By the time May has rolled around in DC, the last of the cherry blossoms have fallen and students are hard at work studying for finals. In Maastricht, we do things a little bit differently. Semesters are broken up into three "periods," with six periods total for the academic year. For those of you who are math inclined, yes, this means six rounds of finals versus the conventional two. I cannot lie, this is a daunting, although not unsurmountable, academic endeavor. However, this is something I have really come to appreciate about the Dutch system. In these periods, we only take two classes versus five. We spend significantly more time learning the material and content, and the class-based discussions truly make a difference in my retention of the curriculum. This has its trade offs, as having taken four finals at this point, and two to go, and all the stress that comes along with that, has definitely made me miss the semester, two final system. Many of these finals consist of take-home exams, something I wasn't expecting coming from GW. The professors trust you with the knowledge and resources available outside the exam room, and from that, the standards of excellence are significantly heightened. By allowing for take-home exams and papers, the professors certainly expect a very high level of work to be turned in. All of the hard work isn't for nothing, however, as UCM allows for a class-free "reflection week" following finals, meant to allow students to decompress, travel, or enjoy Maastricht without academic obligations. Many choose to do service-learning trips during this time, or find community volunteering opportunities during this break. After reflection week, it's right back to starting new classes with new subject matter, obligations, people, and teachers. The rotation almost makes it feel like every seven to eight weeks is a new experience, with new opportunities to explore an academic subject, meet new people, befriend a professor. I can't say I'll be too sad when I say goodbye to the period system, having finals twice a year seems just find to me.
I was warned. My mother’s best friend spent her exchange in Maastricht in the 1980s. Upon inquiring her for advice regarding customs or cultural idiosyncrasies, she promptly cut me off with a swift “watch out- for Dutch people, honesty truly is the best policy.” How could this be a point worth noting? The phrase is common in the US, and most are raised to hold honesty, and being honest, in the highest esteem. What made the Dutch so special?
I quickly learned that one could equate honesty to directness. The Dutch rarely have an “off-color moment”- they are buttoned-up, mature, and expressive of exactly what they are thinking. My Dutch friend says it begins the moment they are born, when parents allow their children to act on not only their impulses, but also voice exactly what’s on their mind. Maybe this is the reason for the United Nation’s declaring the children of The Netherlands to be the happiest in the world. From childhood, the expressiveness only grows stronger, as I learned whilst trying to explain my way out of a bike collision with a Dutch teenager (it is worth nothing that the Dutch have an incredible grasp of the English language- even as he yelled at me I was impressed with his breadth of vocabulary). The Dutch may occasionally ask you “What do you think you are doing?” when your American tendencies to be loud and boisterous prove to be too out of the ordinary for them.
At first, I found the Dutch directness to be insulting. What gives you the right to insult me and my character quirks or my sense of humor? No one in US would have the audacity to tell me that my point is moot. But as I became more accustomed with biking, stroopwafels (a delicious Dutch cookie), and occasional windmill, I came to appreciate the honesty that the Dutch pride themselves on. It is refreshing to be with those who don’t “beat around the bush” and simply speak to the reality of the situation. As I begin this semester living in a house with a Dutch housemate, I am enthralled to learn from a culture that empowers individuals to speak their minds and express their opinions. I would love to see Americans speak their mind (within reason) to a greater extent, whilst simultaneously valuing what others have to say. My Dutch friends congratulate my progress from shy, reserved American to engaging and questioning international student. I can only hope that upon my return across the pond that Americans can join me on my path to more honesty and open communication. It’s refreshing to speak one’s mind.
The Dutch have a special phrase for this, what they might say in response to some of my “American” moments. Doe maar normal, dan doe je al gek genoeg. Just be normal, then you’re already crazy enough. Although I would never give up my funny quirks, the Dutch certainly keep me on my toes.