By Lauren Costello, student in the Urban and Regional Policy program graduating in May 2016
So I’ve been tasked with talking about my experience as a graduate exchange student in Amsterdam. What have I learned? What did I bring back with me to Boston? Having just arrived back home, I am asking myself this same question with or without the writing prompt. Thinking about this over the past month, it turns out I view my answer to this question in a few different layers.
At face value, I’ve just had a great time in my new home city. Amsterdam is small, but infinitely rich in cultural institutions, attractions and good eats. Having guests over the course of the semester was a point of pride for me as I showed off my favorite cafés, museums, and bars around town. Moving around the city has made me an avid biker and the complete dismissal of traffic laws on the part of my fellow cyclists has made me a good (and attentive!) one. I’ve sampled traditional Dutch foods like bitterballen and driven a canal boat into a canal wall, accidentally. Don’t tell anyone. I’ve seen some great live shows and traveled to some incredible places in Europe. I’ve made lasting friends out of my classmates, who are some of the most intelligent and strange people I know.
Some of my lessons learned are less straightforward. I’ve found, in my time there, that Amsterdam is a place of mild contradiction. There is a Dutch word meant solely for the “cozy” aspect of living here in our small warm spaces (gezellig), yet the Dutch tend to be quite blunt and straightforward in the way they speak. Amsterdam as a city is known for its relaxed drug laws and the red light district, though I can tell you that locals consider the red light district to be a separate and unfortunate anomaly from the real Amsterdam. And although the city is known for its canals and historic row houses in the city center, most tourists will not get to discover all of the hidden streets, gardens, and cafés that exist outside of the ring. All of this is to say that I have really appreciated getting to know the city and its residents in a deeper, more meaningful way. I am a fan of dualities, and this city has them.
It’s become clear that I am very, very American. My classmates will be the first to tell you that I adopt a slight Boston accent when I get into a debate, and my penchant for saying words like “dope” and “sick” are sort of my American let. My contributions to class discussions were usually relating to American cities, and I was often asked to explain why exactly Donald Trump is running for President (I’ll be honest, I don’t have a good answer for them). It’s funny – the Americans in class were the first to speak about their country with a healthy amount of pessimism or sarcasm. I’m the worst offender of this. But at least for me, this is alongside a paradoxical sense of pride for my being American in the first place.
Last year was my first year of grad school and I worked through the year to pay for it. This was great and necessary! But this semester my only task was to study…nothing more. This has felt like a privilege and I treated it as an opportunity to really hone in on what topics in urban studies I am passionate about. I’m still forming my opinions on this, but I will say that the Urban Studies program at UvA allowed me to delve in a broad range of topics with as much or as little detail as I wished. The program itself is heavy on theory and self-directed learning, but the discussions often centered on real-world case studies. The opportunity to sit in a class with students from around the world and discuss urban policy issues is no small thing. I feel I’ve learned so much from my professors and my peers. This semester, I started to identify the things that mean the most to me in my life and career and I’m really grateful for that opportunity.
So what did I bring back with me to Boston? Stroopwafel, mostly. OK, well I plan to keep my ability and willingness to be a tourist in my own city. I plan on getting a bike the moment the ice thaws. I plan on bringing some of the readings and resources I collected in my classes to my last semester in Boston. I plan on staying in touch with the friends I’ve made and hopefully hosting them when they make the trek back over the Atlantic. Above all, I’m planning on spending time with my family. We should all treat our families as though we haven’t seen them in six months.