Friday, 28 September 2012

The ExPat Factor

One aspect of being an international student that is easy to overlook is the sense of disorientation that can set in once you begin to buckle down to the work you came to do. Wherever you were before and whatever you were doing, you had a certain identity, a peer group, a sense of yourself and your place in the world. After getting past the anticipation and excitement of moving abroad and starting a new adventure, you confront the realization that you must rebuild all of that at the same time that you are struggling to get yours arms around the breadth and the depth of your new academic challenge. The sudden lack of confidence and equilibrium can be daunting.
I was born in the Netherlands, I have family here, and I speak Dutch (and can read just enough to be dangerous!). So in a sense it was a homecoming as much as it was leaving home. My cultural adjustment was perhaps easier than most. But the academic adjustment is another matter. Going back to school after 25 years of practicing law sounds much easier than it actually is! After spending years learning through trial and error (literally!), earning respect and credibility, mastering the complexities of your area and ultimately being regarded as an expert and a mentor, it is hard to suddenly find yourself a rank beginner with no reserve of instinctive knowledge or even a true peer group. I have heard much the same from far younger students from various disciplines.
So, how to cope? First, recognize that you are not alone and you do have peers –see those sleep-deprived people with the glazed-over eyes from waaay too many hours spent reading? Those would be your fellow students, like you, struggling mightily to balance the discipline and structure needed to learn so much in so short a period of time. Second, allow yourself time to socialize. Not only with your peers, but with “normal” people! Sometimes you just need to take a break from all things school. There are many ex pat groups and a wealth of opportunity to meet people from all over the world as well as a few from the world you just left. And “go local” as well, make Dutch friends, explore Utrecht! Third, indulge in those “Twinkies for the brain.” Comfort foods, mindless TV, your favorite books, movies and music. Finally, remind yourself of who you are and what you have already accomplished, and stay in touch with those who can help remind you. (What DID we do before Skype and Facebook?)
We all have our reasons for leaving our comfort zone and those reasons have a way of manifesting when we least expect it. For me, this was going to a two-day conference on the International Criminal Court at the Peace Palace. Yes, the Peace Palace! Where else could you possibly do this? This is THE place, the hub. Perhaps I will find my place here after all…

Friday, 21 September 2012

Orientation Week

Of course one arrives in Utrecht excited about the coming semester, but first things first; before class begins comes orientation. What a week! Tuesday afternoon, a meeting with classmates and faculty from my relatively small master’s program in the city center; Wednesday evening, an international meet and greet at the Uithof; Thursday, all-day general orientation at the Uithof; then law school orientation on Friday in the city center. Quite a lot to absorb! And quite a Herculean task for the school, trying to acquaint so many students from all over the world undertaking diverse bachelor, masters and exchange programs, most struggling with jet lag and adjusting to new environs, with all the minutia of university email accounts and websites, enrollment issues, course schedules, residence permits, student ID cards, city registration, student bank accounts and the seeming hundreds of details that must be sorted out before one can turn to the academic task at hand. Despite the chaos inherent in such an undertaking, UU’s international program is quite well-organized. That is something you must understand about the Netherlands, chaos is always well-regulated! And somehow, it all works!
The lecture on Dutch culture and UU study culture was very fun and informative. This lecture was given by Emmeline Besamusca, who teaches Dutch culture at UU and who published a book that anyone considering studying abroad at UU should read: Foreign Eyes: International Students Reflect on Utrecht, Pallas Publications (October 2011). This is a book of essays by current and past international students reflecting on Dutch culture and academic life. Everything you wanted to know, but perhaps had not thought to ask, about the joys and hazards of biking in all sorts of weather, the idiosyncrasies of the Dutch palate and temperament, and the challenges of adjusting to new academic frontiers so far from home.
There is tremendous amount of support in place for international students. The school does a great job of ensuring that students are welcomed, informed, and not left alone to struggle with adjusting to a new school in a new country. Erasmus Student Network (ESN), can help with everything from pick up at the airport to finding a Dutch “parent,” to show you the ropes and acquaint you with all the best spots in Utrecht to eat, study and of course, go clubbing! ( International Neighbor Group (ING), organizes social activities for foreign staff and graduate students. (  There is also the Parnassos Cultural Center for those who wish to take on some creative coursework while studying at UU. And of course, for those of you familiar with Meet Up, there are many active Meet Up groups in Utrecht and all over the Netherlands.
There is something for everyone. The only problem is lack of time and the danger of class becoming something you do between activities!

Friday, 14 September 2012


I recently moved to Utrecht from Phoenix, Arizona, and have just started the International Human Rights and Criminal Justice Master’s Program. I will be sharing my experiences with you, and will begin by sharing a little about me.

So, who am I and what am I doing here? I was born in The Hague and immigrated to the USA as a child. I grew up in in Los Angeles, California, attended university in Edmond, Oklahoma, and law school in Malibu, California. I then moved to Arizona, where I lived 26 years and worked as a prosecutor, first in Flagstaff and then in Phoenix, for nearly 25 years. I recently retired and have now returned full circle to where I began – in more ways than one! You see, I went to law school in the first place with the vague notion that I might one day practice international law. However, I began what turned into a very fulfilling career as a prosecutor and never looked back. Then one day I read an article about the prosecution of war crimes in The Hague, and learned that the international criminal tribunals employ attorneys from all over the world. Shortly thereafter I attended a local seminar that happened to include a guest speaker from one of the tribunals, who later gave me a tour when I next visited my family in the Netherlands. I began to muse that my life’s work might just bring me right back to my original goal after all!

Why Utrecht University? First, I love Utrecht; it is my favorite city in the Netherlands. Second, I have a Dutch cousin who attended law school at UU and he never fails to remind me of what a fine school it is! Third, I visited UU last fall to enquire about the LLM program and was graciously invited to participate in a writing practicum. Being a guest student in that class was the highlight of my trip! I was so impressed with the enthusiasm of the teachers and the students, as well as the hands-on practical approach to the program, and was delighted to be asked to participate in the evening’s exercises and discussions. I felt that this was where I belonged.

Why Utrecht? Every city has a countenance that one responds to at a visceral level. Utrecht is cheerful and charming, wizened by a rich and storied past yet vibrant with a young and quirky heart. She smiles, and one cannot see the Dom Tower, hear the carillon bells, or walk down the Oudegracht with all its cafes, pubs and shops, without smiling back. Utrecht is confident of her place in the world; she knows who she is, where she came from and where she wants to go next. She winks at those with similar dispositions, and cozily welcomes students of all ages and dispositions!

Stay tuned for the adventures of a student returning both to school and the Netherlands after a very lengthy hiatus!