Author: Sari Naito
Why did I apply for an exchange?
Having grown up living in many different countries, I have always loved the feeling of stepping into a new culture and finding my way through the many cultural and language challenges. Whether figuring out the puzzles of a foreign menu at a restaurant, immersing myself into the unfamiliar traditions of the local festivals, or the sense of accomplishment you feel when you can respond to somebody asking you for directions on the street in the local language, these are all things that I grew up experiencing again and again, but slowly started to miss as I approached my third year of university in the UK.
However, the cultural aspect was not the only reason I applied for the exchange. By my third year, I needed to start thinking about my career ahead, and if I wanted to continue my architecture studies in the UK or elsewhere after graduation. Going on an exchange meant that I could experience the differences in teaching styles and approaches to the design process first-hand and make a better-informed decision about my future studies.
Why TU Delft?
I had always been fascinated by the unique experimental approach to design in Dutch architecture offices, and I immediately knew TU Delft would be my first choice when asked to put down my destination preferences. The range and depth of the elective courses offered, as well as the collaboration with international architecture offices and researchers, especially in sustainable construction, is what stood out to me about the university. Upon further research, I became fascinated by the multi-dimensionality of former TU students’ graduation projects and knew that I wanted to learn from the same tutors and professors who had supervised these projects.
Talking to another Bath student who had also done her exchange at Delft and hearing about her positive experiences there solidified my decision and encouraged me to read further on the university and the opportunities offered.
How did I settle into student life?
The Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment is the largest faculty at TU Delft, and it is impossible to even begin to know everybody in your year. Although I was worried that it would be difficult to make friends in such an environment, I quickly found it to be the opposite – it was so easy to grab an empty desk in the studio and start chatting to your neighbours about their projects, or to say hi to a single familiar face in a sea of students rushing through the narrow corridors. As we all chose different electives in the first half of the semester, we would all have a set of friends to sit with in one class, and completely different people to chat with in the next. As an exchange student, I found this especially nice as I got to know so many different people, both Dutch and international.
Schedule-wise, my days at Delft were not too different from Bath. Two days of the week were packed with classes or tutorial sessions, and the others were dedicated to groupwork and studio projects, when I would spend long days at the faculty either discussing ideas with my groupmates or bringing my models to life in the workshop.
Unlike Bath however, where the architecture building is open 24/7, the Bouwkunde is only open on weekdays, which meant that I spent more time working in my room compared to in the UK. I found the change of scenery to be helpful though, and it gave me more motivation and structure to my weeks especially during the final weeks of my projects.
The clear on/off mindset in the Netherlands, which I quickly picked up during my time there, made me feel less compelled to work over the weekends, and I happily took advantage of this to explore the country with my friends. Having more time on the weekends didn’t mean there was less coursework, or it was less difficult than Bath though, and my weekdays were filled to the brim with lectures, meetings and external activities.
What are the benefits of an exchange?
For such a diverse and multidisciplinary subject such as architecture, I believe being able to experience a completely different approach to the design process is crucial, and is what makes a strong, well-rounded architect. Choosing our own electives and studio projects encouraged us to really understand our own strengths and weaknesses, and what we wanted to develop through the semester.
The studio that I chose to take part in focused on designing through model-making and experimentation, something that I was always keen on, but never had the courage or time to put to the test through our rigorous course schedule at Bath. The exchange was the perfect opportunity and spending long days working in the renowned Maquettehal (model hall) with so many knowledgeable staff was such a rewarding experience.
What did I find difficult about being an exchange student?
I was very lucky to have a smooth and seamless transition from Bath to Delft, where, as an exchange student, I was warmly welcomed into the Delft community from the first orientation day. The course structure in Semester 2 made sure exchange students had exactly the same opportunities as their full-time students and were treated not any differently – most professors had no idea who were the exchange students at all!
Any difficulties I encountered during my time in the Netherlands was thus not being an exchange student but were often the typical things that anybody encounters when they move to a new country. Administrative work, such as receiving a civil service number, registering with the municipality, and applying for rent allowance were complicated and did not always go smoothly, but the university’s International Office were very helpful in getting these things settled as quickly as possible.
…and my final thoughts
Ordering food in my almost non-existent Dutch and struggling to find my way cycling through the crazy intersections of cars, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians - subtle moments, yet I know they form a crucial milestone in my journey as a student, an architect, and as an individual.
My time at Delft has taught me to be perseverant, constantly challenge my ideas, and maintain a positive mindset towards every opportunity and experience. As the inspirational writer C.S. Lewis once said:
'You find the strength of the wind by walking against it, not by lying down'
… unless you ever encounter the Dutch weather!