An international student’s perspective: My first year of university – the ordinary and the unconventional

Sang Ta
11 mei 2020

The very first memory – Bicycles.

My first two weeks in Amsterdam was quite a record. Two bikes stolen in two weeks, once per week! For an international student who had carefully prepared for his studies in Amsterdam, I had predicted that I could, in the worst-case scenario, lose one bike during my first few days, but not two bikes! That was one of the first surprises Amsterdam had in store for me, and this experience assured me that there would be many more (less financially painful of course) experiences that lie ahead. In retrospect, it was more than what I would have expected, but more on that later! In this short column, I will share some of my experiences and tips for studying the first-year Econometrics bachelors’ program here at the UvA.

The reason I chose UvA and Econometrics

I had quite a history with “Amsterdam.” In fact, Dr.I.Samkalden, who was the mayor of Amsterdam during the 1970s, had initiated a donation campaign to express support of Amsterdamers for the Hanoians which resulted in the establishment of my high school, Hanoi-Amsterdam high school. Not to mention, it was also the place where I had spent 4 years of secondary school, bringing a total of 7 years under the “Amsterdam” name, or “Ams” as we call it in Hanoi. This lengthy bond sparked in me both the idea of what actually studying in Amsterdam would be like and the desire to continue an Amsterdam “brand.”

If that was not enough, I was even more interested in UvA due to my dad, who is my great educator, and as you may have guessed, is an UvA alumnus. Having studied there and always being very keen on information regarding UvA, he has certainly kindled my motivation to study at UvA. As for why Econometrics, I have to say that I have a preference and aptitude for mathematics. However, I wanted something practical that can both offer me a solid professional career or a research career in the future. After spending almost a year of studying as well as discussing with teachers, professionals, and peers, I think Econometrics definitely ticks my two aforementioned requirements.

My memorable and favorite courses

An academic year at UvA is usually divided into 6 blocks, 3 blocks per semester, which usually runs according to the 2-2-1-month formation. In each block that lasts 2 months, 2 courses will be taught while in the 1-month block, only one course is covered.

My first block at UvA provided me a world of contrast. While calculus was quite easy for me, Macroeconomics was quite rough, at least that was before the midterms. After the midterms, I gradually found my way to tackling Macroeconomics. It seems that I found a way to harmonize with Prof. Koen Vermeylen’s lectures and tutorials, which turned out to be very well-structured and practical for his tough exam questions. In addition, he seems to know where I get stuck, so he would explain that specific part without the questions of the shy freshman - me. His explanations about the graphs of historic economic data is also one of his main features, which applies everything that has been covered, and which proves the validity of the concepts.

My most memorable course was calculus. In fact, it was the first course that made me feel much more confident and hopeful of my new home at UvA. Due to my interest in the subject, my tutor, Ms.Derya Guller, expressed much support by discussing with me many interesting problems and “off-topic” mathematical topics. For a freshman international student like myself, having the support and welcome of teachers really make me feel like home. Ms. Derya will continue to be my tutor in Probability and Statistics 1 and also our lecturer of Linear Algebra.

My favorite course or courses, to be exact, are the Statistics courses. These courses really do cater my tastes. On the one hand, they are full of challenging mathematics that suits my preference for the subject. On the other hand, they really change the way I see “events” in life. In other words, events that appear to be random may not be “random” at all! Using statistical techniques, we can possibly be in control of this randomness. However, in order to see these revelations, it is important to really think about the problems provided in the course. You may have solved a problem, but if you think a bit deeper, there may be more to it. The most enjoyable feature of these courses is how the problems are positioned and planned. After one or two straight-forward problems, there will be ones that introduce some nuances that require you to question yourself and urge you to revisit a seemingly simple yet “deceptive” topic. Basically, it fills in any possible gaps that you may have missed in your understanding. This could be described as the feeling you would have when you finished studying but cannot be certain to explain it to your classmates, who would usually bring up some aspects that you may never have thought of before. Apart from the in-class material, I would recommend the Statistics 110 playlist, Ben Lambert’s and 3Blue1Brown’s videos on YouTube as great complements, since they have some similar concepts in our first-year statistics courses.

