When I was a bachelor student at Michigan Technological University in the USA, I had a lot to complain about. I thought that I had a lot of bad teachers, and I didn’t like that I had to take a lot of ‘GenEd’ classes unrelated to my major. Then I started to collect university experiences in Europe. When I was a Junior I spent about 6 months studying at Fachhochschule Kiel, a college in Germany. I then earned a master’s degree at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, during which time I spent a week on an exchange to Politecnico di Milano in Italy. Finally, my Italian girlfriend completed her degree at a university in Italy, plus spent a year studying in Finland, so I have some second-hand knowledge of how the systems work there as well. Europe is a large and diverse place, so my experience shouldn’t be generalized to all countries, but based on my experiences here are some academic and non-academic differences I have noticed between universities in the US and in Europe:
1. Student Life and Housing
In the US almost everybody lives in a dorm, which I think a lot of Europeans think means that the students are ‘babied’ by the university and not allowed to live like adults. On the other hand, a lot of the Europeans I met either lived at home while studying, or went home during the weekends, so they weren’t really living on their own either. I also think that dorms offer a lot in terms of socializing. I was quite shy while I was studying and the dorm kind of forced me to interact with other students, and it also offered me the chance to try new activities (such as broomball), which I would never signed up to do on my own. Some European universities offer student housing as well, but it literally is just a house with no official social activities-everything is organized by the students as well. The facilities also tended to be much worse in the buildings I lived in in Europe.
One of the most surprising things I noticed in Europe was how much better European students are at cooking compared to Americans. I think that in general Europeans tend to grow up eating more home made food than we do in the US, but without dormitories Europeans are also forced to cook at universities, because there are no such things as meal plans or dining halls which serve 3 meals per day. Cooking also seems to be a much more social thing in Europe, often done together, and we often had parties where people from different nationalities would make something and bring it for others to try. In the US eating is seen more as a necessity than as a social event, and cooking skills are much worse-I wonder if this is the same among international students?
Another difference is the prevelance of student organizations. In the US, students are encouraged to join student organizations, and there are hundreds of different ones to choose from. They get official support from the universities, including financial support, and they are also often supported by professors as well. In Europe, while there are student organizations, they are much less common, and they seem to be neglected by the universities, which is a huge shame. They are also not as popular among students.
Finally, there are the other extra-curricular activities. My university in the US had a gym, an outdoor activity center, a performing arts center, and of course many sports teams. My university in the Netherlands also had a gym, as well as a ‘culture center’ which offered different kinds of classes, but on a smaller scale-and these types of activities weren’t seen as an essential part of student life.
2. Alcohol and Drugs
I think that this topic deserves a section on its own. In the US alcohol is rather taboo. The drinking age is 21, and while underage drinking is probably common in some circles, alcohol just doesn’t seem to be around very much, at least while living in the dorms. Or maybe I just wasn’t very social when I started studying, but in any case people in the US seem to go crazy once they turn 21, with partying and binge drinking being very common.
Alcohol just isn’t that taboo in most of Europe, but I think that it is abused just as much as it is in the US, just at a younger age. Where I studied in Germany, you could buy beer in the dining hall, and at our final presentation we were served Champagne, but much of student life consists of getting drunk and going clubbing all night long.
In the Netherlands, Dutch students in particular are known for using a lot of alcohol, and the international students also tended to drink, but not as much as I saw in Germany or in the US. But one thing that there is in the Netherlands is legal drugs, and smoking marijuana was extremely popular among the international students there.
Italy is kind of an odd man out because in my experience the young people there hardly drink alcohol at all, and when they do they just don’t seem to overdo it at all-at many of the dinners I went to there, people would often share two bottles of beer between three or four people, and that was it. I also hardly ever saw anyone drinking wine there, which is odd considering that it is one of the wine capitals of the world.
