Home Away from Home

It has been a while since I last reflected on my time abroad: during my junior fall semester, I studied Psychology and Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. A year later, I think about how it has impacted my overall Hopkins experience. Only recently, I spoke to a new staff member at the Counseling Center about how Hopkins students get sucked into the culture here on campus, which can become rather toxic if you let it consume you. Taking a break, trying out a new system; being a student somewhere else can be so refreshing. It definitely gave me the opportunity to reset, and reconsider what sort of student I wanted to be. You are away from all the co-curricular activities you labor over for hours each week, you are away from your colleagues who you developed either good or bad relationships with, and you are away from the classes that shaped your academic experience. I knew that going to Amsterdam meant I could find all these things again in a different setting, and I found them embedded in a new culture that would teach me more than I could have hoped for.

When you start a study abroad program, it can kind of feel like freshman year again. You have to sit through an orientation and learn how grades work, where your classes are, and what to do when things go wrong. All of a sudden, you have to make new friends again with people who are different from you but still linked by this shared commitment to study abroad in the Las Vegas of Europe. 

I must say I was rather taken aback by the people I met, and I am glad. A personal reason to study abroad was to shake things up a little; the same reason I left my boarding school in the UK to study at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. I like having that culture shock, as long as there is a support system to catch me when I inevitably stumble and fall. My program had no one from Hopkins, so it was a community of all new people from across the US, and then all the Dutch and international students I would meet in my classes. 

This might be rather naive of me, but I was not expecting my peers to be so eager to get high. I was there for the culture, the language, the university, the program, the city, etc. Getting high is not really my thing, and no judgment if it’s yours. But that’s something Amsterdam can offer. However, I would say that the experience of getting to do that was not what stayed with students when they left. Some life long friendships were made on that program. People got the opportunity to explore and become familiar with Amsterdam and Europe, something they never had done before. Personally, my father is from the Netherlands and it was a unique experience for me to immerse myself in a culture I had never lived in before but had always been associated with. I have a Dutch passport, and speak the language pretty well — enough to get me into a rowing club when I first arrived. You must understand that I just barely got in as this was not something open to foreigners unless your Dutch is pretty strong. And I had the most amazing time. I made great friends in my boat, all down-to-earth strong Dutch women studying at different universities in Amsterdam. They helped me as I muddled through my Dutch to try and tell a joke or a funny story, which is almost impossible in a language you don’t know well. They took me out and showed me what it was like to be a local in a place where I just wanted to belong. I was very privileged to live this double life. I had my Dutch friends, Dutch family, authentic Dutch experiences, and then my American and international friends who I got to live with. 

As a student in a new country, being away from Hopkins really helped me appreciate all the things I love about it so much. And yes, I do love Hopkins. I really like it here! I don’t think I could be happier anywhere else, and studying abroad proved that. First of all, the amount of attention we get from our professors here is incredible. My professors in Amsterdam would teach their class and then leave. Good luck getting a response from them via email or talking to them in person; they are there to teach and that is all. When I came back in the spring, I went to every professor’s office hours. The fact that our professors just sit there every week waiting for students to come and chat is something I had taken for granted as a freshman and sophomore. Most of the time I end up talking to them about myself and life, not as much about the questions I first came in with; I would highly recommend it.

Another thing that I love about Hopkins is the number of different ways we can contribute to our final grade. In Amsterdam, my entire grade was based on one exam at the end of the course. Participation counted for nothing, the homework was never graded, and there were no midterms, only finals. The fact that I get to contribute to my final grade each week here at Hopkins — every class I go to, each homework I submit — keeps me on track and helps me to do well in the class. One girl in a class of mine was unwell on the day of our final and had to miss it, and she was going to have to retake the entire class. If you have a bad day that day, that’s your entire grade gone. When I was very ill my freshman fall semester and had to take my Brain, Behavior and Cognition midterm the day after a 24-hour sci-fi movie marathon, I wasn’t going to leave the class with a 0. I could drop that midterm and make up for it by working hard for the rest of the semester. 

I could go on and on about all the amazing things that Hopkins has to offer to its students but I think what I am really trying to say is that there are endless opportunities to succeed here at Hopkins and many resources to support you to do so. These opportunities might come up in or outside of the classroom and your support system might be in the form of a professor or someone else, but I think that it’s important to be grateful for the things we have on this campus and value what a unique and marvelous place it is.

– Cecilia Vorfeld