And a word on academics

31 12 2012

Oh wait, before you go off thinking that I spent the entirely of my exchange travelling and engaging in various social activities, let me say a few words about AUC and my courses. 

Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a joint institution created by the University of Amsterdam and VU University, providing an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences curriculum. It was founded in 2009 and has about 700 students. Aside from having almost double our population, AUC is fairly comparable to Quest – core curriculum, interdisciplinary, small classes (25 students in this case), residential campus and a highly international student body. A main difference is its location in the “global city” of Amsterdam, which has a population of nearly a million people, whereas Squamish is only about 15,000. With the city center only 15 minutes away by bike, Amsterdam was very accessible, and I would go to the center almost daily for errands or to meet friends at a café. 

Additionally, in contrast to Quest’s block program, AUC operates on a regular semester system, meaning students take four (but in my case, five) courses at once. Overall, based on my experience in the social sciences (this might differ for different faculties), I felt that the academic rigour was less intense than Quest’s, even during midterms and finals. Also, there seemed to be a lower level of student engagement, which I think is in part due to the semester system; it is difficult to fully immerse yourself in one class when you have three or four other classes on your mind. Further, although it varies by class, there was less emphasis on classroom participation.

However, I did appreciate having a life outside of school. At AUC, I felt that I had more personal time for social activities, volunteering and an outside job. But, perhaps this speaks partially to my goals and priorities for my exchange – to have a cultural experience in addition to an academic one. 

Here’s a bit of a review on my individual courses:

1. Basic Research Methods and Statistics – Fairly standard and textbook orientated, but sometimes fun in the way that math sometimes is, especially when you haven’t done it in a while. Excel can also be fun, or at least make you feel all powerful. This course also re-introduced me to the concept of the exam, something that has been wonderfully absent from my life for most of my undergraduate career. At Quest, assessment mostly consists of papers and presentations. 

2. Intro to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the bane of my Wednesday mornings, as I would sit for 3 to 4 hours in front of not one, but two monitors, baffled by the intricacies of impossible software. While my subjective memory portrays this experience as me banging my head against the keyboard, I did learn a few things and certainly an appreciation for the power of GIS technology. Further, I also completed a cool final project on the deforestation occurring on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation in the Parc de la Verendrye Wildlife Reserve in Quebec. 

3. History of National Civil Rights Movements – Truly a great course, taught by an incredible Venezulan anthropologist. We started with the American Civil Rights Movement, then proceeded to learn about social movement theory (resource mobilization, collective identity, framing, and political processes and opportunities). In the final phase of the course, we looked at gay liberation, feminism, and alter-globalization. For this class, I wrote my final paper on collective identity of the transnational peasants’ movement and La Via Campesina. 

4. Community and Society in a Globalized World – Finally, a long-overdue anthropology course. We spent the first half of the course discussing globalization and how it influences people’s lifeworlds – specifically, in terms of migration and transnational life, global circulation of goods and cultural globalization. But the fun really began in the second part when we conducted our own fieldwork. Together with a Catalan exchange student, I studied the role of a particular Catalan restaurant/bar on the Catalan community in Amsterdam. Specifically, we looked at how the bar owners facilitated migrant clustering and the development of migrant social networks. This topic was particularly relevant in light of Catalonia’s recent mass protests and election in favour of independence from Spain. And the Catalan cuisine that we had on our numerous field visits was a nice bonus!

5. And last, but not least, my wild card course – From Dada to Hell’s Kitchen. What was that about? A little bit crazy and kooky, best described by “the weirder the better”. It centred around the theme of performance art, but really there were few boundaries. Sophia created a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere where we could get to know each other and allow creativity to flourish. Lots of fun classroom activities and a series of live performance that I could have never imagined doing. 





4 months of Amsterdam in review

29 12 2012

Sitting at the airport in Paris, on a layover between Amsterdam and Toronto, I thought it might be a prime time to reflect on the past four months.

I arrived in Amsterdam on August 19. August was filled with orientation activities (both the International Students’ Network and AUC), getting lost while cycling around the city and meeting dozens and dozens of new people. The first couple weeks were certainly intense, but they also involved a lot of laying in the sunshine and picnics in the park with new friends.