This is where I saw biggest difference between the US and Europe, and also the area in which I think the US is greatly superior. In the US, at least in my experience, exams tend to be a very small part of the overall grade-at most perhaps 20% for the midterm and 20% for the final. The rest of the grade is made up of homework, lab work, projects, presentations, essays, and quizzes. In the Netherlands, in almost every class the final grade was the final exam grade, with no homework at all, while in a few classes there were some projects, but they were worth very little. The worst thing about this system is that there is very little feedback or interaction with the professors. Homework not only gives you an idea of how you are doing, but it also pretty much prepares you for the final because you practice throughout the semester while you are doing your homework or projects. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, there is little incentive to go to class, and in fact many people don’t. There is also little incentive to study before the final, which I think leads to a lot of cramming and a worse learning experience overall.
I also found that US students seem to be more well-rounded than European students. I think that a lot of the systems in Europe lead to students being good book learners, but by doing research, writing essays, and giving class presentations, I think that US students are taught how to think critically and how to present their results better. When I was in Germany, we had to give a final presentation at the end of our project, and it turned out that I was the only one of us who had ever spoken in front of a class before-something I have been doing since middle school, if not even earlier. We also had to write a final report, which to me is kind of an essential life skill, but which I found was just not taught very well in a lot of other places.
Perhaps due to the same project and presentation culture, I found that the quality of the professors was higher in the US as well. Almost all of my classes in the Netherlands consisted of the professor ‘lecturing’ at us by reading from a powerpoint, while in the US the professors were much more likely to use the blackboard-lectures based on powerpoints were very rare. They were also much more interactive, not only stopping to ask if we had any questions, but holding office hours for us as well. One of my professors in the Netherlands explictly told us that he did not like to answer student questions ‘for pedagogical reasons’.
It must be said that most of my experience here pertains to the Netherlands, where I followed their normal master’s program. My experience in Germany was with a semester-long project which we did in conjunction with a company, which meant that we were writing reports and giving presentations, but I felt that I had a lot more previous experience with these things than most of my collegues. I also know that the university in Finland is quite project based, but as I never studied there myself I don’t know if the level is as high as it is in the US.
Every US student knows that universities are expensive, and not just the tuition but the dorms and the meal plans as well. In Europe, on the other hand, universities are very cheap, if not free. Unfortunately this is not always true if you come from a non-EU country. In the Netherlands, my tuition was about 1,800 Euro/year, but I am a dual German citizen so I paid the EU rate. However in certain countries the tuition is inexpensive no matter where you come from, including Germany, Denmark, and Scotland.
Other expenses are also generally lower in Europe. Most classes do not require you to buy books, so you have no book expenses, and food also seems to be cheaper overall. However, since tuition is lower, not everything is included at the university-for example, printing is usually not free, and neither are sports and culture courses.
5. The International Experience
A final difference between US and European universities is that I found US universities to be much more well integrated. TU Delft has a high proportion of international students, but since there are so few group projects, we were never forced to interact with the dutch students. I also found the dutch society to be quite closed in general, wich many people viewing foreigners with skepticism. In the US, on the other hand, we were constantly interacting with international students. We had Chinese culture day, Indian culture day, international student organizations, and we always worked with all kinds of different people during group projects.
On the other hand, being an international student automatically gives you something in common with every other international student, which makes it easy to make international friends and form close social bonds while studying.
In some ways, I felt like a second-class citizen while living in the Netherlands, but I think that this division decreased at higher academic levels-almost all PhD students, for example, were foreigners, and there were many foreign professors as well.
Finally, an interesting thing about the Netherlands is that all masters programs in the entire country are conducted in English, so although I think that the society is fairly closed-minded, it is also recognized that in order to be a world-leading university, steps must be taken to ensure that international people can come there to work and study effectively.
Overall, going to study abroad was one of the more life-changing decisions I have taken, and I would definitely recommend it to any US student. I think that it gives you a different perspective on the world and exposes you to many different cultures and traditions. However, it also made me appreciate life at home, especially our focus on critical thinking, writing, and interactive lectures in which professors and students are seen as equals.