An initial experience with the Honors Programme.

In my opinion, the Honors program is a great opportunity to “break your boundary.” If you meet the GPA requirement of 7.5 or above, then you can participate in the program. It consists of five courses where four are of your own choice, and one is compulsory called “The why-axis.” The course catalogue contains subjects whose goal is to introduce students to new concepts and viewpoints that are not covered in the main programmes. I started at the start of the second semester with a course about train timetabling. Choosing this course, I had the chance to also study at the VU, and thus met many new people. Though the title is train timetabling, the course is in fact an introduction to a very powerful mathematical tool that surprisingly has many applications in train timetabling, which is called max-plus algebra. I won’t go into the specifics of the course, but the lecturer was very devoted to his course, which is apparent through his enthusiasm of not only max-plus algebra, but also his deep understanding of the history, the philosophy, or the connections of mathematics to other subjects. The Honors courses are usually designed by the lecturers themselves, so students can certainly take for granted the enthusiasm in their lectures as well as absorb their profound viewpoints. Even though the material may sound unfamiliar, they are much more relaxed, in terms of grading and assessment, compared to your programme’s courses, so it’s a great opportunity to broaden your connections, as well as leave a good impression on new professors, who are usually experts in a particular field. To sum up, I highly recommend the programme due to all the options at your disposal as well as the extra insights that spark your curiosity.

Stolen bicycles? Say hello to 2020.

And yes, getting my bike stolen was only the tip of the iceberg. Enter 2020 – the year of the Covid-19 outbreak. Just as the class was about to take the finals for block 4, we were notified that UvA was shutting down. Of course, everyone was very uncertain and anxious about the future of their studies. As for me, I was worried whether I could finish my studies for the first year and also continue the upcoming academic years in due time. In the meantime, I had already started to self-quarantine in my room in Amsterdam to avoid the virus and to maintain good health for studying. Fortunately, the UvA was very quick to respond, and lecturers and staff had prepared a plan for online learning. After a week of following this online material, I was relieved. Despite the lack of physical face-to-face discussions, the video lectures still covered all the necessary material, and which were recorded with great clarity. In addition, it’s possible to rewind to any part of the entire lecture! As for the tutorials through Zoom, lessons go slower than usual since tutors do not have time to answer every question of every student, but in my opinion, it’s acceptable for online learning.

Studying in isolation for several weeks started to feel quite depressing. I would feel sleepy every day, so it was very hard to concentrate on anything. Thus, I had to seek an activity that could not only fill up my free time, but also be educational so that I could trick my brain to focus on something and stop procrastinating or being lazy. Fortunately, I had recently joined Aenorm, which is a committee in the VSAE organization (the student organization for our program). Having a writing task occasionally was quite intellectually pleasing and conversing with other committee members is also very helpful during this lack of human interaction. Most of the members are 2nd-year and 3rd-year students, so for a “freshman” like myself, I had the chance to even ask them about the studies in the following years, which definitely provides me with a means to plan my own strategy for the years ahead. Apart from its members, Aenorm, in my opinion, provides a great opportunity to meet and talk individually with professionals. Specifically, we interview those professionals and write columns about their experiences and their jobs. For me, my first interview was with a derivatives trader who also studied Econometrics at the UvA, and for me, this had been a revelation to many possible career options that an Econometrician may take. 

End note

If you ever have any questions regarding the UvA or Econometrics, don’t hesitate to contact the student ambassadors, as they possibly are very quick to respond, and who are very welcome to share with you their experience at UvA. I’m myself an ambassador for the Econometrics program, and you can follow the link here:

At the time of writing this column, I’m still self-quarantining in my room, and I hope that things will brighten up so that I could return to hanging out with my friends and studying in the great lecture halls. While this experience is not as financially uncomfortable as stolen bikes, it is quite physically and emotionally difficult for everyone. I guess never in the past century have we ever experienced this situation. So, to think on the bright side, this definitely is a year to remember, a year that will go into history, and a year which we all experienced.