An experience I will forever be grateful for

16 Feb 2017 - 10:15

Annabel Fenton on canals in Amsterdam(Image left: Annabel Fenton on a boat ride through Amsterdam's famous canals)

The process of learning is always something that I have relished in, in all forms. I am fascinated by the world around us, and I want to soak it up in as many different ways as possible. Spending a semester at the University of Amsterdam gave me the perfect opportunity to broaden my knowledge of the world, and how it relates to my two majors: Economics and Environmental and Geographical Science. I learnt so much both in and out of university, and I hope to capture the essence of my experience in this article, divided into three sections: Academic Reflections, Lifestyle Reflections and Financial Reflections.

Academic reflections

I had many expectations going to a foreign university. I expected the academic rigour to be much more intensive, and for the content to be Eurocentric.

Doing Macroeconomics II through UNISA gave me the opportunity to get more into the courses that I did at the University of Amsterdam, which were Cities & Change, Perspectives on Amsterdam and an Introduction to Conflict Studies.

In general, I found the style of learning completely different, and not as traditionally ‘rigorous’ as I was expecting. Because the threat of unemployment is far less in the Netherlands, it appears as if students have more choice over what they study, meaning that they are (in general) more interested in their courses.

This is complemented by the fact that the academic structure of the courses I took was far more about individual motivation, and making what we wanted of the course. Each of my courses only had a two‐hour lecture weekly or biweekly, and it was up to us to do the pre‐reading. Furthermore, instead of having regular assignments, the courses that I did consisted of one big research‐orientated group project, and the exam.

This gave me more freedom to delve more deeply into the themes I was most interested in, while still gaining of a general overview of the subject by attending weekly lectures.

Having to do so much group work was definitely one of my biggest learning experiences from the university of Amsterdam.

For my Urban Studies courses (Cities & Change and Perspectives on Amsterdam), the group projects consisted of well‐detailed proposals that contained both theory and an analysis of Amsterdam’s urban environment and how to improve this. This required field work and detailed co‐ordination, which will be useful to me as I study more of Environmental and Geographical Science.

Within the Conflict Studies course, the group work was more presentation-focused, which came with its own challenges such as balancing the interests of the group, and making sure that everyone was well‐represented. For this course, my presentations were about the Rwandan Genocide and the Bosnian Genocide. This diversity of subject allowed me to share my African‐focused knowledge base, while learning about the similarities and differences experienced during European periods of conflict.

As someone interested primarily in development studies, experiencing the academic culture of the developed world was fascinating. I felt like I brought South African perspectives to my classes, while also having a glimpse of what lies ahead in terms of economic and social development.

Much of the urban studies discussions were focused on future‐proofing cities, and using technology to create sharing economies.

I am interested to see how a country such as South Africa can integrate these solutions into the infrastructural development and poverty eradication that needs to be done.

The academic experience at the University of Amsterdam taught me how to appreciate the freedom of education and the enjoyment of tertiary education. As well as this, being taught by career professionals (as there was an abundance of guest lecturers in all courses) gave me a greater insight into how the theory that I’m currently learning will one day be implemented. This, and the ability to co‐ordinate detailed research within a group environment, are my greatest academic takeaways from the experience.

University of Amsterdam
The University of Amsterdam

Lifestyle reflections

Living in another country always requires some adjustment, especially when the dominant language is not English, and the culture is as different as Dutch culture is.

I think that I was very lucky to be living in Amsterdam, because while it is the capital of the Netherlands, it is also a very international city. this meant that English is widely spoken, and I was constantly surrounded by people from all over the world.

This global connectivity was also stimulated by my living environment. Through the university’s housing company, De Key, I was able to organise living in student apartments with other international students in Diemen, which is about a 30 minute cycle from the city centre.

This meant that I made friends with people from Greece, India, Spain, Germany, Ireland, the UK, and Turkey! This more informal cultural exchange also added so much to my semester abroad. Through our discussions, I learnt so much about the different challenges that youth face throughout Europe (and the world).

I began to realise that in the globalised world of today, we are all a lot more alike than we think. Furthermore, I felt like I was able to educate people from around the world about South Africa, our unique history, and the current issues of race and class that we face. I felt like my international friends valued this very much, as not many Europeans know much more about South Africa than a vague reference to Nelson Mandela. I was happy to try to convey the deep complexities resulting from colonialism and Apartheid, and how these events have shaped the current instability within tertiary institutions.

Another huge highlight of my trip was that while I was in Amsterdam, I took up a part-time internship for an NGO called Child and Youth Finance International. I worked on a platform called the Ye! Community, which is an online platform for young entrepreneurs from around the world to connect to each other, tools and pitching competitions as well as other opportunities. I was tasked with calling the entrepreneurs for feedback, and thus spoke to change‐makers from Nigeria, Ghana, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Cameroon, India and Brazil, just to name a few!

I was also then put in charge of running the platform’s online blog, and co‐ordinated, edited and wrote articles that gave advice and commentary on the world of entrepreneurship in a fun way.

While it was an unpaid internship, I feel like I gained so much value from the experience: working with career professionals from around the world, experiencing an international company culture, and creating contacts within the industry that I want to be involved in.

Annabel Fenton at Van Gogh Museum
Annabel and a friend view a Van Gogh work of art in the Van Gogh Museum

Financial reflections

Unfortunately, Amsterdam is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The following is a breakdown of how I spent my €850 every month.

  • Expenses Rent: €400
  • Bicycle Rent: €80
  • Other Transport (Tram/Night bus): €50
  • Toiletries: €30
  • Food: €100
  • Entertainment: €100
  • Printing/Stationery and Educational Supplies: €40
  • Emergency Fund/Miscellaneous Expenses: €50 €850


A typical street in Amsterdam
A typical street in Amsterdam

In conclusion Going on exchange to Amsterdam is an experience that I will forever be grateful for. Being able to experience the European way of life, and opening myself up to the academic experience of a renowned university such as the University of Amsterdam really broadened my horizons and helped me focus in on my career goals.

I would like to express gratitude to IAPO as well as the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation for funding my exchange. Without this assistance, it would not have been possible.

By Annabel Fenton
Images supplied