21 February 2020

Studying abroad: an immersive experience

With more than 50 partner universities worldwide, University College Utrecht offers students a wide range of exchange opportunities. Doris Vlaar and Sam van der Lugt chose for Hong Kong and India.

doris vlaar sam van der lugt

Now both in their third year, Doris is majoring in Media Studies and Philosophy, while Sam explores the combination of Anthropology and Philosophy. Next to a general interest to learn more about Asian societies and culture, their majors were a decisive factor in the choice of the exchange destination.

“South Korea would have been my first choice, but the courses I needed were not there. I had spent my gap year in China and wanted to return to the region. Hongkong seemed a good choice”,  tells Doris without remorse, as she later got another opportunity through the Utrecht Summer School to study the Korean language at Ewha Women's University in Seoul. “That was such a wonderful experience that I repeated it in Japan with a two-month stay at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, which was made possible by the International Office at University College Utrecht.”

Sam looked for a destination where the language barrier would be doable, and chose for O.P.Jindal Global University’s School of Liberal Arts and Humanities. “A fellow student and I were the first ones from University College Utrecht to go there. Out of 4,000 students in total, only 6 were international. I very clearly stack out as a foreigner. It also appeared that only students spoke English, whereas most guards and support staff spoke their local languages with each other.”

Next to the language barrier, international students had their own housing, separately from the local students. It also turned out that the dormitories were separate for male and female students, as the custom is in many parts of the world. Sam: “What contributed even more for my initial feeling of isolation, was that my Australian roommate arrived only six weeks later. All in all, I very clearly stack out as a foreigner.”

Situated in a widely English-spoken metropolis, the University of Hong Kong offered Doris a full-bodied international experience. Her best memories are of socializing with the local students. “We would have our working sessions at a local café, which was extremely nice. But I had a very different experience in Japan. I thought the university would be in Tokyo itself, but the campus turned out to be far outside the city instead. Also the rules were strict; in our female-only dormitory, we had a curfew at 10 PM.”

sam van der lugt
Sam celebrating the Holi festival in India

Learning to adjust

Gradually both Sam and Doris adapted to the local environment. “In the beginning I would check Facebook daily to see what was happening in Utrecht”, says Sam with a grin. “But then I decided that it was not the way to do it and immersed myself in Indian society. To get around the language barrier, I chatted with the campus guards through Google Translate. I knew I had to miss a wealth of stories, but it was better than nothing. It worked.”

True to his interest in anthropology, Sam says his greatest reward was the immersion as such. “I surely learned a lot about the culture, but first of all I learned about myself. The local culture grew into me, and I grew into it. I learned not to worry so much about all kinds of things…returning to the rigidly organised Netherlands felt very weird. The exchange changed my attitude to life.”

“I think learning the languages was my most valuable experience” says Doris. “They are a tangible skill I can use, and they help me still feel connected to those countries. Taking language classes in the Netherlands is okay, but it does not amount to learning in depth. For that you need the immersion in the country itself.”

Also academically, Doris found the exchange enrichening. “In Hongkong, I could take Chinese philosophy classes, where we studied classical philosophers in the original language.”

“As I am interested in the junction of philosophy and anthropology, India was a perfect choice” adds Sam. “In India there is little distinction between belief and daily life, or world view and practice.”

doris vlaar
Doris socializing with her fellow students in Japan

Choosing a destination

What, then would they recommend other students to look at when choosing an exchange destination?

“Check where the university really is located”, says Doris. “Don’t trust on how it advertises itself. In my case, Tokyo was not really Tokyo.”

“And my university certainly was not in Delhi”, seconds Sam. “However, I certainly got out of the exchange what I wanted: plenty of experience. No doubt I made many mistakes, but I learned a lot from that as a person. My anthropology background was helpful as well. When strange things were happening, I went on my anthropology mode and took it as a study.”

Doris: “From the academic perspective, it’s useful to check beforehand which courses are offered at the university you plan to go to, and if they contribute to your major or language requirements. In Hong Kong, the philosophy track offered hundreds of classes, choice was abundant.”