Leuven, A “Fairy Tale” College Town

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City of Leuven's Oude Markt, a popular city square (photo credit: flickr)

I fell in love with Europe by way of leafing through pages of books and travel magazines since I was probably still a toddler. The images of picturesque landscapes, quaint little towns, rich and vibrant cultures drew me in. I took French classes in high-school and learned German in college. I studied international relations for my undergraduate degree with keen interest for classes about European Union, politics, the World War I and II and the making of modern Europe. I was definitely not part of the popular flocks. Most of of my classmates were more interested in studying American politics or the relationship between Indonesia and Australia or the Southeast Asia region. They, in turn, were also more interested to continue their studies at universities in the U.S. or Australia, where English is the common language. The closest they could come to Europe would be to study in the U.K. for the very reason of English being the spoken language there. 

My thesis advisor at the time was himself a professor graduated from a European university. He and I immediately clicked and we’ve had many discussions about my interest to continue my study in Europe. I worked hard on my thesis and earned the necessary “A” for my final, which convinced him to introduce me to his former colleague, a professor at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Leuven Catholic University) in Belgium. The professor suggested that I should apply for a scholarship to study at his university. It didn’t take long before my mind was set. I remember skipping the deadlines to apply for the other popular, prestigious, and highly-competitive scholarships sponsored by the governments of Australia (Australian Development Scholarships or ADS), the U.K. (Chevening Scholarship), the U.S. (Fulbright) and Japan (Monbukagakusho, formerly known as Monbusho) and instead, I only applied for the one in Belgium, for a Master’s degree program at KU Leuven. 

I was sent right up to cloud number nine when my computer screen delivered the news of my scholarship acceptance one afternoon. Friends and family were obviously thrilled, but I could also see their puzzled looks for my choosing Leuven as my next place of residence, a name most Indonesians never heard of. 

Leuven… a fairy tale little land

Fonske

Blue, cloudless summer sky welcomed my tired, jet-lagged eyes. Neat, cobble-stoned streets (I remember seeing them in postcards about Europe) paved the way to various terra cotta-colored, ginger-bread-shaped houses, whose existence were interrupted by people crowding the entrances to coffee-shops, bars and restaurants. Right in the middle of its city center, stood “Fonske”, welcoming everyone, every man, every woman, every student – to Leuven, the fairy tale college-town. Fonske represents a university student. It stood proudly with a book in one hand and a glass in the other — some say the content of the glass is wisdom, some others say it’s beer – that he pours onto his head. (note: Leuven is also famous for being home of one of the largest beer breweries in Europe; mind you, in restaurants, a glass of beer or wine is actually cheaper than a glass of water :))

Everything was just gorgeous in Leuven! What a beautiful European town! What a calm and peaceful place to study. Leuven has this ability to bring in a secluded, safe feeling and it makes the world outside doesn’t matter anymore. The rest of the world could be at war and Leuven would just stand still. The whole thing was beautiful and peaceful, at the same time they felt surreal….

Where is Leuven and what is Katholieke Universiteit Leuven?

It is a small college-town located 25 km east of Belgium’s capital, Brussels. It is, by the way, also the “capital” of the European Union (EU) as it hosts EU headquarters and international organizations (i.e. NATO). Leuven itself is located in the northern region of Flanders where the spoken language is Flemish (the Belgian version of Dutch). The other predominant language is French, spoken in the northern region. A smaller number of people live in the eastern part speak German.

Catholic University of Leuven or Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven in Dutch, is one of the largest and oldest universities in Europe. It was founded in 1425 and is until now considered as one of the best institutions for academic research in theology, biotechnology, scientific research, engineering, canon law, politics, and social sciences. Times Higher Education listed KU Leuven in its “World’s 100 Best Universities” for 2012-2013.

As a large academic institution, the university offers various funding options for its prospective European and non-European students. The link here provides an extensive list of scholarships available. KU Leuven also has a very extensive list of international programs taught in English — see the list here.

Chocolate, pommes frites or moules-frites… 

Granted: chocolate from Belgium is a thousand times better than the one from Switzerland. Their “french fries” are amazing and their mussels are to-die-for. But life as a student meant so much more than just about food enjoyment or fun trips to European countries.

I was asked to come to Leuven before the start of the semester to join an extensive Dutch language course. This was not to help me with my courses as I was enrolled in an international Master’s degree program where the courses were all taught in English. The language course was provided so that I could learn the local knowledge and helped me adjust to life in Belgium.

As I arrived sooner than the rest of the other international students, I was “forced” to be independent in making my way around. Towards the end of my course, I also managed to order coffee at coffee shops, pommes-frites at the street vendors and do grocery shopping at local farmer’s markets — all in Dutch. That was fun!

