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International student Philbert: ‘I have not seen my family since last summer’

Avans attracts lots of international students. What has their year been like? Philbert Rugamba, third-year ESSET student in Breda, found the university of applied sciences through Google. But due to COVID-19 he has not set foot in a classroom since June and that feels a little weird: “Going to school is my reason for being in the Netherlands.”

“I wanted to study something to do with environmental science, and in Europe”, explains Philbert. “Plus the degree programme would have to be taught in English. Avans came out on top of my Google search results.” And that is how Philbert ended up in Breda, enrolled in the Environmental Science for Sustainable Energy and Technology (ESSET) study programme. “Registration was super easy.”

Before travelling to Breda, he did some research about the city and the country. “I knew a little bit about Amsterdam, I knew that Dutch people tend to be tall and I knew that they drink lots of coffee. I also knew that most people speak English.” The first five months in the Netherlands were not easy for Philbert. He did not know anyone and he had to get used to both the weather and the pace of the study programme.

In the house he lived in, found for him by Avans, the ESSET student soon met and befriended other international students, and Dutch fellow students at school. ESSENCE, the association for the study programme, organised all kinds of activities before the pandemic struck. Like a trip to theme park De Efteling or drinks at a café. “I was impressed with the international climate. Avans was very helpful in my integration.”

He has not seen some of his classmates in person since March, but others he would meet in the park for a couple of beers. Friends made outside of school he would see roughly twice a week. “This social interaction helps me stay mentally healthy”, says Philbert. “I was quite paranoid mainly at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis and thought that the apocalypse had come.”

Philbert goes to see his family in Rwanda every summer, but due to the pandemic he was unable to visit them this year. “It has been more than a year since I last saw them. But I’ve become used to it. Thankfully we can facetime every day, so I can see how they are doing.” He is not the first in his family to study abroad. His aunt attended Wageningen University and his father spent some time in the United States.

He has good things to say about ESSET. The timetable is flexible, the exams are not too difficult and the lecturers are devoted to their jobs and students. “They frequently read their e-mails.” When the country went into lockdown in mid-March and the schools were forced to close their doors, Philbert and his project group were halfway through a project that then needed to be continued online. “Our tutor did a great job supervising us. I also spoke to my study development counsellor twice a month. I needed that to stay motivated. I have to say I got lots of support. I thought I was the only one struggling, but when you talk to others you find out they are in the same boat.”

This article is also published in Dutch. Read it here.

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