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Erica Dong

SFU Student Undergraduate
Health Sciences › Population and Public Health

Program:
I lived in Amsterdam for just 4 months, but the influence it had is life-long.
Experience Details
Semester
Fall
Year
2022
Introduction + Preparation
Financial Preparation

My experience would not have been possible without funding from the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion International Mobility Award and Erasmus+ ( Erasmus KA107 Canada Scholarship); I sincerely thank these funders for making my exchange possible. I highly encourage students to explore their funding opportunities as it can make all the difference.

In my experience, the biggest budget challenge for Amsterdam is by far housing! Due to the housing crisis, finding a home can be both extremely difficult and extremely expensive. Housing was the biggest challenge to my exchange. Despite beginning the search for housing months in advance, I couldn't find anything and I spend the first 1.5 months of my exchange living in a hostel. This was not only uncomfortable and stressful - a bunk bed in a room shared with 8-16 strangers is OK for traveling, but not great as a full-time student - it was also very expensive! The hostel cost me over 1000 euros a month. 

Packing

A trip to Amsterdam means you will probably want to bring home delicious cheeses, souvenirs, and keep-sakes, so try to leave some extra room in your suitcase on the way there so on the way back you can fit everything. With that said, some things I wouldn't miss out on bringing:

  • Surge protector: while travel adaptors are easy enough to find at the airport and other stores, it will be harder to find a surge protector, which I found out the hard way, at the expense of my laptop's battery capacity (EU has higher voltage than North America)
  • A camera (if you own one): Amsterdam is ridiculously photogenic! 
  • Makeup/skincare: if there's specifics you don't like to part from, bring them, since you might not be able to find the same brands. There's no Sephora; instead, you'll find Douglas, and while undoubtedly you can find good replacements, if you have a favourite product I would just bring it and spare yourself the hassle of trying to figure out what's the same. 
Travel and Transportation

Your flight to Amsterdam will bring you to Schiphol Airport, a very busy airport. Navigating it should not be difficult though, and all staff (like most places in Amsterdam) speak perfect English. Schiphol Airport is extremely well connected to the city, just 20 minutes away from central Amsterdam. From Schiphol, I'd recommend taking the metro (train) or a bus to where you need to go. 

The public transit system in Amsterdam of metro, bus, and tram is good - you can get wherever you need to go by it. However, the quickest mode of transport is often by bike. I think every person who stays in Amsterdam, whether for a weekend or for a semester, must try biking! The convenience is just unmatched. As an exchange student, I'd recommend SwapFiets (monthly bike rentals). Alternatively, you can buy a bike from Marktplaas or Facebook marketplace and resell it at the end of your exchange. 

Besides the efficiently of biking, I found it to be such a therapeutic, relaxing, and stress-relieving activity. Just don't pick central Amsterdam as the place you go biking for the first time in Amsterdam, or it won't be any of those things. If you're someone from North America, biking in central Amsterdam is going to look chaotic, stressful, and frankly dangerous. So try a quieter neighbourhood first, and then once you're comfortable with the rules and ways of the road, you can graduate to biking in central Amsterdam. There's no better way to explore the city. 

Preparation Tips for Future Students

The most critical thing you need to prepare yourself for is the housing situation in Amsterdam, so read my previous sections about that. 

Otherwise, I think your preparation depends on whether or not this is the first time you live abroad, or maybe how much traveling you've done. If that applies to you, then you'll experience how easy it is to adapt to Amsterdam as someone coming from North America. Everyone speaks English, everything important written in Dutch has English alongside it (this includes menus), the locals are friendly and helpful, it's a very safe city, and most things are intuitive to us. 

If it's your first time abroad/traveling, prepare yourself to be open to new perspectives and ways of living. It is the most rewarding aspect of traveling. Be open-minded and respectful and remember you're the guest. Embrace the culture and ways of living in Amsterdam. Join clubs, make friends and connections (Amsterdam is full of expats: don't be afraid to join student expats WhatsApp and Facebook groups to organize activities with strangers), explore - make the absolute most of your experience, because before you know it, the semester(s) abroad will be over. Traveling to a place for a few days is a completely different experience from getting to live there. To do either, is a privilege. But make sure you truly experience living in Amsterdam; because Amsterdam is a city where both traveling there and living there are amazing experiences, but to be lucky enough to live there is so, so rewarding. And you cannot get those rich experiences by only traveling there briefly. So take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, actively seek out opportunities, and live in the present. Make sure that by the end of your exchange, you can say you lived there, not just travelled there. 

