When I moved to the Netherlands in August 2014, I was nervous about the program—especially since I don’t speak Dutch and I didn’t know anyone in the city. It was also difficult to leave my job and my friends in Boston for an entire semester. Fortunately, as soon as I arrived in Amsterdam, the staff, students, and faculty at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) made the transition easy. After acquiring a bike (a necessity for every resident) and figuring out how to navigate the local supermarkets, I was prepared for a rigorous and rewarding academic experience.
The advanced urban studies program at UvA (usually pronounced “ooh-vah”) is focused more so on academic theory than it is on practical application, which makes it a nice complement to the urban and regional policy program at Northeastern. During my semester abroad I read a lot of literature by urban theorists focused on traditional and emerging urban topics that were divided into the following disciplines: urban economics, geography, planning, and sociology. The transportation planning course I took was unique because we studied a variety of concepts from traditional highway researchers and policymakers in the United States, but we drafted a research paper that was focused on a policy issue in the Netherlands. All three of my courses actually blended knowledge and experiences from different cultures, time periods, and academic disciplines.
I think that one of the best ways to study policy is to see it and experience it in action, so being able to discuss and witness the various theories we were studying as they unfolded in Amsterdam was an exciting experience. For example, many of my Dutch peers in the program are interested in how new policies are shaping and changing different neighborhoods where they live. They essentially want to know why gentrification happens and how it is similar or different in Amsterdam and the Netherlands versus other places, such as U.S. cities. Me and the other exchange students were able to offer our perspectives on this, and throughout the semester our international cohort engaged in a discussion on this and many other urban policy topics.
Thanks to this experience, I feel that I have gained a lot of perspective on the various ways to approach policy problems whether it be through the eyes of a Dutch graduate student who has experienced more socialist policies than I have or through the eyes of an academic who is interested in specifically answering precise research questions. It is always useful as a practitioner to take a step back and see the big picture rather than the work that you’re “in the thick of,” and I feel that my semester in Amsterdam helped me to do that and more. I’ve returned to Boston with additional enthusiasm for my work, and I have also made many friends who I hope to stay connected with wherever my future policy work may take me.