Students studying abroad through Brethren Colleges Abroad (BCA) Belgium attend Vesalius College (VeCo), a Belgian liberal arts university of about 400 undergraduate students modeled after a typical American college. Some of the most popular majors to attend VeCo are in the business, communications, history, modern languages, and political science departments; however, there are also courses available for students studying biology, philosophy, and sociology and anthropology as well as opportunities for students to fulfill their Elizabethtown College Core Program courses. Classes at the college are all taught in English besides modern language classes; however, French classes are available and recommended for students with no prior language experience. American students register for classes by signing up for them before leaving for Belgium, but they may add or drop classes once there. There are no classes at VeCo designed specifically for study abroad students, so the majority of study abroad students' classes will be with Belgian students.
"As far as academics were concerned, my semester abroad was honestly my hardest semester at college. I took political science and history courses, both of which were for my minors. While these courses were extremely informational and beneficial, they were a lot of work. I did not expect to have to write as many long papers as I did. I learned a lot while I was abroad, but I had to work hard as well. One thing I would recommend for any students studying abroad in Belgium is to take a language. While I was in Belgium, I took a basic French course, and not only was learning the language beneficial, but the professor assisted me with everyday issues. She was extremely helpful in and out of the classroom." (Alexandra Conte '11)
"There are many internship opportunities available for interested students through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other international organizations. The most popular class for study abroad students is ART 361 European Studies because the class travels to the various cities it learns about during the course. The classes you sign up for before you travel there are basically the classes for which you are registered. You can add or drop once there, but your schedule is set up before you arrive. American students study with other international students at Vesalius College, so there are plenty of opportunities for intermingling." (Katie Sallade '11)
"This program has academic offerings for international business majors (since Brussels is the center of the EU and the university has strong international relations classes), French majors, and communications majors (there were many internships available for communications majors). The course offerings are not very large and students register before leaving for the program, but it is possible to change them. All professors grade on an American grading scale. There were no classes specifically for American students, although my ART 361 European Studies class consisted entirely of study abroad students. With that class we traveled to Amsterdam, Netherlands; Tier, Germany; Paris, France; Antwerp, Belgium; and Bruges, Belgium." (Aimee Stango '11)
City and Local Attractions
Brussels is the capital and largest city of Belgium with a population of approximately 1.1 million people. It is located in north-central Belgium in the province of Brussels-Capital Region. Since Brussels is also the capital of the European Union (EU), there are a number of political and cultural attractions, a sizable population of foreigners, and a large English-speaking population. Some of the primary attractions that all students must see include:
Grand Place/Grote Markt: the main square in Brussels that is surrounded by the city tower and a number of historical landmarks.Manneken Pis: located a short walk from the Grand Place/Grote Markt, visitors will find a golden statue of a urinating child that is thought to represent Brussels' spirit.Arc de Triomphe/Triomfboog: an arch located in the Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark that visitors may climb for a great view of the city.Atomium: one of Belgium's icons, it is a uniquely shaped structure with a view of the city at the top that represents the future and the global community.Délirium Café: a bar that has been in The Guinness Book of World Records for having 2,004 different varieties of beer. For more information, see http://www.deliriumcafe.be/.
Even in four months, you will not able to say that you've seen every place and everything that Brussels has to offer.
Students who study abroad in Belgium often recommend buying a cell phone in Belgium in order to communicate primarily with study abroad friends and host families. The most common telephone companies from which students will buy cell phones include Proximus, Mobistar, and Base. Most students buy pay-as-you-go phones, which cost on average about €25, and students buy additional minutes as necessary throughout their semester abroad. Students recommend communication with family and friends in the United States through Skype or a similar video chat program. Most students have access to Internet at their host family's house; however, if they do not, VeCo has a computer lab with about eight computers that is open in the morning before class until dinner time. There is a post office near the university and most students have mail delivered directly to their host family's house.
"I was lucky enough not to have culture shock while I was abroad. A few of my friends did a few weeks after we had arrived in Belgium, but I was soaking up so much of my experience abroad that I did not have any issues with culture shock. Once I came back to the United States, I found myself missing being abroad. I did not necessarily have reverse culture shock, but I rather simply wished that I was still abroad. After traveling abroad you realize how self-absorbed Americans really are and how differently people live internationally. My experience abroad only provided me with the realization that I wanted to continue to travel and see more of the world." (Alexandra Conte '11)
"I had a bit of culture shock when arriving, but it was offset by the excitement of studying abroad and living in a new city. The hardest adjustment was learning French and Dutch because while classes are taught in English and my host family understood English, English is not widely spoken in Brussels. I would highly recommend taking a French class there (I did this) or having previous knowledge of the language, although it is not impossible to manage the city without prior instruction. I survived." (Katie Sallade '11)
"I don't think I had culture shock; it was harder to get used to living in a city and commuting. Also Brussels is trilingual as its residents speak French, Dutch, and English, but you do need to know some French or Dutch in some places. It was nerve-racking at first adjusting to the language barrier and trying to communicate." (Aimee Stango '11)
The main excursion provided by BCA for which the program pays is the weekend-long BCA International Student Conferences in Derry, United Kingdom for fall semester students and in Strasbourg, France for spring semester students. The conferences are open to all students studying abroad in a European country through BCA and feature speakers related to divided societies for fall-semester students and American-European relations for spring-semester students. Besides these BCA-funded excursions, many students choose to take ART 361 European Studies at VeCo, which includes travel to a number of European cities, but comes at the student's expense.