Photo of canal in Amsterdam during the day
Amsterdam by day
Photo of Amsterdam at night
Amsterdam by night
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
My favourite study spot at Vrije
During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

I did not attend orientation as I could not arrive to Amsterdam so early due to other commitments. If possible, I imagine partaking in orientation is a good idea to get to meet other fellow students and build some friendships early on. When I began at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, I did feel lonely and a little isolated not knowing anybody. On the other hand, when I moved from Victoria to Burnaby to start at SFU, I didn't know anybody attending SFU but as someone living on residence at the time, I attended the mandatory orientations for residence students and that's how I made my first friendships at SFU - dear friendships I still have today. 

First day: I would plan to arrive with ample time to find where your classroom is. Not to scare you, but I arrived an hour early to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam campus and that still wasn't enough. None of the staff and the campus helpers (stationed about specifically to help people navigate campus on the first days and answer general questions) seemed to have a clue where my classroom was. Most of them agreed that it sounded like it would be in the Medical building though, as my program is under the Faculty of Medicine. After asking multiple people in the Medical building, eventually someone told me it wasn't on the campus at all, but at the hospital (Amsterdam UMC), about a 5-10min walk down the road. Unfortunately, the receptionist at the hospital didn't know which room it was, either! Eventually I found it, but the point is, it took way longer and was way more difficult to find than I thought, so be prepared. 

Accommodation and Living

As I described under "Financial Preparation", finding accomodation in Amsterdam is difficult, stressful, and expensive. Universities in Amsterdam have little student housing available, and as an exchange student, such student housing will probably already be full well before you've even received your acceptance to the university. You're pretty much on your own. A month before your exchange, you'll likely receive an email from your host university telling you if you haven't found accomodation yet, don't come. The reality is, it's extremely difficult to find accomodation in Amsterdam before you get there (and after...). The market is just too competitive. As soon as a room is posted on Kamernet, Pararius, or Facebook marketplace, within 5 minutes, the lister will have probably received messages from 20 people asking to view it that day. As someone looking from abroad, who isn't even in Amsterdam, usually you just can't compete with that. But try your luck, and just keep looking and messaging listings. Ask people if they can do a virtual viewing over video call. Everyone looking for housing in Amsterdam is desperate, and many try to find ways to stand out/be personable by writing a short intro about themselves describing their background, hobbies, work, lifestyle, etc when they message a listing. I'd recommend doing that, as well as posting it to every housing Facebook group you can find which allows it ("Hi everyone, I am looking for a room from ___ to ___. About me: [...]"). This is how I eventually found a room after living in a hostel for 1.5 months - when someone saw one of my Facebook group posts and connected over the fact that I was also a Canadian student, like them, so they offered for me to come see the room. 

Things to note: 
  • Beware of scams! This is super important. There are countless housing scams in Amsterdam. Look online and on Facebook for the ways to avoid getting scammed by looking for housing in Amsterdam. 
  • Make sure you learn about what registration is and how having or not having it will affect you. 
Learning and Adaptation

I studied the Minor in Cancer-Immunity-Personalized Therapies at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. It was a small class cohort of 30 students from medical and biomedical backgrounds. We usually had class every day, consisting of mostly lectures, with some labs and practicals. Each day we would have 2-6 short lectures, each 50 minutes long, from different researchers from Amsterdam UMC. Because we had so many short lectures across so many different topics, we covered a ton of different information, which is both great as it is fascinating to learn a broad scope, but also challenging as you must learn a lot of different information. I also found it was generally easy to stay focused and engaged due to the fact we only needed to hold our attention for 50 minutes on one topic before getting a short 5-10 min break and a new lecturer come in. Of course, some topics were heavy and dull and difficult to pay attention to, but this format did help. 

The Minor program consisted of two exams, a written assignment, a research paper and presentation, and a couple debates and presentations. The program is graded as pass/fail, and you must pass all of the key components in order to pass the program. 

Accomplishments and Challenges

The biggest challenge I faced was the difficulty with housing. It was a very stressful experience to be without a home for so long, not knowing when I'd be able to find one, while attempting to get settled in a new country and keep up with my studies and remote job. I was also surprised by the crowd at the hostels I stayed at: people were not as friendly as I excepted them to be. I think this is largely due to the fact that these hostels were not full of just travelers: they had a lot of other people in the same position as me - recently moved to Amsterdam, unable to find housing, and very stressed. Not everyone was friendly and social. Still, I made some connections at the hostel whom I am still in touch with today. It was very much one of those situations where if you wanted to make connections/friends, you need to put yourself out there and initiate, as most people minded their own business. That's the advice I'd give, as well as: persevere, don't get discouraged. There are good friends to be found, it's just tough out there in Amsterdam sometimes. 

