By Ann-Sophie Vermeersch
Whenever people from back home ask me how things are going here in Boston and what I am up to, I almost always need to include that I am working a lot for school. Most of my weekdays are filled with reading articles and writing policy memos. The amount of work and the system of classes here is very different from what I am used to.
For starters, attendance is not mandatory in Leuven. It is completely your own choice if you show up for a class, and there are no consequences if you miss class to sleep in, for example. Most of our classes are lectures instead of seminars, so you basically just sit down, take notes and digest the information. Some professors ask you to read an article or a chapter and occasionally ask a question, but if you don’t answer, it won’t really affect your grade. Between lectures and exams, we have a gap of two to three weeks where you don’t have any classes. This period is when you can catch up on all of your schoolwork, if necessary. As you can see, the Belgian higher education system is very different from the American system.
At the beginning of my semester here, I really had to adapt to the amount of work you have to do before you enter a classroom. And then there was another issue: participation. When I heard that there were grades for participation, I lost all my courage. Not only is it difficult to express your thoughts and make a valid argument in a foreign language on topics about which you don’t know the specifics, but I am also not used to speaking up in class. When I saw how outspoken and confident my other classmates were, I felt really small. But since I knew I would fail the participation portion of my grade if I did not speak up, I slowly started to engage in class discussions.
I chose to write about this topic because of something that happened this weekend: I discovered the perks of your system. In order to get your participation grades, you have to push yourself to get out there and stand your grounds. You have to speak about policy issues to someone you don’t know, and by doing that, it is a lot easier to go up to folks and have a friendly conversation. In one of my courses, “Education Policy in the U.S.,” we often have to discuss the readings in different groups. By doing this in an informal manner, we have a lot of fun during class and I really enjoy my classmates’ company. In fact, we get along so well that last weekend I went to a bar with my fellow classmates. We had some drinks together and I had the best time.
So even though I sometimes still miss the Belgian higher education system where the workload is not as heavy as here, I am really glad the American system has forced me to open up, and it has given me so much in return.
Ann-Sophie Vermeersch is a graduate student in the Master of Public Policy. However, you won’t see her around during the spring semester. She is here as an exchange student, and she'll return to Belgium after the final exams. In Belgium, she obtained a Master’s Degree in History, and she is in the process of obtaining a Master’s in Public Policy, which she is deepening at Northeastern. She's interested in how policy deals with climate change and crises. Within those areas, she is particularly keen on finding out how citizens can be involved in the policy process. In her free time, she likes to go for a run, read some books, or have a drink and meet new people. Ann-Sophie can be reached at email@example.com, or via Facebook.