Visiting America

Nieuws | de redactie
19 april 2011 | 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 andabove-all engaging two-day conference initiated by the New Yorkconsulate and attended by a diverse group of executives, scholars,politicians and government officials. I offer here someafterthoughts on the topic that brought us all together: braindrain.

Let us recognize, first, that brain drain is a matter ofbalance, of gain and loss. That is to say that brain drainconstitutes of two components: emigration and immigration. Studentsand scholars leaving the Netherlands to study and work abroad fallinto the former category. The latter category entails two groupswith unique characteristics and policy relevance: returningstudents and scholars on one side and recruited foreign talent onthe other.

I will start by addressing the first phenomenon. Why do Dutchmengo abroad? There is no easy answer to that question. It is perhapsone of the following factors, or a combination thereof: dreams,ambition, contingency, practicality and necessity. We heard thestory of Dutch scholar Annewies van den Hoek who made a virtue ofnecessity and accompanied her husband abroad to become a Harvardlecturer herself. My own experience as a student abroad illustratessome 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 visitingstudent-well, that is how I introduced myself, for I had noofficial status, but more about that later. The dream of studyingin the U.S. had entered my mind some years earlier, as I read andheard about the pivotal role that American sociologists had playedand still play in the discipline. Moreover, I realized that manysuch ‘classics’ as Mark “Strength of Weak Ties” Granovetter andWilliam Julius Wilson (The Declining Significance of Race) werevery much alive and kicking-and working in America. (I too had thechance to meet  Daniel Bellbefore his death earlier this year, albeit much too brief.)

It however took a practical opportunity to get me to reallyconsider going abroad: a short e-mail from a professor in which hementioned the opportunity, the costs, and an application deadline.Destination: University of California at Berkeley. Two weeks laterI had applied and been selected. Only then did the real processbegin: figuring out the details of my U.S. status, applying for thenecessary immigration documents, getting permission from myuniversity for the classes I wanted to take, and last but notleast: securing the funding to support what I thought would be onesemester abroad (approximately $13,000).

To summarize, I got about half of the funding I needed, and tookout a loan for the rest; I left for Berkeley that fall without theguarantee that U.S. credits would count towards my sociologydegree; and my reception at Berkeley may best be compared to thatof an illegal immigrant: the presence of my fellow ‘visitingstudents’ and me was condoned but not supported. We were ineligiblefor a student pass, had to buy our way into the library, we wereregistered in a separate computer system from the regular studentsand we paid (in cash!) for each class we wanted to enter based onthe number of credits points we would earn. But none of thatstopped me from having an amazing time. All that mattered was thatI was allowed to take classes, which I did, first at theundergraduate departments of Economics and Sociology, and later atthe Graduate level.

Mijs bij Harvard seminar
Mijs neemt het woord

Lessons learned

In my time at Berkeley, I gained the confidence that I would beable to cope in a foreign setting, I developed a comparativeperspective “to make the unfamiliar familiar, and to make thefamiliar unfamiliar,” and I cultivated a network of American andinternational scholars who could call on me (as they did when theyneeded a place to stay in Amsterdam), and on whom I could call whenI needed to (as I did when I started my graduate school admissiontwo years later).

It was this network that most changed my experience of coming tothe U.S. a second time, in 2010. Whereas the first time coming tothe U.S. was a lonely experience, this time I felt supported bymany. Whereas I had information the first time, this time I hadknow-how-savoir faire: I knew what the admission entailedand how to go about preparing myself. And whereas the first time Ihad relied on well-intended “write your own letter and I will signit” recommendations, this time I knew who to ask and what to askfor.

At the Boston Seminar it became all the more clear how importantit is for students to be encouraged by their advisors, andsupported by their educational institutions-e.g., throughtranscript services, recognition of credits earned abroad, and thewillingness to incorporate study abroad in the educationalcurriculum. Short-term exchange programs have to many a studentproven to be a valuable source of experience. And a relatively lowcost and easy access option at that. Moreover, such small-scalestudent exchange can forge strong linkages between the students andprofessors involved, and ultimately between academic programs andthe universities that house them. All it takes is someinitiative.

Jonathan J.B. Mijs

Deel 2 en 3 van Mijs’ verslag verschijnen komende week in deScienceGuide nieuwsbrief.

Meer foto’s van het seminar vindt u hier.

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