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In September, school started all too quickly, and I began to settle into a routine. As I began to learn my way around the city, I also began getting lost less and less. Thank goodness! I stumbled upon a job working as a bartender at De Doos, which was completely unexpected, and picked up some volunteer shifts at Joe’s Garage, a nearby squat that serves vegan meals a couple nights a week. Both at the Doos and Joe’s, I became acquainted with the plethora of Belgian brews.

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October came and brought with it more frequent rainy days, but I was too busy to make too much of a fuss about the weather. On Thanksgiving weekend, 6 of us took the train Breda, in the south of the Netherlands, bringing our bikes along with us, then cycled about 20 km to campsite in the “wild”. The Dutch definition of “wild” doesn’t quite match the Canadian one, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

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I also roasted my first turkey…two, in fact! About 30 international friends came over for a Thanksgiving potluck, many of which had never celebrated Thanksgiving before. Gluttony ensued.

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The next week I had a joint birthday party at the Doos, with two other Doosies, and together packed the place out.

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And towards the end of the month, Net, Mattie and I enjoyed a show by Canadian singer-songwriter Peter Katz, who I am in fact listening to as I write this. A nice intimate, acoustic show at Paradiso, followed by milkshakes!

In November, Pedro and I embarked on a hitchhiking adventure to the south of Belgium, as part of a competition with about 30 or 40 other exchange students. We arrived in the middle of the pack, not first, but also not last. Our 8-hour journey consisted of about 12 rides, covering about 400 kms. Our drivers were Dutch, Flemish and French, so some of our communications were more successful than others.

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Towards the end of the month, Breanna made the the trek across the pond for a two-weekvisit. Together, we travelled to Prague and Budapest. Lots of different modes of travel, walking tours, beautiful panoramic vistas, and rich, but delicious cuisine. Then, we returned to Amsterdam and did some touring there, most memorably while riding a tandem! We also snatched a conifer branch from nearby Flevopark, and transformed it into a lovely little Christmas tree.

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Then, far too quickly, December was upon us. I tried dearly to avoid the stress imposed by the impending doom of final assignments, and I was reasonably successful. I hosted another evening of gluttony, a Christmas cookie swap, and had my final shift at the Doos. As finals wrapped up, it also meant saying goodbye to many friends. For some, it seemed as though we had known each other much longer than four months, while for others, it felt as though time was cut short.

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On Christmas eve, I went to Barcelona. I spent a day or so in the city – Parc Guell, Sangrada Familia, midnight mass at the cathedral (incomprehensible since it was in Catalan, yet beautiful), and Barcelonetta Beach. I spent the rest of the time visiting friends ine Calders, Girona and Amer. Practiced a bit of my Spanish, and learned about the Catalan Christmas traditions, and of course, sampled Catalan cuisine – tapas, pa amb tomàquet, octopus and torró. A “bon fatal” indeed!Image

And there you have it, just scratching the surface of four jam-packed months on exchange in Amsterdam. What a whirlwind! One chapter ending to allow another to begin! I better be off – boarding time!





Excellence and diversity in a global city

3 09 2012

Right now, I am sitting in a cafe (not a bar, but a cafe in the North American sense – I would say coffee shop, but I’m afraid that too has other connotations in these parts), doing some readings for a class called ‘Community and Society in a Globalized World’. Yes, even though I don’t have any classes until tomorrow, I’m afraid my summer has been cut short by 50 pages of reading. After an hour or so of reading and about only 10 pages in (yes, my brain is clearly still in summer mode), my mind begins to wander, not completely off topic, but wander nonetheless…

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to meet other students from around the world. It is rather interesting to discuss cultural differences and find common ground. Particularly at Amsterdam University College, where I am currently studying, I have found the students to be very diverse, just as the AUC motto suggests (see title). Not only is the student population diverse, but the individuals are quite multifaceted and diverse. For example, I have met many students who have lived in a handful of different countries, speak an equal number of languages, even dual citizenship is rather commonplace. This certainly isn’t high school. I can’t help but think that AUC’s selection of these students was intentional. And for good reason. Like Quest, the classes are small – about 20 or 25 students, and from experience I know how much richer class discussions are when you have a variety of cultural perspectives. My experiences with the wonderfully diverse students of AUC seems to be just another example of our age of globalization.

