Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

Denmark: Don’t Throw Away Your Future

The Streets of Copenhagen

An open question to my Danish friends – do you truly want to emulate Arizona?  Because that’s the direction you’re heading.

The Study Progress Reform Talking Points

Fresh off of a recent recession and in the midst of its aftermath, Denmark is facing all of the usual debates about its educational system one would expect.  Some are complaining about the tax rate they pay and looking to scapegoat any source they can.  As usual, one of the easy targets  is education, and education funding has fallen squarely in their cross hairs.  While it is, perhaps, not terribly typical for Denmark, it is a process I’m intimately familiar with from my time in the USA and especially Arizona.

A major reason I was drawn to Denmark is because of its focus on education.  Even though I wasn’t eligible to take part, the fact that Danish students attend University for free and receive a monthly stipend of between $700-1,000 USD to survive on is incredibly attractive.  That level of commitment to education goes a long ways toward s explaining why Denmark, despite its near complete lack of natural resources, its rugged climate, extremely difficult language , and small population is an intellectual, professional and economic powerhouse. Denmark surpasses many of its counterparts which are 5, 10 or even 20 times its size.

Unfortunately, it’s painfully clear to me that recent “reforms” proposed to the Danish education system, many of which are heavily inspired by the ideological approaches which have deeply harmed American higher education over the last two decades, will have far more severe ramifications for Denmark.   Everything in Denmark is based upon one commodity: The country’s intellectual capital. In areas such as green design, architecture, or Copenhagen Suborbitals, it’s obvious.  Where it is less obvious is the country’s push for wind energy, biomedical, high tech, etc. which all  require a highly educated population with a sound intellectual foundation. Without it, the whole system falls apart. The high quality of life, standard of living, and disproportionately influential role Denmark enjoys  on the world stage is all just a few poorly thought-out moves away from ruin – and let’s face it, Danes have no interest in losing their extremely comfortable first-world status and lifestyle.

Factions of business leaders, bureaucrats, and media representatives have fallen over each other in recent months in an effort to exploit students  and the Danish education system. They have  all the usual arguments – they are taking too long, they are wasting everyone’s money, they are lazy, they need increased incentives, and of course, “Why should I have to pay for their education?”.

The tone and delivery varies slightly from year-to-year, country-to-country, but at the end of the day it’s always the same arguments.  It’s the same nonsense that was used in Arizona to slash and divert the budgets of public schools, all so that those same funds could be wasted on small pet projects, or go to independent charter schools. Schools which, it turned out, bypassed the regulations, transparency, and oversight present in the public schools and which have served as a portal for the insertion of young earth creationism, politically convenient rewrites of history, economic and political material, social status warfare, and tragically incomplete curriculum.

At the end of the day, that was all done through four basic claims:

1. Individuals  should be able to dictate where their tax money is spent  because  taxes are too high and we must cut waste.

2. Poor educational performance and/or graduation speed is the fault of insufficient rules, tests, and due to bad teachers/lazy students.

3. We already give the education system more than it needs. If they really need more money, why are they building new buildings (etc.)? They just need the efficiency of free-market mechanisms and business-minded leadership.

4. For-profit corporations and corporate models can do a better  job of running our universities.

Sound familiar?

What has resulted is the widespread increase in tuition (often double or triple-digit increases) at public universities in the US which have had to compensate for deep cuts in the government support they receive.  Plus, significant attempts to decrease research grants/funds, and a general contraction in the availability of funding support for American students.

As Denmark looks to the US for guidance and brings in “educational consultants”, it is worth pausing and asking if the green pastures and blue skies those consultants have pitched have any basis in reality.  Keep in mind that as of 2011 1 out of every 3 dollars borrowed by Americans (not including home mortgages)  went to debt tied to higher education.  The average Bachelors graduate in the US in 2013 graduated with roughly $35,200 in debt. As staggering as that may seem to Danes, it’s actually quite low as I have friends who pursued a Master’s (a rarity in the US due to the cost), and/or went on for PhDs and who have between $150,000 and $250,000 in accrued debt.

The result is that students have been forced to abandoned areas of the humanities and liberal arts – areas fundamental to an educated population and healthy society – in favor of higher paying majors. Others have foregone or radically shortened their college programs altogether at significant societal cost to the US’s well-being. All the while, the added responsibilities students take on to survive (part-time jobs, reduced credit hour loads, etc.) mean that they face slower graduation times, and have to spend more time in the system. Problems confounded by reduced budgets at the universities which lead to lower levels of guidance, reduced class availability, worse teacher : student ratios, and other similar problems.

