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  • Visiting America

    - De Nederlandse kennistop was in Harvard bijeen om in gesprek met 'Dutch-Americans' te leren van het Amerikaanse model. Harvard-promovendus Jonathan Mijs was erbij. In deel 1 van zijn verslag vertelt hij over de aantrekkingskracht van de VS, zijn eigen ervaring als ‘visiting student’ en de lessen die hij daaruit heeft getrokken voor zichzelf en de Nederlandse instellingen.

    This Saturday concluded a well-organized, informative and above-all engaging two-day conference initiated by the New York consulate and attended by a diverse group of executives, scholars, politicians and government officials. I offer here some afterthoughts on the topic that brought us all together: brain drain.

    Let us recognize, first, that brain drain is a matter of balance, of gain and loss. That is to say that brain drain constitutes of two components: emigration and immigration. Students and scholars leaving the Netherlands to study and work abroad fall into the former category. The latter category entails two groups with unique characteristics and policy relevance: returning students and scholars on one side and recruited foreign talent on the other.

    I will start by addressing the first phenomenon. Why do Dutchmen go abroad? There is no easy answer to that question. It is perhaps one of the following factors, or a combination thereof: dreams, ambition, contingency, practicality and necessity. We heard the story of Dutch scholar Annewies van den Hoek who made a virtue of necessity and accompanied her husband abroad to become a Harvard lecturer herself. My own experience as a student abroad illustrates some of the other factors.

    Seminar Harvard zaal by La Capiose Galerie
    De aanwezigen bij het seminar te Harvard

    In search of the classics

    I came to the U.S., first in 2007, later in 2008, as a visiting student-well, that is how I introduced myself, for I had no official status, but more about that later. The dream of studying in the U.S. had entered my mind some years earlier, as I read and heard about the pivotal role that American sociologists had played and still play in the discipline. Moreover, I realized that many such 'classics' as Mark "Strength of Weak Ties" Granovetter and William Julius Wilson (The Declining Significance of Race) were very much alive and kicking-and working in America. (I too had the chance to meet  Daniel Bell before his death earlier this year, albeit much too brief.)

    It however took a practical opportunity to get me to really consider going abroad: a short e-mail from a professor in which he mentioned the opportunity, the costs, and an application deadline. Destination: University of California at Berkeley. Two weeks later I had applied and been selected. Only then did the real process begin: figuring out the details of my U.S. status, applying for the necessary immigration documents, getting permission from my university for the classes I wanted to take, and last but not least: securing the funding to support what I thought would be one semester abroad (approximately $13,000).

    To summarize, I got about half of the funding I needed, and took out a loan for the rest; I left for Berkeley that fall without the guarantee that U.S. credits would count towards my sociology degree; and my reception at Berkeley may best be compared to that of an illegal immigrant: the presence of my fellow 'visiting students' and me was condoned but not supported. We were ineligible for a student pass, had to buy our way into the library, we were registered in a separate computer system from the regular students and we paid (in cash!) for each class we wanted to enter based on the number of credits points we would earn. But none of that stopped me from having an amazing time. All that mattered was that I was allowed to take classes, which I did, first at the undergraduate departments of Economics and Sociology, and later at the Graduate level.

    Mijs bij Harvard seminar
    Mijs neemt het woord

    Lessons learned

    In my time at Berkeley, I gained the confidence that I would be able to cope in a foreign setting, I developed a comparative perspective "to make the unfamiliar familiar, and to make the familiar unfamiliar," and I cultivated a network of American and international scholars who could call on me (as they did when they needed a place to stay in Amsterdam), and on whom I could call when I needed to (as I did when I started my graduate school admission two years later).

    It was this network that most changed my experience of coming to the U.S. a second time, in 2010. Whereas the first time coming to the U.S. was a lonely experience, this time I felt supported by many. Whereas I had information the first time, this time I had know-how-savoir faire: I knew what the admission entailed and how to go about preparing myself. And whereas the first time I had relied on well-intended "write your own letter and I will sign it" recommendations, this time I knew who to ask and what to ask for.

    At the Boston Seminar it became all the more clear how important it is for students to be encouraged by their advisors, and supported by their educational institutions-e.g., through transcript services, recognition of credits earned abroad, and the willingness to incorporate study abroad in the educational curriculum. Short-term exchange programs have to many a student proven to be a valuable source of experience. And a relatively low cost and easy access option at that. Moreover, such small-scale student exchange can forge strong linkages between the students and professors involved, and ultimately between academic programs and the universities that house them. All it takes is some initiative.

    Jonathan J.B. Mijs

    Deel 2 en 3 van Mijs' verslag verschijnen komende week in de ScienceGuide nieuwsbrief.

    Meer foto's van het seminar vindt u hier.