Kalina Dancheva, 24, wanted to study new media and digital culture, but couldn’t find any interesting programmes in her home country of Bulgaria. So she looked abroad... and found two options in the Netherlands. As she says, she ended up at Utrecht University “a little bit by chance” because the programme happened to start in February, just as she completed her earlier studies. Check out our Top 10 Dutch Universities for International Students series of articles and videos.
Want to study in the Netherlands?
Check out our Top 10 Dutch Universities for International Students series of articles and videos.
But Kalina doesn’t regret the decision to come to Utrecht University. Just the opposite.
“The spirit of the university is just everywhere. And it’s amazing. I love the buildings – they’re so authentic and everything is just taking place in a spectacular atmosphere!”
As with most international students, Kalina often compares her new school to her old one.
“It’s different. In Sofia we had 16 faculties and you would have classes in only one faculty, so basically that’s where your 4 years would take place. But here it’s much more dynamic – you can go to the campus or to the college or to the centre. It’s much more interesting for me personally.”
But the location and atmosphere aren’t the only differences that Kalina has noticed – she says the teaching is also quite different.
“Here [in the Netherlands] it’s much more egalitarian. So at first it was a bit strange for me not to address the teachers as Professor or Mr, but to start with the first name! This kind of distance between teachers and students really makes a difference in the whole academic process.”
Kalina says one of the most important differences for her personally was the possibility to be creative and do research in the Netherlands – in Sofia she says the programmes were too theoretical.
“In Sofia I didn’t have the comfort to do my own research. So here I basically started from the beginning and kind of grew the freedom to develop in my academic perspective.”
So Kalina is happy with the Dutch education system. But what about living here? Well, other than losing her voice due to the Dutch weather, she says it’s pretty great.
“I got quickly used to it I think. I love biking, so bike lanes are my favourite things! I’m still getting used to typical things such as having dinner at 6 o’clock. But I have to say I kind of like it. So this experience is really very positive for me in general.”
Speaking of dinner, Kalina says Dutch food actually surprised her – in a good way!
“Stroopwafels are now my symbol of sweet! At first I got the impression that the Dutch didn’t eat really healthy food. But now I’m getting into really traditional Dutch dishes and cuisine in general. I have to say that every time I go home I bring something typically Dutch and everybody loves it.”
And what about that other, most typical Dutch subject, the weather? Kalina is very diplomatic.
“Well, the weather is just interesting and dynamic. You know. Every day can be everything. You can see the 4 seasons in one day. You just have to be prepared to expect it and then it’s ok. You know, I always have my umbrella or sweatshirt in my bag. So then I’m prepared and it’s fine. And it’s actually fun.”
Kalina says that the Dutch live up to their reputation for being direct, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“People say the Dutch are direct. And they really are direct! But very often they are actually very honest. So I find it pretty easy to deal with. I actually kind of prefer this straight forward and open behaviour.”
The Dutch have also been very helpful, says Kalina, with everything from the logistics of how to get from here to there to pronunciation of difficult Dutch words. And, she says, the Dutch openness makes for good relationships with the teachers.
“It’s really nice that I can always turn to my professors and ask them for advice or make an appointment to have a talk. Sometimes we discuss something that’s outside the scope of the programme but it also helps me a lot in terms of integration.”
Kalina says she’s also impressed at the way the Dutch are so open to people from other cultures.
“I find it remarkable that so many cultures here can live together and just be very tolerant of each other. I think if you put this into practice in my home country then we would have a bit of a problem or a bias towards the people who are bit different from us. So I think this is a really remarkable thing that the Dutch have achieved, this kind of integrity between people.”
Unlike many international students, Kalina isn’t living in assigned housing with other foreign students – she has a Dutch boyfriend. This, and the fact that most of the students in her programme are not international, means that most of her friends are Dutch. But she says learning the language is still going slowly.
“I can understand a lot more than I can speak. I find it a very nice language, but also quite difficult. But I’m definitely going to take some classes because sometimes I find myself in a situation understanding 90 percent of the conversation and then I want to reply of course!”
Of course, alongside all the differences, there are some similarities between Bulgaria and the Netherlands.
“Dutch people say “gezellig” in many situations to describe a kind of cosy atmosphere between people hanging around. In Bulgaria, although we don’t really have the same word, we have something really similar. And we are very fond of having people around just to be together in a nice atmosphere."
One of Kalina’s biggest surprises upon arriving in the Netherlands was how good everybody’s English was. Initially she says, she felt badly asking that she didn’t speak Dutch and had to ask whether people spoke English. But she quickly realised that the Dutch were happy to speak English.
Of course, it hasn’t all been easy. Kalina explains that, even though Bulgaria is in the EU, moving to the Netherlands wasn’t as smooth as she’d hoped.
“Of course I have had to deal with a lot of administrative things – legal issues, how to stay here, permits. I come from a country which is in the EU but there are always special restrictions so there’s always a little bit of the ‘yes, but...’”
What about the cost? Coming from Bulgaria, Kalina says it’s certainly not the cheapest option.
“You cannot compare the fees. That’s for sure. Here it’s much more expensive. But in comparison to many other countries it’s much more affordable. So I think it’s kind of the ideal middle situation.”
In the end, Kalina says, she wouldn’t trade her experience for anything.
“Studying in the Netherlands is a great experience. It has its challenges, but in the end it’s definitely worth it.”