What This Means For Denmark

Is there ample room for improvement within the Danish system? Absolutely. Do Danish students have it easy compared to some other countries?  In some ways. Do they take longer than they should to graduate?  Perhaps.  Could some reform be beneficial?  Always.

However, the way to bring about these positive changes isn’t to draw from broken systems and to seek to penalize and scapegoat students.

What the system needs is more funding, not less.  What students need is a better organized administrative infrastructure that has information more readily available and which takes a more active and involved role in helping them progress through their education.

Do you really want students to graduate faster?

Then make sure that they can take a course, regardless of semester. Time and time again students end up forced to delay because a course has pre-requisites that are only offered once per year.

Do we want students to progress more quickly through their program?  Then we must start by providing full time, professional academic advisers that have an intimate knowledge of the system (not students in student jobs who typically hold the position for less than 2 years and spend half of that time learning the system).   Further, have those advisers follow up with their portfolio of students twice a semester as a mandatory part of the student’s program. These advisors should also be available throughout the week, not just on a limited once or twice a week schedule.

Do we want improved performance from the Danish students? Then we must decrease course size.  It’s amazing how much better the quality of education is when you’ve got a teacher ratio (especially at a Master’s level) of 1:10 or 1:15 vs. 1:30 or 1:90.

Want students to do better at navigating the bureaucracy of their program?  Try speeding up and cleaning up the university bureaucracy and a culture  that leads to constantly delayed deadlines, multi-month delays in announcements, decisions, and results processing.

Let’s be clear: student performance is a symptom of the problem.  It is not the source.

Taking A Little Longer Is OK

The reality is that while private interests lash out and blame students for being lazy, what they neglect is the internship culture that has arisen where Danish companies realize tens of thousands of hours of free or cheap labor per year via internship programs which often consume the entirety of Danish student’s semester course load. Even worse these programs have now become virtually mandatory for students seeking a rapid transition from educational to professional life.

As a recent MA grad I had a rather rigid 2-year deadline due to my tuition waiver.  I had to forego the option of pursuing an academic internship.  Why?  Because the internship, which was  worth 15 ECTS points, took up the entirety of a semester.  Which meant, that for me to take it, I’d have been forced to add on a fifth semester to my program.  For the thousands of students that pursue these types of academic internships, and as a result are delayed at least a semester, it’s not their fault.  In fact, it is a strength of the system.

Further, that culture of low paid or free academic internships is not possible without either A) students taking on excessive amounts of debt as is occurring in the US or B) receiving SU financial support to offset their living costs.

Another area where that extra SU money has paid off big for Denmark, is the local start-up culture.  It’s amazing how different the start-up culture and lifestyle here is compared to what my friends go through in the USA.  True, the sheer risk of failure and large financial debts my friends rack up may serve as a motivator that Danish students lack. Yet, they also have the  advantage of having a revenue source while studying that allows them to explore their passions, ideas, creativity, and to take risks which would otherwise have catastrophic financial ramifications in the US (in turn crippling many of America’s best and brightest for years). These student’s creativity  is powering both Denmark’s innovation and creative cultures.

Recent discussion  has focused on how few Danish students are studying abroad and the need for increased globalization.  A problem I have been working to explore and solve.  A lot of that comes from more flexible university schedules and a system that provides windows and opportunities through which students can take time to explore the world and experience it without harming their academic progress.

The Danish system already pigeonholes students into fairly narrow educational specializations.   Exposure to other coursework is limited when compared to systems such as those in the United States.  This in turn means that for Danes who are trying to decide where to focus their education, they have far less flexibility in exploring what the university has to offer before locking into a set track. The more that their options are limited, the more  they are cornered into a limited education.  That, unfortunately, is to the detriment of everyone those students will come into contact with.  Just imagine if more economists took anthropology and history courses.  Or if philosophy students bolstered their education with a course in evolutionary biology.

So, Denmark, do you want real solutions that will strengthen Denmark’s future? Or a few extra kroner off your taxes and the self affirmation that comes from pointing a finger at students and scolding them for their imagined delinquency?

You’ve got something special here.  Something that should serve as a model for the rest of the world and which embodies the strengths of a civilized culture that values intellectual progress. Please, don’t throw that away because of a few talking points.

