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What It’s Like To Be a European Student at NYU

I’m a European student at NYU, one of very few in a school with an incredibly diverse student body. Both of my parents are Dutch and speak predominantly Dutch. I guess I’m not your typical student who lived in one place all their life and then decided to uproot their home and jet off to a whole new world. I’ve lived all over the place: Scotland, The Netherlands, Italy, and Russia. For me, choosing to go to America felt like a sort of natural progression of what I’d been doing since I was a kid.

I went to high school in the Netherlands, no not in Amsterdam, but in The Hague. I finished the IB program in 2017 and wanted to get away from my high school and all the people associated with it as quickly as I could. Like many people, I didn’t have a great time in high school, so getting away from it seemed like the best thing I could imagine. I applied only to American universities, in part because I had an ideal image of what “college” would be like: you know, American boys and sororities, American football games and the like. I knew nothing about rankings of schools or which schools suited the kind of environment I was looking for. I applied to NYU on a whim, thinking I’d most likely be rejected because I took the SAT without having studied and without knowing what it was about…

In an odd twist of fate, I was accepted to NYU in the Class of 2021. I spent my first year abroad in Florence, Italy as a Liberal Studies core student. It wasn’t a huge culture shock for me to be in Italy, more so adjusting to the way American students are. As much as I’ve met some of the best people I know through NYU, I had a really, really hard time coming to terms with the American attitude. That’s not to say all Americans are this way or that I’m trying to shame America or anyone that identifies as such, but to me there was such a difference in the way European kids acted compared to Americans. Dutch people, and so the people I grew up with, are very blunt and honest in their expressions. If something bothers them, they’ll be open about it and bring it up quickly. As much as that can be uncomfortable, to me it’s the best way to resolve things. I learned very quickly that that’s not the way Americans go about things. I felt like there were so many things going unsaid, issues that could have been resolved if they were just talked about. This made (and still does make) friendships with American girls at NYU difficult for me. I wanted to be able to share and be honest, instead of being met time after time with “no, it’s fine” in a passive aggressive tone.

In my experience, the hardest part of going to an American university as a European is feeling like an outsider. There have been so many conversations that I just can’t follow because I don’t know certain things about American culture: I don’t know about the foods Americans ate as kids, TV shows, and past presidents. That might be on me; maybe I should have done research on American life before trying to live it.

One big thing I noticed when I moved to New York and met more Americans was that there was so little knowledge of things outside of the U.S. There’s a weird kind of disinterest in learning about countries that don’t directly involve the U.S. If I tried to talk about news in Europe, I was often met with blank faces and empty responses. I realized I was one of few that knew what was going on outside America. That’s not to say America isn’t significant or that people shouldn’t be interested in things here, but what about the rest of the world? NYU claims to be such an inclusive environment, with classes that aim to teach us about relevant global issues and cultures, but the students outside of classrooms do very little to express this. It was so hard for me to accept that people simply didn’t care that I didn’t come from Amsterdam because that was the only place they’d heard of in my country, or that Italy wasn’t just pizza, pasta, and dark-featured handsome guys.

The things that are considered normal in New York are often polar opposites of what I’d expect to find at home, in The Hague. The amount of food delivery in this city is insane. At home, we order food maybe once every four months, tops. Here, my friends order in at least once a week. In American grocery stores, you’re always given a plastic or paper bag, even if you buy a single pack of gum. Back home, you have to pay extra for bags, as the expectation is that you bring your own. On the streets of New York, almost everyone walks around with their headphones in, listening to music or talking loudly over the phone. At home, almost no one wears headphones unless they’re working out or studying. Instead, people greet each other on the streets (yes, strangers), just a friendly hello or a smile. In New York, I’ve been followed down the street by strange men, and have been body checked by a homeless man and cat called more times than I can count. In the Netherlands, catcalling is a rarity - it almost never happens, and when it does I’m not afraid to show my disgust in response.

NYU itself as an educational setting is incredibly inclusive, and in classes and projects I feel like I can express myself and I’m welcomed as a non-American. And yet there are so many things I had to grow accustomed to, like American grammar. I still spell fibre instead of fiber. I don’t use a comma after "and" in a list or inside of my quotation marks. Oftentimes professors expect students, no matter where they’re from, to be well-versed with American expectations. In my case, I speak English with a pretty generic American accent so there’s no reason to expect that I don’t know the rules of American grammar. It’s hard for me to be both acclimatized to America and still be my own European self.

Although I’ve been mostly talking down on coming to NYU as a European student, I absolutely don’t regret my decision. Coming to NYU has been the most liberating choice I’ve ever made. Like many other students here, I’m thousands of kilometers away from home, in a place where barely anyone speaks my language, where so few things remind me of home, but that doesn’t mean this can’t feel like a surrogate home for now. Just because you’re different from most of the kids here, that doesn’t mean you can’t find friends who you’ll love or that you’ll feel like you don’t fit in. Your experience with college might be completely different from mine. All I can do is tell you how it has been for me so far. The key to finding your way and feeling comfortable as “an outsider” is to let go, and let yourself do things outside of your comfort zone. Talk to people you might never even have considered as potential friends. Go to places that scare you (be safe though), do things you wouldn’t have done at home - that’s what you left home for, right? I know I left home because I wanted change: I wanted to be shocked and uncomfortable and out of my element. To me, that’s the best way to learn.

If you’re considering applying to NYU or any American university as a European student, keep in mind you’ll most likely be one of a few. Especially if you’re not from Italy, France or the UK (or does Brexit rule you out of being European?). Don’t let the fear of ending up with no one to relate to keep you from attending a dream school though. You’ll be just fine.

Image Credits: Writer’s Own

Girl of the world, from the Netherlands. Writing because mumbling doesn't do anyone any good.
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