“It really makes you grow up”
In 2017, the VUB counted 3411 international students from 128 different nationalities. They represent eventually 21,5 % of the total student count and the numbers keep climbing. I meet Marcela on a cold evening in a crowded Café Walvis at the end of Dansaert for a drink and her story.
Marcela García Loza is a 26 year old student from Mexico, currently enrolled in the Urban Studies 4cities program. An international joint master involving six universities in four different cities, starting with the VUB. She talks about the program and her experiences in Brussels.
“I’m 26 and I’m from Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico, where I finished architecture school. I did one of my years abroad in Marseilles, with a scholarship, which is where the story of moving to different cities begins. After that, I had an architecture office with some friends for two years back in Mexico, but got tired of it and dropped everything to go and live the international experience in Colombia. I didn’t want to live in the same city for my entire life. So I decided to go to Medellin, kind of out of the blue. Mostly because Medellin is this big example of urban planning in Latin America, and probably even in the rest of the world. They have this policy that is called ‘social urbanism’. I wanted to go there to haveget the experience of living in the city and getting to know first hand information about the city’s transformation: from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to becoming an example to follow. A lot of university students came together for the urban planning, we also built some plans for cities outside of Medellin. It was a great experience and I would love to go back and live there. People are so warm and happy. Mexicans are like that too, but I feel that Colombians have even more spark. While being over there I applied for my current master’s program. The process of applying is actually really nice, you just have to tell your story, what you’ve been through. It’s nice to see your accomplishments and at the end, you know that everyone accepted to the program has a really interesting background. For example, having lived in multiple cities or speaking multiple languages.”
What is the 4cities program?
“4cities is a master program in Urban Studies in which six universities are involved. The first semester, we study in Brussels and have courses at the VUB and ULB and then we have the second semester in Vienna. The third semester, we go to Copenhagen and the last semester we study at two universities in Madrid. At the end of the program we will get a joint diploma of all of those universities. On top of that, we get the overall experience of living in these cities. We get to see very different cultures within Europe; Vienna would be like the gateway to eastern Europe and Copenhagen is more Scandinavian. Finally, we have to come back to Brussels to present our thesis because the program is an initiative of the VUB. We are actually part of the geography department so we have a lot of classes with them. As we go through the different cities, we focus on different things. Here in Brussels the focus is geography, but in Copenhagen it will be more art and humanities. Each one of the universities has a different focus that will nourish the Urban Studies.”
What is the dynamic of the urban studies students?
“We are a group of 25 people and we come from a lot of different countries, most of the students are European but there are also two Mexicans, a Brazilian girl, a boy from the US, … iIt almost sounds like a social experiment. The masters is way beyond going to class, it’s also about the everyday life -, we have to speak English all the time and there is this bunch of cultures mashed up together. It’s nice because we get to share a lot of moments we wouldn’t be able to share if we were in a conventional masters program. We experience the different cities as a group. We also share traditions, we celebrated Thanksgiving and Sinterklaas. We are even planning a trip together oncewhen we’vre graduated.”
What are your plans after graduating?
“The University of Guadalajara is paying for my master study so I have two options when I finish, I either go back and teach at the Uuniversity or I can write a book for them to publish. Both of them would be a win for me. Another option I would like to try out is maybe finding a job here. I know that the European Union has a lot of projects in Latin America, which would be my dream job: working here but for Latin America. I think of Latin America as a blank page, there are loads of opportunities to be creative and to improve the quality of life. In a certain way, this master in Urban Studies prepares us for a lot of different things because it’s not very specific. You could also end up working in public administration or as consultant, for example.”
What are the hardest parts and the best parts about the program?
“One of the biggest challenges is moving every six months and finding new friends. It really makes you grow up. In February, we have some vacation but during that time we are expected to find a place to stay in Vienna and do the visa procedures. So we have a lot of administrative stuff that we have to solve, but it’s part of the experience.”
“When we walk around in the city, we are supposed to look with our geographical eye. We have to be able to be creative, to look at urban problems and solve them in a creative way. I find it very interesting that the students have different disciplines and backgrounds, because if we approach the problem from those different points of view, I think we get better solutions. It’s an example of globalization being a good thing.”
“The fact that Belgium is divided in regions and that you have more than one official language is something I find very particular. Those two very strong cultures alive next to each other in Brussels is something that is very noticeable for foreigners and which I haven’t seen anywhere else. What makes it easier to adapt here is that there are a lot of people from abroad living here and studying at the VUB. It’s easy making new friends who are in the same situation as you. We can go and discover Brussels together.”
“One of my absolute favourite places is Café Velvet. It’s owned by a Belgian lady whom I’ve met recently and she has the same coffeeshop in Medellin. I used to go and work there a lot back in Colombia so it feels like home to me. And it makes me think of how small this planet actually is, because I used to see that woman over there maybe once a week and now I find out she owns another café over here. If you traced the network of people, you would see how tiny this world can feel.”