About Me

A recent graduate from the University of Copenhagen, I received my degree from the Department of Humanities where I scored top marks and a perfect score on my thesis.  Drawn to Denmark by the country’s dedication to education, I studied in Denmark on an academic tuition waiver that provided me with a two year period of study.  I received my Bachelors degree in human communication from Arizona State University (One of the largest research universities in the United States) with honors from Barrett, The Honors College.  While I advocate for the benefits of pro-longed educational study, I completed both my Bachelors and Master’s degrees within the traditionally accepted period of study (4/2 years).  In addition to my academic background, I have three years of corporate experience as a market analyst, and director of research in the mergers and acquisitions industry.

Please Don’t Segregate Me!

Alex in Copenhagen - Headshot

It’s one of the fundamental but often overlooked or ignored pleas that international students make. As a full degree student (someone doing an entire MA program here in Denmark) one of my biggest concerns and top priorities was to break free of the international student bubble that defines most study abroad experiences. In short, when coming to Denmark, I really wanted to make sure I made Danish friends, ate Danish food, and even gave Danish fashion a go. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my fellow international students and spend a majority of my time with them – but the core of my experience as an international student in Denmark is, and will continue to be, shaped by how I engage with Danes and Denmark as a whole.

The challenge is that key aspects of how international students are treated and supported by local universities fundamentally set international students up to remain isolated.  This past week a great article was published introducing a new International Student City being planned, pitched, and pursued for Copenhagen. The ISCC as it will be called is really exciting. In fact, it’s a project I’d love to get involved with. It is something that Copenhagen needs and it is something that has immense potential to dramatically improve student life and student experiences here in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, as it is currently structured, it also includes elements which will essentially double down on Copenhagen’s current issues.

Copenhagen Campus Dorms

It all starts with housing

There’s not enough student housing in Copenhagen, for anyone. Danes struggle with it in a major way and face many (but far from all) the hardships that international students face. Of the student housing that is available a lot of it is isolated and far removed from the University’s centrally located campuses. While Danes typically know how the system works and are able to apply to the various waiting lists relatively early on, international students often find themselves last in the queue for dorms and are forced by necessity into the city’s least desirable student housing. These dorms are often over-priced and/or located in suburbs, most of which are 30-50 minutes outside the city. Other dorms or private kollegiums around the city have low international quotas and/or don’t take international students at all. These often have in-depth application processes and are impossible to get into during the first 6-8 months of your student career.

While everyone wants to be centrally located, it is absolutely essential for international students. These students need the immersion that comes with being a short walk from events and situated in the heart of a city’s nightlife, café life, and overall experience. This is particularly important during the first months when habits, friendships, and lifestyle are formed. Having a 40-minute commute each way discourages students from meeting for casual coffees, doing spontaneous events, and attending cultural activities. It leaves one holed-up in a room, on the computer talking to friends back in your home country, disengaged and detached from the culture you’re ostensibly here to experience.

It’s important to remember that as a full degree student you arrive in a foreign country, in a city you know nothing about, where you have no friends, and where you have minimal support. For me, the sum total of my time in Denmark before my MA program began was three days. Those first few months were rough. Classes hadn’t started yet. It was hard to make myself go out. It was lonely and I was isolated. When I couldn’t take it anymore I’d go out to the bars alone and desperately try and strike up conversations with total strangers. I know it was the same for a lot of my fellow students and I know that it can be a real deal-breaker for many people. It hurts your grades, it hurts your health, and it can be brutally rough.

Those of us who knew that living in a central location was essential were forced to explore renting private apartments. This came with the trade-off that we had to forgo the fun, immersion and community of a rich dorm experience. It quickly devolves into an either or situation, when what students really need is a combination of the two. No easy task given that Copenhagen has an extremely abusive rental market. Danes are lovely. Many Danish landlords, however, are not.

While my female friends have had an easier go of it, as a male international it is extremely difficult to find housing in Copenhagen. There’s very high demand for places and, just as in other parts of the world, people either look at an international student as extremely desirable or extremely undesirable. There’s not much middle ground and unfortunately, most landlords seem to lean towards the latter. That’s common enough and nothing can really be done about it. Where it really gets frustrating, however, is the approach taken by many landlords who will rent to international students. These individuals provide rooms for rent but those rooms come with a wide range of ridiculous rules and restrictions. It’s not uncommon that they’ll rent a room but prohibit or restrict access to the kitchen or common spaces. They’ll ban renters from having guests over or require them to gain previous approval. To be clear here, I’m not talking about raging parties. I’m talking about having a single friend over or quiet dinner. These landlords exploit their renters as a revenue source to supplement their income but are unwilling to grant them most of the basic rights and access you would and should receive as a renter.

