It’s Not Just What You Study, It’s Where You Study

James, Master in Human Geography

It is a daunting time, whether you are deciding on a bachelor or a master programme. You need to make a decision soon. You cannot decide which programme, city, or even country you want to study in. You have read every page of a university’s website and every prospectus and guide. Yet still you do not know in which programme you will be the most successful.

The truth is, there is more to university than studying! If you are looking to start your bachelor you may spend 5 years or more in a location, so it is important that you study in a city that offers you a lifestyle you want and will enjoy. This can be more than the bars and restaurants or student organisations a university boasts, although they can be important; the lifestyle of a city encompasses every aspect of life in the city from the shops and cafes to the food and the weather (heads up – in the Netherlands 150 shades of grey) or the cultural norms of the population. These factors create lots of small moments that contribute towards you overall happiness and contentment.

In case you didn't notice cycling is part of everyday life in the Netherlands (Photo Credit Arnaud Mooij)

This is hard enough to explain in words, it is even harder to research – and it is unlikely to be on a university’s website! Visiting a city is usually the best way to understand this, but if you plan on crossing oceans to study abroad this isn’t always a practical option. Thankfully with the explosion of social media and online content creation there is now a wealth of sources you can use to help understand a location in a more detail. Searching for Instagram stories by location can provide stories of peoples’ everyday life whilst YouTube can be full of videos locals and tourists have taken.

Studying is important, but finding time to have fun is equally as important in ensuring sucess (Photo Credit Maarten Nauw)

However, before you go skipping off into a bliss of matcha tea, shopping hauls and gluten free eyeliner there is one sobering truth that remains. University may be about more than studying, but the studying bit is still the most important. A city with a great lifestyle makes the good days amazing, the sun is shining, you’re enjoying a cultural festival in the city, or you are sat in a park or by a river; these are the days when studying abroad can make you feel on top of the world. But what about the not so good days?

If the content is not interesting to you then the that reading list will seem much much longer! (Photo Credit Maria Salaru)

When you’re sat in the library revising for a resit of an exam, someone on the bus was rude and told you off for something you didn’t understand - in a language you didn't understand, it’s raining and your bank account is emptier than an orange shirt shop on Kingsday. These are the days when you need to passion and determination to succeed in your programme, to pick yourself up and keep going trying to learn the dullest components of your subject. If you don’t get this kind of enjoyment from your programme then the hard days are going to be unbearable and it will show in your grades.

Whilst winter is all about hiding in cosy cafés, in summer nothing beats sitting in the sun amongst the city's beautiful architecture (Photo Credit Kees Rutten)

So why did I choose Utrecht? For me the balance between the city’s amazing architecture, beautiful cafes and shops and relaxed pace of life, combined with the content of my programme and the academic attitude of the university meant I was sure I could live happily in the city. Utrecht university stressed the importance of being socially relevant in your studies and encouraging students to address societal challenges. For me this means that when I am searching for motivation to stay another couple of hours in the library I know that I am not just studying for the sake of studying; I am studying to better understand the issues within my field and how they can bring about change.

A typical Utrecht summer scene (Photo Credit Bas van Hattum)

Alongside this, I know that once I have finished my studying for the day I am able to enjoy a city which offers an array of culture and a lifestyle that I find enjoyable. I can meet friends for a drink in a cosy café or bar, go shopping in a wide variety of independent or chain shops or, in the summer, bask in the sun on the city’s terraces or canal-side parks. It is important to make sure the course you want to study is the right course for you, but do not ignore the importance of location and its ability to influence your success in your studies.