The school year at KU Leuven, Belgium is coming to a close after a whirlwind of events that made five months feel like fleeting moments. My first semester living in Europe has been an exciting time as each week brought new experiences and friendships. When I first arrived at Leuven, I was concerned that I would struggle with living in a new culture on my own. After a couple months it became clear that I had a lot in common with my fellow exchange students who were also studying abroad and we created our own community. I learned through my experience the importance of having an open mind and a big heart. Leuven has a diverse group of people from across the world living together despite cultural differences. Looking past the differences you have with someone to find common ground is the most rewarding lesson I have learned here in Leuven. Everyone on Earth knows something that you don’t, making their perspective on life unique. Listening to the beliefs and ideas of other people is discovering another part of the world. The lesson of empathy is something that will transcend my studies in Belgium and always be with me wherever life takes me.
The Euroscholars Program by International Studies Abroad and sponsored by KU Leuven has given my peers and me a unique opportunity to live among the Erasmus student community while contributing to cutting edge research in our fields. I spent my semester working on a comparative election report studying how political parties interact with each other and the general public in different party systems. I compared my experience working on political campaigns in the United States, which has a two-party system to the Belgian multi-party system by reading case studies and speaking with Belgian citizens about how they view the role of parties in running the government. I found that multi-party systems have more parties, which requires them to work together after the election to create a governing majority. In the two-party system, the winning party takes sole control of the position they are running for which makes the competition intense. Overall, my research has given me a great opportunity to learn how other groups of people live together and create a consensus to solve problems facing their nation.
I also had the opportunity to speak with a fellow Euroscholar, Camryn Lizik, about her experience as a student at KU Leuven. Camryn is a junior at Arizona State University working towards a bachelor’s in Psychology.
Interviewer: What did you know about Leuven and Belgium before arriving here?
Camryn Lizik: I knew very little about Belgium before coming here and even less about Leuven. I could have told you that Belgium was a small country wedged between France and Germany and that it was divided into Dutch- and French-speaking regions. Great beer and waffles were definitely expected. As for Leuven, all I knew about was the university I’d be a guest at for five months.
IN: Were you nervous coming here, if so what were some of the concerns?
CL: I was nervous that I would have a hard time getting around in a Dutch-speaking region before I learned that most Flemish people speak fluent English. Now I mostly just feel like a jerk, but at least I can talk to people I meet!
IN: Has your experience here been better or worse than you expected? Why?
CL: I definitely fell in love with Leuven, more so than I could have expected. I appreciate that the entire town feels like an extension of the university. It is clean, safe, and walkable, and there is an atmosphere of youth that makes it a fun place to live. Seeing people scurrying around the cobblestone streets and the markets on the weekends creates this sense of community.
IN: What were some things KU Leuven provided that made it easier for you to adjust?
CL: Professor Astrid van Wieringen has been extremely helpful from the very beginning and did everything in her power to make me feel welcome and at home. She even inquired if I was warm enough or if I needed more blankets for the dorm. I was not expecting to form that sort of a relationship with the professor I was working with, and I’m very grateful.
IN: What project did you work on while at Leuven?
CL: I worked on the Luister Project with the Otorhinolaryngology research group at KU Leuven. That’s a really long, scary word for “science of ears (oto), nose (rhino) and throat (laryn)”, and the Luister Project studies hearing loss. My project was to evaluate one feature of an auditory training program in young adults. To give you some background: auditory training programs are designed to improve the communication skills (listening and comprehension) of people with hearing loss, such as is seen in older people or hearing-aid users. This is done through the repetition of an auditory listening task, which might look like listening to a set of sounds and determining which one is different. The auditory task I was evaluating also combined a memory component. It required users to constantly remember their previous answers while listening to a new set of sounds. This memory component and its effect are what I evaluated.
IN: What were the differences in this program compared to your American education experience?
CL: The biggest difference is that I had one research project rather than a schedule of classes, so I felt like I was working as a researcher rather than as a student. This is the most involved I have ever been in a research project, and it was my mine priority rather than an extracurricular experience.
IN: Do you feel that what you experience in Europe will help you when you return home, or in life in general?
CL: Yes, I really do. It is one thing to visit a place, but living there is a more profound experience culturally. It’s been interesting to get to know how people work together with different types of lifestyles and values than what I’m used to. I also had a sense of how Europeans view Americans before coming here, but discussing perceptions firsthand gave more insight. I haven’t felt anything other than welcomed. I also have enjoyed learning what people think of the country I’m from. And trust me, I get it… More than anything though, living abroad inspire ideas about how to improve my home country and the various communities that comprise it.
IN: If you could go back and talk to yourself before leaving for Leuven, what is the one thing you would say?
CL: “You’re going to love it, so stop worrying!”
I would like to conclude my departing post for ISA by endorsing the Euroscholars program as a gateway to a whole new world. The program gave me invaluable tools that will help beyond the classroom. I learned through my five months abroad how to be my own person through completing a comprehensive project while integrating into a new community. I would like to thank my home institution, Clark University, ISA and KU Leuven for providing me with this opportunity. Furthermore, my semester abroad would not have been possible without the Gilman Scholarship generously granted to me by the U.S. Department of State. I am so happy to have been able to share my experience with my former Middle School and encourage them to also seek opportunities abroad in the service of our country. I would also like to thank my family and friends, who have been my anchor while sailing on this exciting voyage. I look forward to finding further opportunities to represent my home while abroad and build new bridges worldwide.
Alexander Azar is a student at Clark University and was an ISA Featured Blogger. He studied with EuroScholars in Leuven, Belgium.
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