DESIRE TO EXPLORE THE WORLD LEADS MIRIAM COOK TO THE NETHERLANDS
Miriam Cook (Applied Agricultural Economics; Pewamo, MI)
I have always had the urge to explore the world. I grew up traveling with my family all over the country in our motorhome once a year for a week, having gone to most every corner of the lower 48. Thus I knew there was more to explore in the world than the US and I jumped at the chance. On top of that it came down to economics for me, being an out-of-state student doing a direct enroll at another university for a semester was actually cheaper than spending a semester at Purdue. So the combination of the most bang for my buck with the added benefit of meeting new people while seeing cool places around the globe I was sold on the experience.
I studied at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. One of the biggest reasons for going there was it is the number one agriculture university in the world, rightfully so, the classes were tough! In addition being able to be in The Netherlands gave me a chance to be in the home of the Holstein cow. As a dairy girl myself this was near and dear to myself. Also initially I wanted to study abroad in New Zealand but due to Covid that country was shut down for the longest time. My dairy background pushed me to want to pursue a location where I could learn about all types of agriculture, specifically dairy.
Ultimately I was told like 2 weeks before my start date that I would be able to go abroad, thus I kind of last minute planned. So really I kind of just went with a very open mentality of whatever happens happens, no one knows me so if I mess up no one is going to know. I did do a fair bit of googling of the area beforehand to get a feel for what the area would look like and how I was going to get from the airport to the university. I also had reached out to students that went to Wageningen in the past to see what they had to say to also prepare myself, then I talked with local Dutch dairy farmers to get their recommendations and places to go while there and any farm connections they had.
This is kind of odd but they do not have Ranch in Europe, like anywhere, it is something completely foreign to them. Thus to not have Ranch was super surprising and I actually imported it! Additionally I was shocked by the number of international students that I met and lived with while I was abroad. Almost everyone I interacted with was not Dutch, they had come to Wageningen to further their education. At one point I was told, and this is anecdotal but Wageningen has the most nationalities per square kilometer, which seemed true to me as I lived with 9 people from 9 different countries (Greece, Hungary, Dutch Caribbean, Columbia, Indonesia, Germany, Pakistan, Iceland, and Spain) and only met 2 other American’s while I was there. Another surprising thing that I learned was where I lived in The Netherlands was a super sustainable, health focused area, thus the food I ate was rather healthy, somewhat vegan or vegetarian based. Since I always associated The Netherlands with dairy I was taken aback by the lack of beef I could find and how much protein alternatives I had instead.
There were two big things that were an adjustment for me. The first being the size and scale of everything. Growing up in the middle of nowhere and traveling all over the US I was used to wide open spaces, super spread out. In the whole of Europe that was not the case, and it makes sense since the infrastructure has been around longer than the US has been a country. So all the cities had such smaller roads, and buildings, there were hardly any skyscrapers besides like Rotterdam that was bombed during wars and rebuilt or capital cities like Brussels. Even the cars and tractors were so much smaller, a normal American truck would have been huge in the US. The other big adjustment was the biking mentality in The Netherlands, everyone biked there, it was the normal to bike instead of drive. On campus there would be underground parking garages for bikes, it was so surreal. When we would do farm visits for the animal science study association we would bike to the farms. I remember Dutch students telling me that growing up it was normal for them to bike 45 minutes to school one way, which I thought was insane! Granted the bike trails were amazing and were sometimes bigger than the roads, bikes even had the right away around round abouts and cars yielded to bikers, it was such a reverse mentality.
Looking back on the experience now my whole way of thinking was changed for the better because of those 6 magical months. Making friends from so many different countries, made me aware of the different types of government systems and how that impacts our life choices. Each person shared with me a different story that opened my eyes to a whole new world and made me want to travel even more. The different interactions taught me that as an American we are taught to just work our lives away and not take the time to invest in ourselves and rest. I now know I do not have to settle for less, there are opportunities out there that allow me to enjoy work and my personal life without having the mentality “I can sleep when I am dead.” Furthering that thought it shifted my career focus to look into something internationally focused, something to help those in need rather than feed into the US prosperous economy. It was also each unique interaction that I had that taught me the true power of empathy, while it was scary for me to be abroad, every single other international student was going through the same thing and that bonded us. I learned to have open and vulnerable conversation with intentional interactions that made for lifelong friends, because of my study abroad I am a better person with a fresh outlook on the world.
I was often told to not let my classes get in the way of my education, so I took every weekend almost to go visit a new place. My adventures took me on overnight buses to cities like Paris, Brussel, Munich, and Prague. My spontaneous actions led me to fly to Austria and Portugal on a whim. Among my travels with friends I went driving on the German Autoban to get to Denmark, I experienced the German Christmas Markets in multiple cities from Flensburg to Hamburg and more. Traveling to the Vienne of the Netherlands, Giethorn, historic Amsterdam, Utrecht, Lieden, Rotterdam, and the home of Guoda cheese, Guoda, NL. Among all those I got the chance to visit lots of dairy farms in each country learning how they do things very different than we do in the US.
The highlights of my experience I would have to be meeting all the different agriculturalist and touring the different farming operations. They have so many different governmental regulations that make it harder for them to operate and keep them on a smaller scale it was interesting to hear how they make a profit. As for them having thousands of cows was mind blowing, when I was in Austria the largest dairy in one area was 20 cows, which is completely opposite us. Not to mention when I toured a goat operation, they had to physically export the manure out of country to get it off farm as they did not have enough ground to spread it. It truly makes one grateful to live in a country where we do not have the restrictions. To this day I still keep in contact with the farms I toured and we bounce breeding ideas and cow pictures back and forth!
Honestly Covid really only impacted me when it came to travel. I was fully vaccinated and followed most rules thus did not run into any roadblocks. It was simply just making sure to wear a mask while on public transport that was the only limiting factor. I also got very lucky to have been in country when cases were low and classes were in person. I got out just in time for when cases were on the rise and classes actually got put back online so I was very lucky to have traveled when I did.
Taking the opportunity to live in another country for a long period was worth all the stress. It is very scary and you do go through culture shock but I feel like everyone should do it. It has helped me to know that I want a career that is internationally focused because there is so much more to our world than the Midwest. For a mind that is opened to new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions. The discomfort is worth all of the gained friends, memories and ideas. I had the time of my life and cannot wait to continue my adventures. It has even inspired me to become fluent in a new language every five years, starting with Spanish, then French and I do not know where next but I am excited for the challenge!