In the last few days of 2017, I embarked on what would be the experience of a lifetime. After saying goodbye with mixed emotions and spending over 24 hours travelling, I finally arrived in the city that would become my home for the next 6 months – Rotterdam. The first thing you notice when you step off a plane on the other side of the world is that the weather is the complete opposite. No matter how prepared I thought I was, coming from 35C summer days in Brisbane to a Dutch winter which hovers just above the 0C mark was a shock. Fortunately, this weather did not last the entire six months, and seeing the temperature gradually warm into a Dutch summer was something special.
After settling into my accommodation and making my first few friends there, I already had a foot in the door. Many amazing experiences followed over the next six months, but I’ll save you the trouble and just tell you about the things you need to know if you’re thinking that Rotterdam might be the exchange destination for you.
There are not many things that the Dutch don’t do better than Australia and the rest of the world. Between public transport that has made me fear my return to Queensland Rail and a 95% English literacy rate (which is even higher than Canada) that meant most Dutch natives spoke better English than I did, they’re definitely doing something right.
I chose Rotterdam in the first place because I was looking for somewhere that had a culture different from Australia but also spoke English to the degree that I wouldn’t be forced to buy a premium Duolingo subscription. The Netherlands fit these criteria perfectly, and after assessing the possible universities available, I decided that Rotterdam would be the ideal host city. Although it is a modern city with everything you could ask for (being rebuilt after World War 2 makes it quite different to other traditional Dutch cities), it is still small enough that you could travel from one side to the other via bike in half an hour. The city has an arty hipster scene reminiscent of Berlin, but also a thriving business district and extensive shopping areas. It’s a bustling city and there is always something to do.
Even though Dutch culture has many similarities to that of Australia, Dutch people can be quite dry and serious on the surface. However, once you get to know them they’re very friendly. When around other Dutch people they will often speak Dutch but don’t be alarmed as they quickly switch back to English to speak to those who don’t.
Being a small country, it is quite easy to hop on a train and travel to the next city over (or even next country) for a day trip. You’ll find yourself going to Amsterdam every few weeks, but although it is a nice tourist city, it can’t compare to the liveability of Rotterdam. The infrastructure in Rotterdam is amazing, with buses, trams, trains, and a subway (the Metro) to help you get across the city with ease. On top of this, there are dedicated bike lanes all over the city which mean most people opt to ride instead of drive. Unlike Brisbane, there’s no need to fear for your life when riding a bike in the Netherlands! You still need to be careful as a pedestrian to look twice when crossing the street.
Sometimes you forget that this is the reason you’re here. Fortunately for me, the quality of Erasmus University Rotterdam matches the quality of the city. The Rotterdam School of Management (the faculty where I completed my studies) is one of the top 10 business schools in Europe.
The structure here is somewhat different to QUT. Each faculty has a different number of blocks (i.e. semesters), lasting different durations. At RSM, we had three 10-week blocks over the year. For me, that meant that my Semester 1 was composed of two trimesters over here (January to March and April to June). Due to the academic year starting at a different time, these were their trimesters 2 and 3. The difference in timelines for each faculty can complicate doing units from outside of RSM, but it is still definitely possible if you research the duration and start dates of the units you’re interested in.
Each of the two trimesters I was here, I was enrolled in three or four RSM units. Each unit had only had one class a week; normally a lecture but sometimes a tutorial instead. This meant I was normally only in for two half days a week, allowing for a lot of free time. Since lectures are usually not recorded like they are at QUT, it was a good idea to go to most of my classes since I had so little contact time (provided I was in the city).
The assessment was comparable to QUT in relevance and difficulty. The exams were often multiple choice questions, and the assignments were heavily team-based, with almost every unit having a team assignment involved. A grading scale from 1 to 10 is used here, with a 5.5 being a passing grade. The way it was marked meant getting a passing grade was comparable to QUT but achieving a top grade (10) was much harder.
