Surviving Abroad as A Master Student

... is not always easy

Last week I was traveling around with a Taiwanese friend in the nearby area. We walked around Freiburg, Strasbourg, and then visited other friends in Schwäbisch Gmund, Stuttgart, and Karlsruhe.

This was supposed to be his last trip in Europe before returning to Taiwan.

My friend was very popular among the department during his studying. He was even elected the head of the student’s association in the department once.

In my memory he was always the person who got along well with anyone; even the most wicked professors respected him.

Studying was also no big deal to him. Not that he was always the best among classmates, but that he was always able to get to whatever program he wanted for the future with his transcript.

When he applied a sustainability program in TU Delft, it was also his first choice. His future seemed bright, for him and for everyone else around.

So I was very surprised to learn that he decided to suspend his studying and return to Taiwan for some time, before deciding later whether he will resume his studying or not.

During the trip he told me much about the reasons why he could not finish the master thesis.

The first reason was the coldness he felt in Nederland, both physically and psychologically.

The people there, he told me, valued everything only in terms of business. For the Dutch, sustainability is therefore more about how to build a successful business model then really an obligatory cause to follow.

Since he is not a really leftish person, this did not bother him much. However, the business mindset of his colleagues did not end only there.

He found it super hard to discuss deep topics in politics, beliefs, and cultural experiences with his colleagues, because they simply did not care much about these topics. All the cocktail parties seemed superficial and void.

So when he felt low or had real difficulties during his studies, he could not find even a single person to really talked to there.

And there were no real* environment groups at the campus and the cities, at least he could not find one. This was also a great blow to him. In Taiwan, these groups had served a strong supportive network for him. They gave him the sense that many people were on the same boat. They also provided aids in studying and initiatives.
*Real in the sense that they take actions. But as I already told him, there are people doing climate action in Nederland, and there was even a climate camp in the summer. It is true, however, that local groups are usually not accessible to foreign students.

But a more important reason to his decision was how education was valued in Nederland.

The business mindset had made universities there caring more about profits from tuition fees than a sustainable relationship between the students and the school.

In addition, professors did not feel an obligation to guide students through their way. Students were expected to learn by themselves and professors only gave reading advice.

This is especially hard for him, because of the trans-discipline nature of his thesis. Engineers are not capable of writing thesis in social science by default.

A few years ago, when he was in an exchange program in the state university of Maryland, things were totally different than those in Nederland.

There was a strong action group within the student government that pushed the school for divestment and 100%, and the professors were more supportive.

The half year experience there left strong impression for him. In fact, he decided to do sustainable transition studies at campus as his master thesis because of this experience.

It also, in some sense, gave birth to our own department of sustainability in student government of Taida; when we heard about his experience, we were also inspired and set up our own campaigns and agenda.

That was exactly two years ago from now; everything then was a distant and unfamiliar past for me.

But for him, the saga still continues. He will carry our ultimate goal of pushing for an office for sustainability and divestment with him back in Taiwan. So in some sense his work on master thesis still has not yet ended; he is just trying to bring theory into practice for the moment.

That is why I think it is actually not a very bad thing for him to return to Taiwan for a while. In fact, his return might come at a great timing, for most students involved in the sustainable department are now either graduated or fully committed to other stuff.

However, I still think many insights can be drawn from his story. From a personal point of view, it is of course a reminder that success in the past does not guarantee success in the future. But his account reveals something larger.

This is not a person who would feel shy to talk to anyone in an unfamiliar environment. Neither is he a person who is reluctant to reveal deeper personal beliefs and political views to friends and colleagues at public. He also speaks fluent English.

All in all, he is by no means the stereotyped eastern Asian student you would expect him to be. His account therefore holds more implications beyond personal level.

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Tony Yen

Tony Yen

A Taiwanese student who studied Renewable Energy in Freiburg. Now studying smart distribution grids / energy systems in Trondheim.