New Old Perspectives

Heather at Ginkelse Heide, Ede.

Heather at Ginkelse Heide, Ede.

The first month in the Netherlands and of MSc Forest and Nature Conservation at Wageningen University (WUR) is behind me. And what an interesting and illuminating month that was!

So, slipping back into studies has been surprisingly…seamless. As if my non-study, work year didn’t exist![1] It’s by no means easy and I’m still getting used to things but it’s always like that in a new place. I should know. Other than that, it all just feels so normal, you know?

One thing is to be adaptable and able to quickly and painlessly settle in a new place. Then there’s another explanation – university. It even shares the root with word universal (and universe)! Whether it’s California, Scotland or the Netherlands the institution is basically identical. You sit in the lectures, attend practicals, read articles, write essays, make presentations, work in groups[2]… Just like people did a hundred or 500 years ago. Basically.

On one hand, for an international student like me, this is very comforting – the system might differ (quarters vs semesters, letter grades vs 10 scale) but the basics remain the same. Of course, study quality, resources and facilities, staff achievements differ and these differences are crucial. And I’ve so far been very fortunate to study at the top institutions, leaders in environmental sciences. These are also sadly the reasons why I never considered studying in Lithuania.

But what about the people at my latest top school? Let’s start with my fellow students. Forest and Nature Conservation class is an interesting bunch of people. We’re quite a big group, I don’t know, say 70 people. Probably over two thirds are Dutch, but so far I had absolutely no problem with that (at the Introduction week they were trying really hard to scare us and prepare for the worst. It was very interesting). Yes, they do sometimes forget and switch languages but I’m sure the further we go, I’ll pick up more and more of it – I’m already freaking people out! And their English, by the way, is perfect! I can’t help but think, how would a class of Lithuanian university students react and perform if put in a similar situation. I do hope that they would do just as well, but I have no idea, to be honest.

The other third or so are internationals – a rather interesting mix too. Not really surprisingly, eastern and central Europe is totally under-represented, I think there’s a total of two of us (also an interesting topic why is that!) A few Italians, Spanish, Belgians, Germans, French and Portuguese. A few people from several African and Asian countries. At Edinburgh in my class the latter two regions were completely absent, so definitely an improvement!

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WUR Campus. When it was still warm.

Forest and Nature Conservation at WUR has three specialisations: policy, management and ecology. I would say ecology is the most popular one, at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten so far from talking to people[3]. And that is very interesting actually. We currently have this class called Trends in Forest and Nature Conservation. It’s basically a way to bring everyone up to speed with things happening in this area. One issue – there was not that much actual ecology or trends in ecology (applied, field etc.) covered. And that made a lot of people unhappy and disappointed. Which is such a big contrast to my Edinburgh experience!

OK, we too had some people in our class who were on their way to become real ecologists: scientists, consultants, what have you. But there were way more voices saying that we don’t get enough policy, social sciences etc. in our degree. I was one of Class Reps in our last year and I could pick up the feedback forms from my classmates and that’s exactly the things they were saying in regards to our Current issues in Ecology class. God, I still remember a very awkward Staff-Students Liaison meeting where there was quite a heated debate about this – staff position, however, was that we should not forget that we are doing not a social sciences degree but a BSc. Here people are actually complaining about too much of policy, ecosystem services, governance and similar things. We have insect people. The people are avid birders! Did we have any birders in Edinburgh? Don’t think so. Very interesting!

That’s, of course, not to say that one group is somehow better than the other. Or that going for more social sciences direction is somewhat better/worse than pure ecology science or hands-on management. I still think once in a while that I would love to go all in science – but I also want to live in a real world, so… Just making a joke, guys, moving on.

However, talking more about science science. Edinburgh’s GeoSciences strength is carbon, primarily in temperate forests and tundra, but also a bit in tropics. As we were part of that school that’s what we were talking about, these were the people that taught us. Carbon is of course super important: carbon fluxes in vegetation substantially affect / are affected by climate change, so these things need to be studied. I’m still very interested in climate change – that’s the big topic and I want to be part of the discussion. Here so far if we’re talking about forests, it’s all about tropics and about resilience, which is somewhat related. But, more importantly, in my Stats[4] class we’re talking about conservation: about rhinos and duikers and grysbok and baobabs and gorillas and polar bears. And our teachers are actually doing that and working in the field in savannah and Arctic and it’s just great to get to learn more about that, even if rather indirectly. I think in Edinburgh we’ve ever talked only about grouse, heather and deer (so Scottish). Yay. Again, not to say that that’s not interesting, because it really is, but it’s also very cool finally to touch upon, you know, real Conservation.

I was also going to talk more about the Netherlands themselves – I think humans vs nature debate is very interesting and what better to illustrate that than with an example of a country living mostly below sea level and fighting it with all their might. I recently went to Zeeland to see the famous Delta Works, so been thinking about that a lot. For next time!

One last thing, though. Recently I was chatting with a friend and she said that she hopes that one day I’ll be talking as much about the Netherlands as I’m talking about my experiences in Scotland and California[5]. Not surprisingly undergraduate years have been very formative for me; and I happened to spend them in those two countries, which also obviously had an impact. However, I’ve already more or less settled in Wageningen and seem to be getting the hang of how things work at WUR – and I already get really excited when I see Wageningen next to authors names in the articles. And well, I’m starting to talk about it. Right now.

[1] Though often upon seeing a piece of environmental news I immediately think that I should translate it and built a story out of it – can’t help it! I don’t really miss scouring of the interwebs for news but do miss writing and contacting people.

[2] Although WUR keeps emphasizing the group work so much as if they are the only ones doing it or have invented it or something. Obviously, it is very important, but come on, we get it!

[3] I’m 90 per cent settled on policy.

[4] It’s taught by ecologists, not statisticians (they are doing a brilliant job, by the way, one of the best classes I’ve ever had).

[5] Interestingly, I don’t seem to talk about Lithuania that much, despite having just spent an entire year back home.

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