Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Expectations Vs Reality

Last year when I was deciding which program to apply for at Utrecht University, I was full of expectations and indecision. The LL.M Human Rights and Criminal Justice caught my eye right away and I was impressed by the overall description on the university website. Of course, choosing a Masters is no easy task. I valued the chance to study an intensive international law program, but other factors played on my mind. Not having a Law bachelor, financial costs and which track to choose, to name a few. After I read and re-read the website, I sought advice from program alumni and after receiving a place in the program, I contacted the administration to learn how best to prepare.

As usual, it doesn’t matter how well you prepare for something, there will always be a few surprises. Now that I am halfway through the program (and have a week off to relax/think), I look back and see all of the expectations I brought with me, whether about living in Utrecht, choosing Utrecht University or deciding on my current Master’s program.

Since hindsight is often the clearest sight of all, here is my take on what has been most enjoyable and what has been more difficult than expected. Of course, this is only my experience. Everyone comes to the program with their own expectations and leaves with their own impressions. Different internships, courses and tracks mean we all experience studying at UU a little differently.

Expectation #1: Utrecht is an amazing city for international students.
Reality: This expectation and reality are without doubt the same. For my Master’s degree, I was determined to live in a great city (Utrecht preferably) and then find the right program. I fell in love with Utrecht the first time I came to live here on Erasmus and the second time has not disappointed. Utrecht is an excellent city for international students. It’s beautiful, attracts students from all over the world, and offers plenty of cultural events and activities.

Expectation #2: Doing a Law Master's is a crazy thing to do if you have a non-law background.
Reality: This was my biggest fear when deciding to do this Master’s program.  I was concerned that I would fall behind or be unable to do the work required. Fortunately, I’ve found that the skills I learned in my undergraduate degree are very useful in the program. I am able to keep up with the work, handle the long readings and successfully do legal research. If you’re interested in the subject but don’t have a legal background, I would say don’t be afraid to apply. Just be prepared for a steep learning curve and some hard work.

Expectation #3: You are in complete control of your own grades.
Reality: I have always been used to being completely independent in my work and the mentality that if you work hard you will succeed. This is still true at UU, but there is a very big element of group work in the program, which means you are not always able to fully control the outcome. The upside is that you develop your teamwork skills and get used to the dynamics of working in a group.

Expectation #4: It is very difficult to achieve high grades.
Reality: The introduction to the program left us with the impression that very high grades are near-impossible with the repeated phrase ‘9 is for the teacher and 10 is for God’. While it is certainly difficult to get a 9 in your work, and an 8 is a very high grade, it is not impossible to excel. Somehow, knowing it is at least possible makes working for the top grade a little bit easier.

Expectation #5: The people in your program will become your closest friends.
Reality: This is certainly true in a lot of cases because you spend a lot of time together in a small program, but is not the only way to make friends. Even if you don’t find your closest friend in your program, the huge number of students living in Utrecht means you can meet friends in unlikely places and there is always an event to attend. Every student experiences homesickness or loneliness at one point or another, but here there are a lot of ways to meet people, get out of the house and get over international blues.

Expectation #6: Studying as an international student you will meet people from all over the world.
Reality: This was one of the reasons I wanted to study abroad and I am happy to say it is true. My program consists of people from all different backgrounds, and at Utrecht University there are international students from all over the world. Studying international law, it is hard to miss the hub of international students and professionals working in the Netherlands.

Expectation #7: The program will require dedication and hard work.
Reality: With big deadlines and lots of reading, this is true. The university doesn’t hand out Master’s degrees for free. Be prepared to work and learn a lot in a short amount of time. The good news is that if you’re willing to put in the effort, the classes are very interesting and it is very rewarding work.

Expectation #8: There will be barely any holidays.
Reality: At first, the year looks a little daunting. The four blocks amount to a much longer academic year than I am used to, but in fact there are a few (well-deserved) breaks between the blocks and on public holidays. Although the first two blocks have no break, it gets much easier in the second half.

Expectation #9: The Master’s brings a lot of opportunity.
Reality: I intended to get some work experience from the program and have been given every opportunity to do so. The majority of people in my program are currently doing an internship or externship. While I am working for the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights as part of the clinic program, my colleagues are doing internships at the ICTY, the ICC and Amnesty International. There is no shortage of opportunities and the internships range from six months to one year.

Expectation #10: No matter which direction you choose to go in, you will not regret choosing this program or studying at Utrecht University.
Reality: This one is simple. Even though I’m not sure which direction I will take after I am finished the program, I am glad I chose to study at UU and followed this LL.M.

So there you have it. A few bumps along the way and a few lessons learned, but overall it’s impossible to have any regrets about the choice I made last February when looking at the long list of Master’s offered by the university.

My best advice for choosing the right program is to follow what you find interesting, make realistic choices based on your expectations of the program, and don’t be afraid to study abroad. There is certainly no lack of options at UU. I was accepted into three very different Master’s programs at the university (hence the early indecision), but looking back now it’s hard to imagine that I could have ended up anywhere else.

Until the next time/Tot de volgende keer!


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