Friday, May 1, 2015

Precious Gem: Tori Queeney

Hello from the Netherlands! Or as they say here, hoi-hoi! I’m currently spending the semester in Maastricht, a small city in the southernmost province of the Netherlands. I originally was going to study in Amsterdam, but Dr. Coale and Dr. Skendall were really interested in a program here in Maastricht and how it could be adapted for the Gemstone curriculum, so I did a little research and found myself volunteering to be the first UMD student to study here! I liked the program here because of the four-week “project period” at the end of the semester. The project that the Gemstone staff was interested in is called Think Tank, where teams of students (sound familiar?) work together to solve problems posed to them by real-world companies and institutions. I’m the first UMD student to come to Maastricht, but we’re hosting a UCM student in the fall and hope to have more Gemstone students study abroad here in the future. Of course, I’m still working with my Gemstone team while I’m here – I mostly do editing for grant proposals and other writing things. I love being able to stay involved – my team, CATTAILS, recently won the library award and I’m so proud!

Maastricht is adorable – there’s no other way to say it! People here bike everywhere, and most of the streets are cobblestone pedestrian streets that are always filled with window-shoppers. As I go to the main square, which is called the Vrijthof, I have to run the gauntlet of Pinky stores, which sell fresh, rich, buttery, and almost-too-sweet Belgian waffles. There’s a Pinky store around literally every corner, and the smell is irresistible. The Vrijthof itself is a big square with two churches (a physical reminder of the city’s complex history as a border between the Netherlands and Belgium). The square is lined with restaurants on the other three sides, and when it gets warm out they put chairs and tables on the sidewalk so you can eat outside. Somehow these places are always packed – even midday during the week! During Carnival, the Vrijthof turned into a giant party, with every restaurant setting up an outdoor bar and blasting Carnival music. Carnival is kind of like Mardi Gras in New Orleans – everyone gets off school (in my province, since it’s predominantly Catholic, we get off school/work for an entire week) and parties in the streets all day and all night. The best thing about Carnival is the costumes – the women in hoop dresses and elaborate face paint, the masks, the sheer number of different crazy costumes that people come up with – it was all a little overwhelming as an outsider, but it was so fun to be a part of!

Of course, I do still have to go to school here. My faculty is University College Maastricht, or UCM, and unlike Maryland, University Maastricht doesn’t have a set campus. Each faculty has a building somewhere in the city – I’m lucky because mine is across the street from the library! University Maastricht is about as big as UMD, and UCM has 600 students – about the size of Gemstone! But unlike Gemstone students, UCM students have all their classes in one building together. The only lecture hall holds up to 100 students, and the rest of the classrooms are set up in circles for discussion and have a maximum of 15 chairs. Instead of lectures, most of our classes are two-hour discussions between the students – the professors (we call them tutors) are only there to make sure we go in the right direction. The only downside to this as an exchange student is the strict attendance policy – for most classes, 85% attendance is mandatory. On the other hand, I only have class three days a week….

Which leaves lots of time for traveling! There’s an International Student Network here that organizes parties every week for the international students (which actually outnumber the Dutch natives!) and also organizes trips to places around Europe. I went on a trip to Prague, and it was amazing! On my own, I’ve also organized trips to London, Cologne, and Amsterdam, and my spring break consisted of backpacking from Rome to Venice with a friend and then flying to Paris to meet up with another friend! There honestly isn’t enough time in the world to travel as much as I would like to, but I’m also planning on spending some time in Germany and Austria. I’m also going back up to Amsterdam for King’s Day, which is basically a huge celebration for the King or Queen of the Netherlands. To the Dutch, this means another giant street party, this time with everyone decked out in orange!

As of now, I’m exactly halfway through my stay here, and while I do miss Old Bay, UMD sports games, wearing sweatpants to class, and most of all, Bagel Place, I have completely fallen in love with Maastricht and Dutch culture, and I know there are so many things I will have the privilege to miss when I come home.

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