I found the Minor program itself challenging. I did not have the medical or biomedical background of the rest of the students, so I am very grateful for the other students for at times, helping explain concepts that were foreign to me. The small cohort size of the Minor was nice as everyone was kind and helpful and there was a feeling of camaraderie. 

With that said, making friends at the university was difficult. Making friends in the Netherlands, seems difficult. There's a stereotype that Dutch people stay exclusively in their social circle of friends they've had since birth. I can't say if that's true or not, but a lot of expats end up making friends that are also expats, and few Dutch friends. I made two Dutch friends, which I was very grateful of, for me to learn some perspectives of Amsterdam from the Dutch and local view, not just the view of expats. 

Overcoming these challenges was definitely personal growth for me and I am proud of what I was able to accomplish in the time I was in Amsterdam. 

Social and Extracurricular Activities

Amsterdam is such a charming, beautiful city: explore it all! The city itself is very small, which makes it extremely walk/bike-able. The views of old Dutch buildings alongside canals is stunningly beautiful and photogenic. There are lots of fun shops and cafes to explore. Getting a Museum Card is a great idea to getting your money's worth in visiting many of the beautiful museums of Amsterdam. Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House are world re-known and must-visits. There are tons of other historic and modern museums in Amsterdam that are excellent ways of seeing the culture and art of the city. 

One thing I really loved was how there are always things happening in Amsterdam! It's an exciting city full of energy. There is always something going on, some events, so get out and explore! 

Joining groups and clubs at the university and elsewhere is an excellent way to make connections and/or get out and about/explore Amsterdam. 

ClassPass and OneFit are great flexible memberships that allow you to try out many gyms and fitness centers in Amsterdam. I went to probably 5-6 different kickboxing gyms for free thanks for ClassPass' free trial. 

Reflection & Tips
Reflection

While my semester in Amsterdam was no short of challenges, mainly due housing, it ended up being a very rewarding semester abroad. I feel sentimental now when I see photos of Amsterdam - what an incredibly beautiful city, and how lucky was I to get to wander around it on any given day and to live there for a couple months. I loved living the lifestyle of biking everywhere and shopping for fresh produce often. These simple joys will stay with me forever.

It was hard for me to make friends due to how busy I was on my exchange and the fact that Amsterdam is not one of those places where you will just find yourself with a bunch of connections due to the warm and social nature of their society. You need to dedicate time to seeking connections out (much like Vancouver, if you didn't grow up here!). I think given the time I had, I did pretty good, and I'm grateful for the few meaningful friends I was able to make that I hold near and dear to my heart. 

 

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience

My experience taught me not to take things for granted and re-enforced my love for finding joy in simple things in life. Being without housing was a big challenge, and I was scared that I would need to spend all 4 months of my exchange living at the hostel - a very probable outcome, in all honesty. I won't be taking housing for granted again any time soon. Since beginning university, I've moved over 10 times, but never faced such hardship with housing as in Amsterdam. It made me realize how difficult it is to accomplish anything else when you are stressed and anxious about having a basic place to stay. 

I've always been someone to cherish simple joys in life: waking up to my morning routine, finding moments of peace in nature, the freedom I feel of simply getting to wander in a place alone, the energy and stress-relief I get from running. I really enjoyed getting to feel these joys and find new joys while I was in Amsterdam. It is such a beautiful, safe city: there are so many things to find beauty in. When my life gets busy, complicated, hectic; there's nothing better to slow things down and appreciate what life has to offer than taking a moment to appreciate something simple I inherently find joy in. 

Advice for Future Students

My most important piece of advice to any student going anywhere is to be prepared by doing your research about where you're going. For Amsterdam, you need to research what the housing situation is like, how that affects you, what you need to do to obtain housing, and how to avoid scams. 

My second piece of advice is to make the most of your exchange and actively seek out opportunities whenever you can. Don't wait for things to come to you, because sometimes they just won't! It's a privilege to be able to go abroad, so don't let it go to waste. 

Finally: be open-minded, try new things, explore. The classic idea of "going abroad to find yourself" is as self-centered as it is cliché. But when you're abroad all alone and have left behind your family, friends, partner, and usual responsibilities at home: you have the most time to dedicate to yourself as maybe you ever will. Take full advantage of that. Going abroad is a wonderful time for self-growth and development. But that doesn't just happen without challenging yourself and trying new things. 

Author

Erica Dong

SFU Student Undergraduate
Health Sciences › Population and Public Health
visibility  164
Jul 5, 2023