My name is Jack Heuberger and I’m a junior currently studying abroad in Amsterdam. I’m a CS major and a Level II Tech/Dev for STS. Outside of school I play Ultimate for Contraband and I’m helping to organize Hack WashU!

 

Higher Education in the Netherlands:

Course Registration, and University

September 24, 2022

The hardest part about registering for classes here in the Netherlands was WashU’s confusing course selection “Study Plan,” but that’s a rabbit hole for another time. Course registration here in the Netherlands is fundamentally different from universities in the US in a very interesting way.

I’m in Amsterdam until December, which is the equivalent of two “periods” of school. Each academic year is divided into six periods, each eight weeks long. Some classes are just for a single period, while some span multiple. Classes across periods are usually worth ore credits than single-period classes due to them being twice the length and covering twice the amount of content. Here are my 5 classes:

  • Concurrency & Multithreading – P1
  • Equational Programming – P1
  • Discover the Dutch – P1/P2
  • Numerical Methods – P1/P2
  • Secure Programming – P2

I’m currently enrolled in four classes, but next semester I’ll only be enrolled in three, even though I’m taking five classes total. A bit confusing right? Don’t worry it gets better.

Academic Differences

There’s nothing like registration day at WashU (especially as a CS major). Waking up early, double checking your registration sheet, and then getting a sinking feeling in your stomach as you refresh WebSTAC and watch the number of available seats plummet.

The difficulty of registration in the Netherlands stems from the fundamentally different approach to higher education than in the US. 1. People here generally take fewer classes per semester — I haven’t met a single person taking more than 3 classes, other than US exchange students. 2. Classes are more DIY. While you might have lecture twice a week, it’s usually up to you to really understand the material on your own. There’s no graded busy work, leading to my next point. 3. Classes here are structured differently. It’s not uncommon for classes to have an exam worth 70% to 80% of your final grade. You can’t start off strong and then slack off towards the end of the semester in the same way as in the US because your grade has no padding. 4. There’s no freedom in the classes you take. Your program lists out a certain number of courses and when you complete them, you get your degree. There aren’t the same elective or breadth requirements as in the US

People fail classes much more often in Europe than in the US, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fewer classes have prerequisites, and a significant number of students take more than the standard three years to graduate. If your tuition is only €X per year (don’t click the link – it will make you upset), the financial burden of not graduating on time is comparatively negligible when compared to schools in the US.

On that happy note, we can move on to scheduling.

Class Scheduling

In the US, classes are generally the same week-by-week. For each class, you’ll usually have a lecture at the same time, in the same room, either M/W/F, or T/H. Maybe you’re in a subsection that’s in a different room or one lecture is at a different time. Either way, it’s the same week by week.

That’s not the case at the VU. Each class’ schedule might change week over week. Because of that, you have to check for course conflicts over the entire length of the class, not just at a single week. Here is the schedule for my first two weeks of class:

During the first week, I didn’t have my computer lab section of Numerical Methods on Tuesday. Similarly, my Concurrency class was cancelled on 9/9. The Practical Tutorial section of Equational Programming is the class’ office hours, which is built in to the schedule of the entire class! While this graphic doesn’t show it, the only class that is in the same room for every section is Concurrency. Every other class is in a different room for each section. That even goes for the two back-to-back sections of Equational Programming on Thursday — halfway through, the entire class gets up and moves to a different room across campus.

This doesn’t even show my favorite part of class: breaks. CSE347 gets a bad rep at WashU, and I think that’s due partly to the weekly lecture structure. The material is extremely dense, and lecture takes place once a week for 2.5 hours. That’s 2.5 hours of intense algorithmic and proof analysis, without a break. In the Netherlands, it’s standard for every class to have a 15 minute break, generally halfway through. All of those 1hr 45min lectures are actually only 1.5 hours of actual content, with a 15 minute break halfway through. Honestly, it makes all the difference between me taking notes or zoning off in class.

In conclusion:

while classes here might be faster paced and more intense, there’s less overall pressure than in the US due to the amount of classes people take per semester, as well as the cost of school itself. The scheduling system is unique in its structure, and makes every class interaction immediately available. It’s nice having flexibility in class times — I can go grocery shopping on Monday afternoon before my class, or just skip it all together and watch an old Zoom recording of the material. If I understand all the exercises in my Equational Programming class, then I can sleep in on Thursday and just go to that class’ lecture. Having everything blocked out like this allows more flexibility for students who have other commitments, and makes planning your week easier.

The Netherlands: Optimizing for the 90%

August 29, 2022

One key thing that I’ve noticed during my first week in the Netherlands is that the entire country is significantly more technologically competent than the United States. I’ve found that companies in the Netherlands would rather be extremely efficient for 90% of people than immediately present a solution that works for everyone. Let me explain.

My first large hurdle in the Netherlands was opening a bank account. After doing research online, I eventually chose my preferred bank and looked into how to open an account. The first step for all 3 of the banks I looked at was the same: download the app. There’s no way to do it online — only via app. This actually makes a lot of sense, because as part of opening an account you need to scan your passport.

I am both a U.S. and a Swiss citizen (my dad is from Zurich), so I decided to scan my Swiss passport. After scanning, the app then activated the NFC chip in my phone, and asked me to hold my phone up to the front cover of my passport like I was making a Apple/Google Pay payment, and it scanned my biometric data off of my passport and did a facial scan.

While U.S. passports have the same NFC chip in them (the briefcase/chest looking symbol on the front), I’m not sure what data they store. I’ve never had to be fingerprinted/facial scanned as part of renewing my U.S. passport like I have for my Swiss passport.

After confirming all of my biometric data, I was told that because I was born in the States, I needed to go into a branch instead of using the app. I repeated the process with two more banks. One gave me the same result, and the second told me that it would take a week to verify my information.

I decided to just bite the bullet and go into an ING branch. On the way to the branch I selected, I passed a service point (i.e. a mini-branch that was inside of a post office). In there, they told me they didn’t have access to override my tax info, and that I needed to go to a main branch.

The U.S. is one of only two countries that taxes its citizens no matter where they live. From the IRS: “You are subject to tax on worldwide income from all sources and must report all taxable income and pay taxes according to the Internal Revenue Code.”

I carried on into the main branch and waited my turn. Eventually I walked up to the teller and asked to open an account. They told me that they couldn’t help me unless I had an appointment. When I explained that the service point had told me to come in, they recognized that I was already “in the system”, and just needed to change some details. After confirming that I had no tax obligations in the Netherlands, and giving my Social Security Number, they said I would receive my card by mail by 5 business days.

What’s the best case for this kind of situation? Just opening the account in the app like they advertise. Most banks in the States, save the big banks like Chase, BofA, etc, don’t even let you open an account online. I used to have an account with a small local bank in my hometown, but switched because their app and most of their ATMs wouldn’t let me deposit checks.

The Dutch banking system forced me to use a process that works for 90% of people, but then I was in one of the 10% of edge cases that needed to go into a branch. If the app had worked for me first try I would have been very pleasantly surprised, but I was expecting to go into a branch anyways.

Registering for classes, buying subway tickets, and even buying food at the grocery store all try to get 90% of the people out of the way by minimizing options and letting the system work (the banking app), rather than designing a tedious process that works for everyone (going into a branch)