decision.
“I really didn't know what to expect of the classes here. I knew that the quality of the research was very high but my first year here is all classes and I really didn't know what to expect from that. So I've been very - it wouldn't be fair to say 'surprised' - but I’m very happy with the quality of the lectures here. I’m learning a lot. They're covering a lot of material that I’ve never seen before that's been a very nice surprise.”
Similarities and differences
Chris didn’t expect a huge difference between the American and Dutch teaching style, but, he says, he’s been pleasantly surprised at the Dutch emphasis on conceptual learning.
“There's a lot less discrete homework that you turn in every single week and a lot more emphasis on exams and presentations and really getting a feel for the subject matter. That can be really nice because, whereas when you stay up all night working on a homework assignment you do get some satisfaction when you staple the papers together and throw them in a box, it's not quite the same as when you stay up all night for a presentation and after you give that presentation you really think wow, I really understand something that I didn't before I did this assignment. That's a really powerful feeling that I feel is emphasized here in a way that's very beneficial.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to being a student than studying. But Chris says his first few months at TU Delft have also been good from a social perspective.
“The people here are really friendly. It took some time for the international community to really mingle with the Dutch students but that's in full swing now so we're integrating a lot and making a lot of friends.”
Chris, like many international students, admits that it hasn’t been so easy to make friends with Dutch students. But, he says, he doesn’t necessarily blame the students themselves.
“When you bring these [international] students in before the school year starts and give them this kind of intensive introduction program, they tend to form their own cliques and groups. So perhaps it's not that there's a barrier to becoming friends with these Dutch students as much that the Dutch students already have Dutch friends and the international students already have international friends.”
While many international students – especially those from Asia – are surprised at how casual the environment is at Dutch universities, Chris admits that the Dutch students seem to take school a little more seriously than he’s used to.
“I'm used to sort of breaking the stress by making fun of it. So, for example, we have this coffee break in the middle of a two-hour lecture and if you crack a joke it kind of catches people by surprise because they're still focusing. There are a lot of students who are looking over their notes from the first half of the lecture and trying to figure out bits that they perhaps missed or didn't get fully. And not taking that time seriously is something that seems to surprise people.”
But is this actually a comment on the Dutch sense of humor, rather than on Dutch students? Chris says he doesn’t think so.
“Certainly I don't mean to claim that they don't know how to have fun or that they don't have jokes because neither of those things would be true, but I do think that on some level it's a question of whether or not there's a proper time and place.”
In fact, says Chris, the Dutch people have been very friendly. And very patient with the fact that he doesn’t speak Dutch which, as he says, is “sort of something that is less embarrassing than it probably should be”.
Of course, the Dutch are known for their good English... as well as their stinginess, punctuality, and overly honest honesty. But Chris, who laughingly admits that you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody that's stingier than he is, says he’s only really experienced one of those typical Dutch stereotypes.
“Certainly the punctuality is something that I appreciate and I definitely noticed. In particular in stark contrast to a lot of the international students who are not used to the professors counting down the seconds until it's time to start the lecture! You always have a few students who come in a few minutes late. So that's always amusing!”
Speaking of stereotypes, Chris does admit that he misses the 329 days of sunshine a year in LA. But, he says, the Dutch weather really isn’t all that bad.
“I tend to get sick when the weather changes really rapidly so obviously that happens quite a lot here. But originally I was from Texas and in the central parts of Texas we have this rapid change of weather as well, so it's actually not as crazy as you might think.”
As far as Dutch cuisine goes, Chris says simply: “I tried the herring once. And I very strongly prefer the stroopwafel! That’s definitely going to make it difficult to leave the Netherlands when the time comes.”
One thing that Chris noticed right away in the Netherlands was the small scale. As he points out, if you include the metro area, his former hometown of Los Angeles is about the same size as the entire country of the Netherlands. But he doesn’t miss the big city.
“It's nice because it feels not just smaller but more connected. You have more of a sense of community. But at the same time you have different places you can go because of the high quality of public transportation and so forth. You’ve got all the benefits of living in a smaller place along with a lot of the benefits of having the diversity that you get with a larger area.”
Dollars and euros
According to Chris, TU Delft offers good scholarship options, so the academic costs haven't been a problem. And, he says, the cost of living is both lower than it was in LA and lower than he’d thought it would be. “I expected it to be more expensive here – and in a lot of parts of Europe it is –so I've been pleasantly surprised with how cheaply one can get by here. Inconsistent with what I'd been told before moving here.”
Chris said the visa process also went much better than expected (and better than his finacé’s visa in France!). “The university took care of everything - it was very nice. I didn't really have to get a student visa or anything – I basically showed up and was given a residence permit after a few weeks.”
Thousands of cycling students
There was however, one thing that’s taken a little getting used to: the Dutch bicycle culture.
“I'm not exactly a professional bicyclist and it's something that one’s expected to be at least proficient with here. I'm somebody who didn't have a bicycle growing up. I learned how to ride in my third year as an undergraduate, about three years ago. So I am, shall we say, less than competent on a bicycle. And when you take that along with maybe 1000 other bicycles and strong winds it sort of a recipe for disaster!”
But, says Chris, there’s an easy solution: “I've figured out that if I don't go very far I don't need to ride the bicycle. I do ride it on occasion. But not daily. And never in the dark.” Safety first!
Read more about TU Delft facts and figures.