How to finesse your way through study abroad in Amsterdam (broke student edition)

Living and studying abroad is already expensive, and unless you’re able to get a part-time job/paid internship alongside your university contact hours (which are 5x that of Manchester’s), having fun while still maintaining a sustainable living situation can be tricky. I had heard that Amsterdam was an expensive city before I got here so I was ready to spend mindfully in an attempt to budget but I failed within the first two weeks of getting here. I found it too easy to get caught up in spending on little things and forget that a few euros here and there adds up really quickly.

Writing this post has made me beyond thankful for my Erasmus grant, but there is only so much that this will cover, especially when you’re broke but living in a city that has so much going on – like Amsterdam. So I’ve decided to put together a little list of tips that have definitely helped me save a substantial amount of euros here and there. Some of them might be a bit extra…but desperate times = desperate measures!

Amster-DAMN!

Moving In

It has been two and a bit weeks now since I moved into my studio apartment in Nieuw West Amsterdam in a building called Maassluisstraat which is part of the DeKey housing company. Prior to moving in I was very concerned about living by myself in a studio after having got used to living in an 8 bed house in Fallowfield and always having someone around for company. I am actually surprised at how much I am enjoying living in my studio here and having my own space, I also think it has probably pushed me out of my comfort zone a bit as you don’t have the comfort of ‘flat mates’ to fall back on and has probably contributed to me meeting more people than I initially thought I would. I was also worried that living in a studio would be quite isolating and lonely but I’ve had neighbours knock on my door to say hello etc when they moved in and my accommodation also had a social event early on which helped create a really warm and welcoming atmosphere straight away.

Continue reading “Amster-DAMN!”

Assessment and teaching style at the UvA

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

In general, assessment at the University of Amsterdam is more constant with midterms and then finals with the ability to do a compensation exam. A compensation exam is like a retake of the course, but includes everything from the course; something you want to avoid. Having exams more frequently but less intense is, of course, beneficial in the sense that there is less to prepare for. However, it also means that you have to cope with having a lot on your plate more often, which can be stressful. At Manchester there is a more gradual build-up to the intense stress of exams, where as here it seems to come around the corner every 4/5 weeks, without much time for preparation. Similarly, because midterms are often worth 50% of the course, you put yourself under as much stress as you would the final exams.

A more specific criticism of the University of Amsterdam is that each individual lecturer chooses how the class is assessed. Whilst for the majority this means a varied form of assessment ranging from opinion style articles which encourage a journalistic style and creativeness, that make for an exciting break from the academic rhetoric, to the ever tedious group project and presentation. There is one particular assessment format I detest, this is the ‘take home exam’. The format is that between a certain a time you have anywhere between two and twelve hours in the comfort of your own home to answer several questions once they appear online. The problem is you never nearly have enough time, and because you are ‘at home’ you are expected to answer the questions as though you were writing an essay with proper referencing and complex structure. However, under the timed pressure, this for me and many others who I have spoken to, is sometimes quite impossible.

All of this is not to say I don’t like the assessment at the UvA, and being a student I could probably find holes in any assessment format. There have been some that I have liked, such as the opinion articles and essays that are pretty much identical to the Manchester ones, but there have been ones I don’t, particularly the take home exams, much like I how I don’t particularly like Manchester handwritten exams, when I only write by hand for these occasions. However, both at the UvA and Manchester, the exams in my mind justify the means.

Something I have really enjoyed is the teaching style. For me I have been lucky that all my classes have been in classrooms. No more hiding away in large lecture halls. Classrooms for me have meant that concentrating for three hours is a lot easier, not just because you feel less distant from the teacher, but also because classrooms breed more discussions, making it easier to ask questions, and I have found that debates break out between students much more. This could also be part of the Dutch mentality or due to the teachers I have been fortunate enough to have, but debate in class and discussion-based learning is for me much more engaging. I would point out that there have been one or two classes where this doesn’t exist and lecturers talk at you for three hours, in a far less engaging manner.

This brings me onto my next point, lecture length. Here at the UvA most of my lectures are three hours long and some extend to four. These of course can test concentration, but if you have an interesting lecturer then in some ways it is beneficial to have all your teaching at one point in the week, leaving you with the freedom of deciding when you want to work outside of these hours.

A hitchhikers guide to Berlin

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

This isn’t so much as a guide but an interesting story for me nevertheless.

Our journey (me and my flatmate) to Berlin started at a bleak 6am by Amsterdam South Station. Here we met with the organisers (International Student Network) whose instructions consisted of the direction of Berlin and a mere “Good luck”…

Boycotting our initial attempts to get picked up in the pitch-black, we took to the train in order to make some headway. Not getting very far, the hitch-hiking began.

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This is Zwarte Piet, a Dutch Christmas tradition. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, is a helper of Santa Claus, but is swarmed in racial controversy, with many but not the majority protesting against it.

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Suffice it to say, hitch hiking is no easy feat and darkness had again crept up on us by the time we finally got to Germany. It had taken a train, two cars and a lorry to get here, and when we arrived we were dropped by petrol station stocked with all your essentials; knives, air guns, CS spray, axes… you get the idea. It wasn’t until 11pm that we arrived in Berlin, thanks to array of strangers.

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Berlin is an amazing city, both for street art and, of course, history. We were guided around some of West Berlin (the former Soviet side) where independent shops now rule the roost and corporate companies struggle. On our tour, we saw much of the famous illegal street art as well as the commissioned work on the Berlin Wall.

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Of course, Berlin is famous for its nightlife as well, and we didn’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. Initially having being rejected for being English by some rather pretentious Berliners, we moved to another spot, quickly forgetting the earlier rejection.

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Not in the best of shapes the next morning we took to the streets again and visited the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial, completing an amazing 48 hours in a must-see city.

My first few weeks in Amsterdam

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

So I’ve bought my bike, a must-have living in Amsterdam. It took me a week to find, scouting about the many markets for a cheap bike that still had both wheels. So when I found mine, a golden shambles of a bike, I snapped it up for just €40, a bargain! However, on cycling my bike home the pedal broke off and I discovered the brakes didn’t work. Next time I think I’ll be test riding it…

As far as the university is concerned, it has taken me a while to get used to locations of the many different buildings that are embedded within the centre of the city. That’s not to say that I’m irritated by this at all, walking and cycling around the city is a real joy, and getting lost normally just means a walk along what have been sunny canals. Although, being a tourist or somewhat not used to this city can be frantic, with trams, buses, cars, hundreds of people, thousands of bikes all waiting to ring their bells and shout at you if you get in their way. I thought the Dutch weren’t meant to be liberal, but when it comes to transport there far from it.

I have all ready taken the opportunity to travel out of Amsterdam, travelling to Zandvoort Beach just 25 minutes away to make the most of the uncharacteristically hot weather. Whilst the water was freezing, the imported sand made for a comfortable spot to relax and reflect. We were also lucky enough to see more of the amazing art that the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, has to offer, through the medium of sand:

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Two weeks have passed now and I’m starting to relax in my apartment, but I am still filled with enthusiasm for what’s to come. My flatmate and I have planned to run a 10k race and I am genuinely excited to see what the city and university have to offer.