The perks of being in a scholarship

First and foremost would be the various opportunities that were delivered right to my door: (1) I got to meet with different people from various backgrounds and walks of life: the other scholarship students from Africa, Asia, Europe; (2) the chance to have thorough discussion and exchange of ideas with professors and lecturers who were smart and open-minded; (3) the ability to learn from every one of them. These things were precious — and the fact that you could focus on your study, socialize and developed your social and inter-cultural skills without worrying about cost of living or tuition — was just something I always felt thankful for.

The scholarship covered the tuition fee (free of charge!), insurance, living allowance, books and transportation costs, plus round-trip tickets of Jakarta-Leuven-Jakarta. The amount I received was enough to save some modest budget for traveling to neighboring countries. I also got to taste how lovely it was to be a student in Europe: free museum passes to see countless exhibitions and concerts, the library card that enable me to borrow books from other libraries outside of Belgium, not to mention the discounted student-fare transportation tickets for use of trains and buses and to some extent, flight tickets, too. I felt I could just stay being a student forever!

I joined the university’s international student club and had fun getting together with students from all over the countries, partying and studying together The groups were of interesting mixture and I couldn’t tell how many times I started to forget that I am an Indonesian or that I actually look Asian — I always felt that I was one of the Africans when I joined them in a study group. Or, that I came from Spain when I joined the other group the next day. Everything was so together and fluid I forgot where I actually came from.

The challenges of being a (scholarship-sponsored) student

As much as it was great – and fun – to be a scholarship recipient, the challenges were pretty overwhelming. You could feel that you were constantly in the spotlight. On the first day of my semester, I was asked to introduce myself in front of everyone in class. Since I was the only Indonesian taking a Master’s program in European Politics, my classmates were pretty curious and started asking questions about Indonesia, its politics, its economy and about my scholarship and intention to study in Europe. It created this funny feeling in my stomach that I’d better behave and perform well, academically, or else the spotlight would be even brighter :)

As someone who didn’t grow up in Europe nor had previously studied at a European insitution, it was also difficult for me to catch up with my European classmates when it comes to their knowledge about European culture, economy and politics. I had to double my study effort, read the papers or textbooks twice or more, asked the professors “stupid” questions that my European counterparts might not have even asked in the first place. I really tried hard because I didn’t want to just be helpless and silent. I wanted to participate in class discussion and I wanted to bring new ideas from my “Southeast Asian” perspective, too! I built myself a thick skin because I needed to get good grades and I wanted to get through this all. I could imagine this would be the kind of challenge faced by many international students where differences in cultural background and knowledge might play crucial roles. I refused to give up but admittedly, it was also difficult – and tiring – for me to constantly work harder than your peers. 

Language, can be a barrier sometimes. For me, it was not so much about my level of understanding English, but it was more about my trying to understand what certain words or expression meant when they came from people whose cultural backgrounds were different from me and vice versa. Put it this way, the way you say “A” to someone from France might be perceived differently by someone from Germany or South Africa.

Having been in this kind of situation so many times enabled me to be more “culturally-sensitive” and I got “trained” to talk and write in a way that would make other people understand. Inter-cultural communications: I learned to develop skill in “diplomacy.” I learned to adjust to different academic and professional settings. I learned to be more culturally- and linguistically- fluid.

All the above helped me tremendously in my later career. As I took jobs in various international organizations, including the United Nations, the ability to work with different nationalities and adjust to different work settings played such important role.

Looking back, however, I think that the biggest challenge was actually to come to terms with my own self. Sometimes I got distracted, got bad grades and had to re-do homework. At times, I could focus on certain things and everything worked well. I had to force myself to stay focused to see the end-result and not to get bogged down easily when little pieces along the way didn’t turn out well. I learned to create smaller and bigger goals. I learned to create work plans — and back-up plans — to set predictable outcomes and manage the unpredictable results.

Central Library

More than just a fairy tale story

Leuven, from the day I arrived to the day I left, was and will still stay as gorgeous and “unmoved” as it has always been. It would always be the students who would have brought different stories to it – they would come and go and the stories would change from time to time. My whole experience of living alone – in a country thousands of miles away from my home – was not as beautiful as in a fairy-tale book. It was intense, filled with ups and downs, uncertainties and constant hard work just to achieve even the smallest goal.

Nevertheless, getting a scholarship to study abroad or studying abroad even without the scholarship, is a life experience worth living for. My somewhat “brief” year in Leuven had changed my life story and personality traits. To this day, I tend to seek life experience and places to live where I could continuously feel unsettled, foreign and international – maybe this kind of lifestyle can be addictive? I don’t know 😉

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Yunetta Anggiamurni
Yunetta managed international development programs for several years at the United Nations and the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, before moving to New York to work in financial services. She earned her M.A. in Political Science at KU Leuven, in Belgium, with an Academic Excellence scholarship from the Inter-University Council for Development Cooperation. Yunetta enjoys writing and has published her work at the Jakarta Post and Asia News.