The campus is relatively large and even has space for on-campus accommodation. It’s 10-15 minutes outside of the city centre by either bike or public transport, meaning it is very accessible. Although there is little activity outside in the cold winter weather, everyone comes outside from the indoor study spaces and university bar to soak up the sun when summer arrives. During summer the campus comes alive, as does the rest of the city. Fun fact: It took me three months before I saw a single pair of shorts being worn in the Netherlands.
An organisation called the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organises many amazing trips and activities throughout the year. It is mainly focussed towards exchange students and is a great way to meet new people and enjoy new experiences. Twice a year they host an ‘Intro Days’ program which I highly recommend. It’s three days full of fun activities and is one of the main ways you’ll meet many of your friends for the six months. Some of the highlights from ESN throughout the year include boat rides through the canals of Amsterdam on King’s Day (Dutch national holiday), a week-long trip to Berlin, Day trips to Belgium, and an outdoor cinema by the university lake.
Unfortunately for me, I missed out on a spot in the university accommodation on-campus. Although I recommend that everyone should try to get in as early as possible to get a spot on-campus, missing out is not the end of the world. The room I eventually found was on the other side of the city in an area called Schiedam. Fortunately, due to the amazing public transport and the relatively small size of the city, I was able to go door to door from accommodation to classroom in 35 minutes despite the distance. When the weather was good I even found myself riding my bike to university, which also took 35-40 minutes. It may sound like the Tour de France, but the ride is relatively easy due to how flat the ground is. The public transport runs until 12:30AM on weekdays and until 1:30AM on Friday and Saturday, which means there’s never any problem getting to and from home if I’m hanging out on campus until late.
The on-campus accommodation is three individual rooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The average cost of rent is about 500 Euro ($850 AUD) per month, and ranges from 450-600 Euro depending on size and location. It is important to budget while on exchange. The cost of living is quite similar to Australia, but maybe a little more expensive. Some things are cheaper like alcohol (much cheaper), while others such as public transport can be quite expensive. If you eat in and cook for yourself, you can live off 150 Euro per month for food. However, eating out and enjoying yourself (as you should) quickly changes this.
One of the best parts about the Netherlands being so central in Europe is that you’re able to easily travel to different countries. Budget airlines and an amazing system of trains and buses make it both cheap and easy to travel to any country across the continent. Booking in advance (e.g. two months) makes it even more affordable, but even last-minute flights aren’t too bad if they aren’t booked in peak tourist season (May-August).
While exchange truly lives up to the high expectations of the amazing stories you hear, it does come with hardship. Although people don’t talk about it very often, going to a completely different country without knowing anyone can be daunting, and when the initial excitement wears off it can be scary. Whether it comes in the form of culture shock or homesickness, everyone experiences it to an extent. Being away from my family and girlfriend for the first time for such a long period was quite difficult, but there were many ways to help me overcome it. Keeping in contact with friends and family back home as well as having a support network in your new home country is key when integrating into a new lifestyle. You’ll find that a lot of other exchange students will be going through the same thing, so don’t be afraid to talk to them about it too. Especially if you’re experiencing culture shock, walking around your local area and seeing something new every day will help you adjust. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling at home!
Having a different time zone to back home can be quite tough but finding regular times to Skype or FaceTime friends and family can make it a little easier. Especially if you have a partner back home, sharing what you’re up to on exchange to make them feel involved and informed is important. But don’t forget that hearing about their day is equally important. If you’re lucky like I was, they might even get a chance to come over and visit you!
Don’t let any of this scare you off though; it’s a completely normal phase of the adjustment process and in the end, it’ll only make your experiences richer!
Going on exchange is a life-changing opportunity. Although I highly recommend Rotterdam as your university of choice, wherever you end up you shouldn’t be disappointed – it’s the people you meet and the friendships you make as much as the destination. On top of the incredible memories you’ll make, going on exchange also pushes you to grow as a person. Studying in an international environment and creating a global network dramatically increases your employability – it gives you far more experience than a line on your CV can justify. For those of you who are currently working through all the paperwork in the hope of making it on exchange, let me tell you that it’s all worth it. For those who are still considering it, all I can say is to take the leap – you won’t regret it!