Times for meals are generally similar to times when Americans typically eat. Students eat breakfast and dinner at home with their host families and BCA provides students with a meal stipend for lunch. Students can choose to eat lunch on campus at VeCo (which usually costs about €5 with limited choices) or instead eat lunch elsewhere in the city. Students have recommended Le Sunshine, a sandwich shop near VeCo with sandwiches for €2-€3 or less, as well as A La Bécasse, a café near the Grand Place/Grote Markt (http://www.alabecasse.com/). Host families are not required to provide meals for host students on weekends, however many do. Typical Belgian food is a mixture of French, German, and Belgian cuisine and can include a balanced portion of meat, fruits, and vegetables at each meal, however other styles of food are available as well, especially since Brussels is such an international city. Frites (French fries) and waffles are very popular and visitors can find small stands of them throughout the city. At home, sausage and other meat dishes, potatoes, as well as pumpkin soup are very common. Prices are somewhat higher than in the United States, and Belgians do not tip in public restaurants.
"Honestly, the food was one of my favorite things about studying abroad in Belgium. How could you not be happy while you eat chocolate, frites, and waffles almost every day? The food in Belgium was absolutely incredible! My host family provided me with well-rounded meals and food with which I was familiar. Belgians eat dinner a little later than Americans are accustomed, but you get used to it. I really enjoyed eating dinner with my host family because we ate a salad, a main meal, and then dessert, which typically consisted of yogurt or fruit! Europeans are generally healthier than what we're used to in the United States and eating a meal in Europe typically includes meat, vegetables, and fruit. My host family was very welcoming and told me that they would provide me meals on the weekends if I was home. They would leave bread and Nutella or jelly out for me to have for breakfast in addition to cereal and fruit. I could not have asked for a better host family; they made me feel like I was at home. While traveling I ate out with my friends often, which tends to get somewhat pricey, but because you do not have to tip in Belgium it was not too bad. There are definitely tourist traps near Brussels' main square, so students should watch out for them. Brussels is known for its food; therefore do not study abroad there in an attempt to lose weight!" (Alexandra Conte '11)
Health and Safety
Check to make sure that your health insurance policy in the United States will cover you for four months in Belgium. If not, you will need to investigate alternative forms of international health insurance. In terms of crime, the biggest threat in Brussels comes from pickpockets, as it can be very common for students have items stolen from them unknowingly while walking in the city. Also, there are no open container laws in Belgium, so it is not uncommon for the homeless in the city to be visibly intoxicated. Other than those two issues, most students have found Brussels to be very safe.
"When traveling abroad, it is always important to be street smart and walk with other people. While it is not always possible to be with someone 24/7, I suggest not listening to music when walking home late at night. I never felt threatened or in a violent situation in Brussels." (Alexandra Conte '11)
"I felt very safe there and rode the metro alone, but I wouldn't advise it. Be careful in your neighborhood; mine had some bad sections. Also, as a female, boys will hit on you often because you are American. My best advice is to ignore them and not to answer or provoke them." (Aimee Stango '11)
All students studying in Brussels through BCA live with a Belgian host family. An art history professor at VeCo, Martine Delsemme, organizes housing for all international students to the university. She places students with host families based on preferences, medical issues, and language ability and interest since families may speak Dutch, French, or both in addition to English. Students may be spread out throughout the city in the metropolitan center or in a more suburban area. Overall, it takes most students about forty-five minutes via subway to get to the university area.
"I was placed with a French host family, who had been to the United States before and could speak English. That semester was the first time that my host family had ever hosted a study abroad student. They were extremely welcoming and truly the best host family for which I could have asked. I had four host sisters, all around my age, and was able to leave my study abroad experience with the little sister I had always wanted." (Alexandra Conte '11)
Belgium has three official languages—Dutch, French, and German. The northern region of the country primarily speaks Dutch, whereas the southern region of the country primarily speaks French, and a small region in the eastern-most part of the country speaks German. The city of Brussels, however, is bilingual, speaking both Dutch and French, although since the city is so heavily international, English is a common second or third language among the city's residents. All classes at VeCo are taught in English and the university offers language classes in Dutch and French at all levels for American students.
The vast majority of Elizabethtown students studying abroad in Belgium choose to use their American bank accounts in Belgium and not open a separate Belgian account. Automatic telling machines (ATM) are widely available throughout the country, but it is important to remember when withdrawing cash from ATMs that there will be transaction fees of varying amounts depending on the bank. Most students recommend taking out large sums of cash infrequently to avoid paying these potentially large fees. It is also important to keep currency conversion in mind as you travel to Belgium. The official currency of Belgium is the euro, which can widely fluctuate with the American dollar. Most Elizabethtown students spent between $500 and $1,000 on personal travel and other expenses. Traveler's checks are accepted in Belgium; however, some students have indicated that they are not widely used and are not cost-effective since they charge commission fees.
