Jan 2, 2018

My Semester Abroad

It's been a week since I returned home from my 4-month semester abroad in Europe and it's been a crazy few days adjusting to home, celebrating Christmas and New Years, and trying to organize my life before heading back to school...all while fighting a 6-hour time difference. Saying goodbye to my home away from home and all of my new friends was so much harder than I thought it was going to be and while I was excited to see my family after four months away it was really hard leaving the city that I grew to love and know!

Although I was still very active on social media and published a handful of  blog posts detailing some of my trips during my time in Europe, I never went too deep into my personal experience and/or tips for those of you planning to do a semester abroad! If you have any other specific abroad questions or want to know more about my experience, feel free to leave a comment on this post or shoot me an email (belleadoreblogs@gmail.com).

Maastricht, Netherlands

For those of you who didn't know, I was studying at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It's a small city at the southern tip of the Netherlands and can be characterized by cobblestone paths, thec constant smell of sweet waffles, medieval style architecture, gothic churches, dozens of unique restaurants and cafes, and the scenic Maas river that runs through the whole city. I loved that it wasn't the typical tourist city, but instead, it was a place that you could really live in. Of all the places I could have gone, I never expected to end up in the Netherlands but its funny how things work out because I wouldn't have changed anything about my experience. My home university allows you to pick two schools abroad and they work to match you on the best one based on course offerings, grades, interests, and the competitiveness of the program. So I was matched with the highly accredited business school at Maastricht University last April, spent the summer preparing for my trip, and left for my program at the end of August. My parents and sister came with me to explore Amsterdam for a few days before driving to Maastricht to check out the city and ultimately drop me off at the place that I would be living for the rest of the semester. My four months can be best described by constant cycling, stroopwafels (aka the best thing you'll ever eat), new amazing friends, travel, and trying my best to understand the most basic of the Dutch language.

I asked you guys if you had any specific questions and I'm going to try my best to cover them! Again, there's so much more to my 4 months abroad than I can cover in one post and a few pictures so if there's something you want me to elaborate on just let me know!

Where did you stay? 

My university abroad provided tons of information about where to stay for the semester. They had a building called the 'Guesthouse' that was offered as the first choice for every exchange student which was a building dedicated specifically for exchange students. My home university required us to stay here. The rooms were all different - single/double room, kitchen in the room or for the hall, etc. I had a sweet roommate from Barcelona (we got along really well!) and we had a kitchen and dining table in our room! Some people lived on hall with a shared kitchen space for everyone and some students opted to find apartments throughout the city (these people were mostly staying a full year). One of my best friends who was studying in Copenhagen had the absolute best experience at a homestay so if you have any specific questions about that I would be more than happy to ask her about it.

Did you cook/eat out more?

I tried my best to cook most of my meals! Buying and cooking for one person was harder than I thought it was going to be because food went bad so quickly (less preservatives to make the food stay, etc). I usually did food shopping on the weekend and bought ingredients that would last for the week or would make good snacks to bring with me to class. I usually ended up with a ton of fruits to snack on and vegetables that I could cook with chicken and rice, pasta, quinoa, etc. When it got colder, I made a lot of chili, soups, stir frys. That's not to say I didn't eat out because the food options in Maastricht were amazing. Seriously, I would walk around and notice a new restaurant every other day. My university also had a cafe in one of our main study spots with yummy pastries, smoothies, and sandwiches. My friends and I definitely did our fair share of eating out - if we weren't traveling on the weekends we would make a point to get brunch or drinks and dinner at a fun new place in the city!

Where did you stay when you traveled?

I took a lot of day trips since I was super close to the Belgian/German border but when I did travel overnight, I stayed in a combination of hostels, rental apartments, and Airbnb. Honestly, I didn't have the best experience at a hostel so I would definitely recommend checking out Airbnb. But, I know that hostels are cheap and convenient and a ton are surprisingly nice - I would just recommend doing your research before you book!

What did you pack?

It's safe to say I definitely over packed! I traveled there with one carry one, a larger checked bag, and then a backpack. It was hard to pack for several different seasons so I packed a lot of layering pieces. I knew I would need cute and comfortable yet stylish outfits so I only packed things I absolutely knew I would wear. I used the packing guide that my friend Julia made after her semester in London and it worked really well for me! I wore these  sneakers and  booties to death and didn't go a day without this tote bag

How did you get around? (What types of transportation did you use)

The Netherlands is pretty well know for its cycling culture so I got a bike during my first week there. Other than biking, I occasionally took the local bus lines and rode the trains if I was taking a trip! Most European cities have pretty easy to navigate transportation systems that you can either download an app for, check google maps, or look online!

Do you have any tips for someone going abroad?

1. Live Like a Local - I was told by quite a few people that out of everyone, Americans are the most obvious to point out as tourists. Obviously, I didn't want to fall under this category so I tried my best to 'blend in' and live as if I were a regular person there - towards the end of my time, people at the grocery stores and bus drivers would start talking to me in Dutch! I tried to pick up a few common words/phrases to get by in certain situations. Biking was practically the only way to get around so my trusty bike came with me everywhere - I even learned  how to fix a loose chain (seriously, there are more bikes than people in that country). Something that I was happy to 'adjust' to was the way that people dress in Europe - seriously the style is so much more elevated than what you would see on a typical college campus. It was both refreshing and inspiring to see everyone try their best to look nice and show off their style.

2. Take Advantage of Program Offerings - My partner university was great in helping international students transition to life in our new city before classes actually started. They had a whole committee dedicated to international students and providing us with opportunities to take advantage of. That first week was so much fun because we had the opportunity to meet all the new people we would be living, studying, and traveling with. They led tours of the city, bike workshops, dinners, parties, and cultural events like museum nights and traditional Dutch dinners. I met one of my now best friends on the first day thanks to this awesome program. The same group hosted pre-drinks every week which was a great way to socialize, karaoke/trivia nights, and a few planned trips as well. I joined the group on a 3 day trip visiting all the major Dutch cities and had the best time on their Oktoberfest trip that they planned!

3. Step Outside your Comfort Zone - When I was placed in this program, I didn't know any other University of Richmond students that would be joining me. There was around 12 of us going to this school and I'd never met more than half of them. I was worried about going into this experience 'alone' or without a good friend to rely on but it ended up being such a blessing. Not knowing anyone on the program 'forced' me to step outside my comfort zone and I ended up meeting some of the people who would soon become my best friends during the orientation week when everyone was just getting to know each other. The funny thing is, I ended up living on the same floor as 3 Richmond students I didn't know before and was able to become friends with them - I'm excited to see them back at school soon!I'm definitely a planner but this experience taught me to just go with the flow. This was my first time traveling alone (besides to/from school) and there were plenty of times that either put me on edge/ I missed a flight or train/ my plans were completely thrown out the window. It was seriously a learning experience in the best possible way. 

Have you done a semester abroad? Are you planning a trip abroad? I want to know where you are going/went!

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