The whole issue is magnified because many also demand 3+ months of rent in advance as a deposit which more than a few will later try and confiscate as an added bonus knowing that it’s difficult for international students to follow up or take legal action. Other landlords provide subleases which are off the books and in turn allow them to collect rent without declaring it to the government. International students make easy targets because they don’t know their rights, how the system works, or what is normal.

The Streets of Copenhagen

International Student Housing

This would all seem to point to an easy solution which ISCC seems to be pursuing: Create a sprawling student complex situated in a fairly central part of Copenhagen that is designed for, and limited predominantly to, international students. The idea is spot-on in several ways – they’ve noted it has to be right next to a metro stop, it needs to be central, and it should provide a variety of services to improve student life.

Unfortunately, however, the entire structure seems to revolve around creating what will quickly become a completely insulated international mini-city in the heart of Amager. The article notes:

“The plan is that different nations would build their own student houses for at least 100 students within the student city. The building designs should reflect the nation’s architectural traditions and the idea is to have an exchange agreement among the various international houses. Half of the students from each individual country will stay in their own ‘national’ house, will be spread among the other houses in an effort to mix cultures and traditions together.”

Which sounds great on paper but is unfortunately an absolutely disastrous idea! Not only would the ISCC be isolating international students from their Danish counterparts but, they’d be isolating them from each other.

International students inevitably tend to slip into comfortable cultural groups. East Asian students congregate together, as do Indian students, European Latins and Hispanic/South Americans. Typically there is another block of Central and Eastern Europeans while English-speaking Europeans, North Americans, Australians, Scandinavians, and New Zealanders also form a large block. Cross germination occurs but it is usually limited. While the idea behind the split cultural dorms is probably meant to help bridge this, the reality is it would more than likely just re-affirm and strengthen it.

What’s the answer then? Prioritization and integration. The ISCC needs to be a fully incorporated student city, not just an international student city. At least 30% of the students living in the dorms and on the facility need to be Danes. More importantly though, the entire structure needs to revolve around how, at a very basic level, students can be better integrated.

International students need to have prioritized access but not exclusive access. Full-degree and PhD students need to have first priority, with year-long exchange students next in line, followed by short term/semester students with roughly the same priority and access as Danish students.

It is important for organizers to remember that students on short term exchange are often provided with a group of peers all arriving at roughly the same time and have significantly more resources, support, and access to existing infrastructure than long term and full-degree students.

Concepts like International or Danish dorm floors should be avoided as should reinforcing cultural segregation. It’s important to keep in mind that cultural exchange occurs by simply sharing each other’s company. Attempting to force it only builds barriers. However, things like restaurants, shops, or themed-facilities created for general use are great and fun ways to explore culture in a more subtle fashion.

Organizers must keep in mind that rental rates for any project of this nature need to be competitive. I know students paying more than 5,000 DKK for a dorm room which is absolutely ridiculous and extremely detrimental in its own way…especially when compared to the 1,500-2,500 DKK being paid by many Danish students in Kollegiums around the city.

Copenhagen Campus

Beyond Just Housing

While a huge aspect of the ISCC concept revolves around housing, and that is what this post has focused on, another key issue that Danish universities need to review in-depth is the way they segregate classes and social events. I realize that funding is an issue and that in some ways English-based university courses are provided as an added value service BUT the reality is that if more engagement and immersion is the goal, you have to allow Danish and International students to interact.

I’ve repeatedly seen courses at KU where despite an expressed desire and eagerness to take courses in English, Danish students have been told they need to/are only allowed to take lectures and courses in Danish. In a recent media course I took, the group lecture was provided in English with three seminar courses offered. Of these two were in Danish (though taught by faculty fluent in English) and the third was taught in English. Danish students were forced to take the group lecture in English and then prohibited from taking the English seminar which was essentially limited to international students.

Academic and administrative organizational issues of this nature mean that throughout our academic career, international students are fundamentally segregated from Danish students and deprived of many of the most opportune and vibrant socialization and networking opportunities.

Afternoon Sun on Nyhavn

A Great Idea

As the article notes, there are 18,000 students in Copenhagen this year and they have a goal of growing that figure to 30,000 by 2025. If Copenhagen is serious about the ISCC (which I hope it is!), it is important that key steps are taken that not only provide infrastructure that sounds viable on paper, but which actually fulfills students’ needs. This is especially significant if Denmark wants to retain some of that expertise moving forward and if the country is serious about realizing many of the benefits that a vibrant and well-integrated student population can provide.

Have thoughts or experiences of your own that would help the discussion?  Please share them in a comment.