The city of Brussels has a number of popular attractions at night for those who wish to partake. The legal drinking age in Belgium is sixteen years so it is much more common to see students legally drinking than in the United States and there is not so much of a social stigma to drinking as there may be in the United States. The majority of the safe night life in Brussels takes place in the Grand Place/Grote Market in the center of the city. Some safe and popular bars and clubs include the Délirium Café, featuring 2,004 varieties of beer and O'Reilly's Irish Pub. Drinks typically cost between €3 and €4. It is important to remember to keep all personal belongings with you if you choose to go out in the city at night.
Deciding what to pack and what not to pack often depends on what a student thinks he or she will need when traveling abroad. It is important to remember that you must bring everything that you think you will need for approximately four months, and you must be conscious of the weather in Belgium during the semester in which you will be there. Most students recommend leaving personal items such as shampoo, soap, and deodorant at home as well as simple school supplies and buying them abroad. Since students in BCA Belgium live with host families, it is also very unlikely that students will need to bring sheets, pillows, or blankets with them from home.
"In my travels to Belgium, I took two large suitcases and a carry-on with me. I was lucky enough to have my roommate, parents, and siblings come to visit all at separate times, all of whom took some clothes home with them and brought me some lighter clothing. I recommend bringing clothes that you do not mind getting worn or possibly dirty. Try and bring clothes that you can mix and match in order to make different outfits. When packing, keep in mind that you will be living abroad for a few months; therefore you can buy basic, everyday items there. Don't forget converters!" (Alexandra Conte '11)
"I packed two suitcases. I didn't pack shampoo, soap, or other small items that I could purchase in Belgium. It's good to e-mail your host parents ahead of time, if possible, and find out some items you might not need such as sheets and towels." (Katie Sallade '11)
"I only brought one suitcase. I would probably bring more if I did it again because I was spending my budget on clothing and shoes while there. I would say it is worth the extra money for the extra suitcase, but leave some room to bring things back. I also bought a hiking bag (or euro-pack) while I was there, which was good for trips because rolling suitcases aren't always the best with cobblestones and stairs. You can buy similar items at the Decathlon store (an outdoor sporting goods store-- http://www.decathlon.be/). I did not pack many lotions or shampoos—you can buy them there. You can buy most hair products there as well." (Aimee Stango '11)
Kathleen Caenen, a French professor at VeCo, is the program director for BCA Belgium. The program director is responsible for orienting American students to Belgian life, planning and coordinating BCA activities, and assisting students with any problems they may encounter during their study abroad experience.
"Kathleen Caenen is very easy to talk to, has great advice about places to go for various items in the city, and, as an instructor, is very accessible." (Katie Sallade '11)
"Kathleen is awesome! She always gave us the best tips on places to visit and bars to try!" (Aimee Stango '11)
Freedom of religion is very important to most Belgians; however, the vast majority of Belgians are Roman Catholic. There is also a sizable presence of Protestant Christians and Muslims in Belgium.
"Thankfully, my host family was Catholic (as am I) so the Sundays that I was home, I would go with them to a French mass. While attending the mass, I did not understand what the priest was saying, but I was still able to recognize the motion of mass and found it extremely interesting to attend mass in a different language. I even went to Ash Wednesday with my host family!" (Alexandra Conte '11)
The best way to learn about service opportunities in Brussels would be to talk with your host family or with BCA director Kathleen Caenen. Students may very likely find opportunities that fit their majors. It is also possible to find internship opportunities in the community that relate to service.
"I was able to go with my host sister, who was twenty-one years old at the time, to complete some of her community service for living in her flat. She attended a French university to be a doctor. There were two times, an hour each time that I went with her to play with sick children at the hospital. This opportunity was one of my favorite experiences abroad because I was able to help someone who didn't speak the same language as me, simply by playing with him or her." (Alexandra Conte '11)
Seasons in Belgium are comparable to the way they are in the northeastern United States. Students studying in Brussels during the fall semester will find average temperatures to be around 70 °F upon arrival in August that will eventually fall to around 45 °F by December. Students studying in Brussels during the spring semester will find average temperatures to be around 40 °F upon arrival in January that will eventually rise to around 70 °F by May. Rain is very common in Brussels (it rains approximately 200 days out of the year), and causes the temperature to feel lower than it really is.
"The weather in Brussels is very rainy. While I was in Brussels, it snowed or rained almost every day for the first three months (January through March). As a student studying abroad in Belgium, you become accustomed to the rainy days and carrying an umbrella with you. Since there are students that come to VeCo from all over the world, clothing is pretty casual. Students do not wear sweatpants out in public but sweatshirts are acceptable. Skinny jeans, boots, cute shirts, and a scarf make up of a basic Belgian outfit for a female. Accessories play a large part in the outfits that Belgians wear." (Alexandra Conte '11)
"I would make sure to bring a heavy winter coat and a spring coat, an umbrella, gloves, hats, and scarves, which you can buy there. Essentially, you need to bring clothes that are versatile and can be used for many outfits." (Aimee Stango '11)