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From Leuven to Lehigh, finding a second home

Gertie Steukers of Belgium browses the Lehigh bookstore with fellow international student Xiao Ci Tan of Malaysia…

It’s the end of the fall semester and many students are eagerly preparing for their study-abroad programs in the spring of 2011.

For Gertie Steukers, a trip to where many Lehigh students would typically study abroad, is a trip home.

Steukers studied at Lehigh this past semester as an exchange student from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. She will receive a master’s degree in contemporary history from Leuven in June.

“I knew I wanted to study in the United States. While researching, I found Lehigh had the best program in what I was looking for,” Steukers says. “I was particularly drawn to Lehigh because of its proximity to New York City and Philadelphia.”

At Lehigh, Steukers took courses in international relations and political science, including the Politics of Western Europe with Janet M. Laible, associate professor of political science, and an independent study course with Edward Morgan, university distinguished professor of political science.

She found many differences between the European and American education systems.

In European universities, she says, students choose their course of study when they enroll.

“In the United States, you can find out along the way and declare your major later. In Europe, if you choose to study biology and then decide to change your major, you have to drop out, re-enroll and start over.”

Two strategies of academic motivation

The workloads also vary, says Steukers.

“In Leuven you have one exam per class at the end of the semester. This exam covers all the material. In America, courses require students to do papers, projects and exams all year round.”

Thus, says Steukers, while Lehigh is more stressful during the semester, students at Leuven feel the most pressure toward the end of the semester.

“I am not sure if one system is better or easier than the other. I guess that in the United States the work is more spread out and you’re forced to do it, but in Leuven students are expected to have the incentive to keep up throughout the semester on their own terms to avoid cramming at the end of the semester.”

Perhaps this is why the university library at the Katholieke Universiteit is only open until 7 p.m. and until 9 p.m. during exams.

“I am shocked by the amount of hours the Lehigh libraries remain open,” Steukers says. “I can’t believe they remain open 24 hours during exam weeks!”

Steukers enjoyed her time at Lehigh.

“I love the international environment here,” Steukers says. “I made my best friends among the international students.

“When I arrived, I knew no one and nothing, but slowly I began to start a life. The group of people you know gets bigger, everything becomes more familiar and now I feel I have a new home.”

Before she returns to Belgium, Steukers plans to visit California and then travel to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, to do research for her thesis. Afterwards, she will return to the Lehigh Valley to meet a friend and take a trip to Boston.

Steukers has also visited New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“The worst part of my trip is that I am leaving in a couple of weeks,” Steukers says. “A semester here is way too short.”

Story by Liz Piscitelli

Posted on Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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