Leaving for Europe truly felt like a dream, and I mean that in the most sincere manner, considering I was falling in and out of sleep through most of the seven hour flight across the Atlantic ocean. Even though my program was based in Leuven, Belgium, myself and James Swart, a fellow biosystems engineering student, left for Europe a week before the start of class to travel through Dublin and London. I was completely awestruck by Ireland’s beautiful architecture and friendly inhabitants, and being in London was completely surreal; it was mind numbing to visit London’s iconic sites that I had only previously seen in movies.
Upon our arrival to Leuven, James and I had already adapted to the European time difference, unlike our classmates, whom were fresh off the plane. The program is conducted through Texas A&M University; thus, our professors and most of our fellow students were all Aggies. Even though I expected European culture shock, I did not anticipate Texan culture shock. The Texas A&M students were extremely proud of their school and had interesting, quirky traditions. Their enthusiasm and school spirit was certainly infectious.
During my time in Belgium, I took two courses: principles of environmental hydrology and design of biological waste treatment systems. Both courses revealed water quality issues specific to America as well as Europe, displaying a wide array of hydrological matters addressed by environmental engineers. Once a week, the entire class would hear from a practicing specialist working to provide the people of Belgium with clean water. Not only were the topics fascinating, but the speakers also opened my eyes to future, possible careers. In addition, the class would take a weekly field trip to a facility of hydrological importance.
During our first field trip, we were educated on Belgium’s sources of groundwater. Our guide even took the class to observe the stunning reflecting pools of water in a local underground quarry. The second field trip to the Netherlands displayed a truly remarkable feat of modern engineering. The Deltaworks storm surge barrier located in Zeeland is strong enough to withstand devastating storm events without devastating the surrounding aquatic ecosystem. A total of three kilometers in length, the barrier can lift out of the water, lessening its ecological impact and affect on the tides. The entire class can be seen posing in front of the storm barrier below.
For our final field trips, we toured facilities that treated wastewater for healthy integration into the environment. Each field trip focused on drastically different hydrological topics, revealing the differences between Europe and America. Holistically, the courses revealed the pivotal role of water management practices to society.
Even though there was much to learn academically, the most important lessons I learned were while traveling. The program was structured so that we had four day weekends to travel anywhere in Europe. During the five weeks of the program, I was able to explore Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and numerous cities in Belgium. It was extremely empowering to have the ability to get on a train and be in a completely different country in just a couple of hours. For our first weekend James and I visited Brussels, where we ate some delicious waffles and saw the Atomium. Similar to Knoxville’s Sunsphere, the Atomium was also built for a World’s Fair.
Of course, while in Paris, I ate an unforgettable steak and visited the Eiffel Tower too many times to count. As the sun set, the tower was slowly illuminated in a manner that gave it a soft, mellow glow, but after the sky went completely dark, hundreds of lights started twinkling, as if the whole tower was covered in glitter. I can be seen standing in front of the tower in the picture at right.
Even though Rome had blistering hot weather, it was my favorite weekend trip. Being in a city with such rich, preserved, ancient history was an incredible experience. My friends and I visited the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and even the Vatican. James, myself, and two Aggies that made the trip with us can be seen at the Colosseum in the picture below. Witnessing all the Roman ruins in all of their grandeur felt unreal.
This study abroad experience has instilled me with a new sense of confidence; I am capable of navigating complicated metro systems and airport terminals. I learned how to be flexible, ask questions to strangers, and to welcome spontaneity. I also created lasting friendships with people I plan on seeing in the near future. I will definitely be visiting you again, Europe, but until then, I hope James and I spread enough volunteer spirit.