Maastricht first-year students of 2020/2021
American student Meghan Callender was only sixteen years old when she arrived in Nieuwe Pekela for an exchange year. The province of Groningen – as flat as can be, with pastures, cows and water – could not have been more different from Washington State, her homeland full of nature and mountains. But it wasn’t just the surroundings she had to get used to. The culture, the way of life, relationships: everything was new. Looking back, it was an amazing experience, she says. It was so amazing that she returned. First to Groningen, but since September a few hundred kilometres south, in Maastricht.
Name: Meghan Callender
Study programme: Global Studies
Moved out for university: Yes
Callender in 5 qualities: independent, creative, outgoing, caring, funny
Lowest point in 2020: No social life during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic
Highest point in 2020: Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, where she was studying at the time, closed its doors in Spring. She decided to go back to her parents in the US. “I cherish the time I spent with them.”
“Yes, but we have Mount St. Pieter in Maastricht”, quips the journalist when Meghan Callender enthusiastically talks about how full of nature and mountains (“Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Ellinor”) her homeland is. The twenty-year-old student was born and raised in Washington State, the north-westernmost state in the contiguous United States of America. To put it into perspective, Maastricht’s Mount St. Pieter is a hillock compared to Mount Rainier, a 4400-metre dormant volcano.
The Callender family – mother, father, son and daughter – own a house in the middle of the forest. Their nearest neighbours live metres away and cycling to school was never an option. It was too far, the terrain was too hilly and the lack of cycling infrastructure made it too dangerous.
And then she arrived in the Netherlands, a cycling-mad country; she was only sixteen years old. “I was in my third year of secondary school when I was able to go abroad on exchange on a Rotary grant. I couldn’t wait to go on an adventure to Europe. I was curious about that part of the world. All participants were dropped off somewhere else.”
“When they called me to tell me I was going to the Netherlands, the first thing I did, was look up the country on google. Kind of embarrassing.” But before she left, she was prepared. “I could even tell you how many people live per square kilometer. I don’t know that number anymore though”, she laughs.
Callender ended up in Nieuwe Pekela, a village in Groningen. It was a long bike ride from her host family’s house to her secondary school in Winschoten. “Fifty minutes!” When it rained too hard, her host families (she had several during the year, “very warm people”) would make an exception and drive her to school.
“When I first arrived in the Netherlands, I felt like I would make friends quickly, like everyone would be interested in Meghan, 'the American girl'. But after I introduced myself in class on my first day, no one approached me.” It was one of her host fathers who told her to take initiative. “In a typical Dutch way: direct. When he picked me up from school one time, he wondered why I wasn’t meeting up with friends. ‘With that attitude, you might as well go back to the US’, he said – quite confronting. I knew that he was right.” It all worked out fine in the end. “I invited three girls, together with one of my host sisters, for a brunch of American pancakes. They all ended up being my best friends the whole year.”
She didn’t have much to do at school “because the teachers didn’t really feel like providing any additional materials in English. I especially enjoyed art class.” She still likes to create drawings and paintings, realistic ones, preferably of nature.
Callender did go home to her parents in Washington State after her exchange. But she had changed. “You just grow to become a different person. I also realized how much happier I was with my new Dutch relationships. I made so many great friends who supported me in ways that I had never experienced and loved me for exactly who I was, and that gave a lot of power to my self-image. My ‘old’ friends weren't really friends because it was genuine, but mostly because we had been stuck together for so long. I think most kids discover who they are on their own when they finally go off to college, but I got to learn this much earlier.”
Her exchange year was such “an amazing life” that she returned to Groningen to study International Communication at Hanze University of Applied Sciences. “I needed to get a propaedeutic diploma before I went to university.”
Which university, and where? She didn’t know yet. “Nothing felt exactly right. I am really big-picture oriented I would say, and it was really important for me that I could study something that was going to allow me to make a positive difference in world problems.” When she read about the Global Studies programme in Maastricht, she thought: “This is it! Global Studies offers exactly what I want, the opportunity to get to know many different issues from many different angles and figure out how I can best work to solve them.”
Unfortunately, she was placed on a waiting list; only seventy students could be admitted to the programme. “I called the programme director to ask what was wrong with my motivation letter.” A week later, she heard that she had been accepted into the programme after all.
So far away from home. Isn’t she homesick now and then? “Definitely. I was pretty homesick right at the beginning of the academic year, with everything being new again. It can also be a bummer sometimes because my friends often go home to their families, and I of course have to stay by myself a lot. I talk to my parents over text almost every day and keep myself busy.” She joined student sports association Saurus and rows three to four times per week. “I love being active.”
Her parents support her and leave her free to make her own decisions. “Just like my dad, I’m independent, passionate and strong.” Her father is a source of inspiration for her. He’s a scientist, an ecologist, with his own company for research into threatened species. “When there are plans to build on a certain site, my father is called in. He is specialised in determining the presence of gophers.” A gopher is a type of rodent that looks like a cross between a hamster and a mole. Callender often set out with her father, “walking back and forth across a piece of land for hours, looking for signs of gophers.” With patience she explains the differences between a gopher mound and a molehill.
But no, she never felt the desire to follow in his footsteps. “I’m looking for something less specialised, but I do get my passion for science from him. I love seeing how he does what he does. And I don’t just see it, but I also feel it myself.”
Callender hopes to be able to spend this Christmas with her parents in the US. She realises all too well how different the country may be by then. The 2020 presidential election is scheduled for 3 November. She’s going to vote, too, although she considers the situation “less than ideal”. Four more years of Trump or a vote for Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate? She keeps the answer for herself. Callender’s home of Washington is a historically blue (democratic) state, and this often reflects in her ballot. “Politics in the US are quite sensitive, especially at this time”, but avoiding the subject is impossible as many fellow students are often curious about her thoughts and positions on certain topics in within the US, “it can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable”.
Callender is not really into planning things. “I don’t know what I want to do in life either, or whether I’ll stay in Europe or go back to the US after my studies.” But she is beginning to feel more and more European. “In what way? I guess the way people dress, the way I get around, the food. People in Europe just have a more sophisticated lifestyle I would say.” Her mum more easily adapts to European culture and its customs. “I can see that when she’s here. My dad is and always will be a typical American, in his outdoor outfit with his hiking shoes, his loud voice, his American accent – he kind of stands out.”
Who are they, the first years of 2020?
Who are the new first-year students at Maastricht University? What are their dreams, their plans and their expectations? And how are they doing this year? Observant will follow five new students this academic year. We will interview them several times: in autumn, in the winter and, finally, in May/June.