But, I can’t help but to be mildly troubled by this sense of rootlessness, or as a friend referred to a “culture of transients” when she was presenting her undergraduate thesis. How can we really know a place when we are constantly moving about? How can we observe the discrete changes in the ecosystem if we ourselves are moving across the landscape at such a fast pace? How can we form a broad web of social connections and really create community? How can we give back to our community?

So, here I am. Caught at this crossroads, searching for reconciliation.

Then, I realize, for me, I will continue to seize every travel opportunity that presents itself, especially at this point in time. I will journey forth with a nomadic spirit and explore with my eyes wide open. Yet, I still know where home is. And who home is. I know where my roots are, and what they are so I can carry them with me wherever I go. And when it’s right, I will return to them.

As for my peers, I will be grateful for their diversity. Just as we need the specialists and the generalists, we also need the rooted and the transients. It is more interesting that way.





Welkom in Amsterdam

26 08 2012

I have now been in Amsterdam for one week and the dust beneath my feet is beginning to settle. Yet, this week has gone by very quickly because I was busy with orientation activities organized by ISN (International Student Network). The highlights include a neon party, a crash course in Dutch, a boat cruise through Amsterdam’s canals, picnicking with friends in Oosterpark, a improv comedy night at Boom Chicago, a rooftop BBQ, sport climbing and karate at the university’s beautiful sports center and the final party with over 800 people! And last night, a couple friends and I went to “Pluk de nacht” or “Seize the night”, an open air film festival where we watched a coming-of-age comedy called “Terri“. However, even more exciting than all these activities was meeting so many new friends who are also studying in Amsterdam on exchange this term!

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This past week I have also become more familiar with Dutch culture and tradition – including “de fiets” or “the bike”. It seems like a funny coincidence that it is called “fiets”, pronounced “feet” because a bike is like your second pair of feet! I was fortunate to acquire a bike very quickly because my roommate was going on a holiday in Portugal for the last two weeks of summer and let me borrow her bike. This is by far the best way to explore and orient yourself around the city! At times, it is a bit unsettling as there are so many bikes and traffic and people, but it is getting easier as I learn the proper etiquette. There are two things (at least!) that I like best about my “fiets”:

  1. Physical activity! I have always struggled to find time to “work out” nor have I particularly enjoyed exercising for the sake of exercising. Yes, I know it is necessary for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which is adequate justification, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. Further, I find it a bit nonsensical to see people going to the gym and jumping on the treadmill which is plugged into the wall and watching the television, also plugged in. Think about the energy use! In reality, gyms could be creating electricity if we converted all that kinetic energy, like they do for the Toronto Bicycle Music Festival. (I met the organizer of this at Hillside this year and went to his workshop about bike power. Pretty neat stuff!) Power plants, not gyms! While I wait for this utopian technology, I’ll just ride my bike, reduce fossil fuel use, exercise (without it feeling like exercise!) and get from point A to point B.
  2. It is basic technology that still requires use of our wonderfully complex human brains. In the age of mechanization, our actions are becoming more and more automated. Green light, go. Red light, stop. GPS says turn left, turn left and we forget to use our God-given mind. I just finished reading E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful and in his chapter titled “Buddhist Economics“, he talks about how traditional Western economics focuses more on the product and less on the worker, and in a quest for greater efficiency, we turn to mechanization. However, this process of mechanization often deprives us of getting true fulfillment from our work because we are merely machines. Perhaps this is gone a bit off topic, but I’ll bring it back. A car is a relatively complex machine and if it breaks, we usually can’t fix it ourselves and need a mechanic. Also, we are bound by other traffic and traffic lights. A bike, on the other hand, is fairly simple technology, thus easier to fix. And although, we have to follow traffic lights too, there are bike paths and I feel a greater sense of freedom. I have to weave around obstructions and keep my eye out for other traffic, but my ability to do this makes me human, and I like that.

Anyway, the rain clouds have finally parted (for now) and the sun is out, so I better take advantage of this window of opportunity and hop on my fiets and do some errands.

But before I go, here are some photos of my apartment (otherwise known as “the penthouse”)

My apartment

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…and of my beautiful, brand new academic building at Amsterdam University College.

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