Today exactly 15 years ago, I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, USA to study abroad for a semester. I felt so excited. And still I think back to that time with a big smile on my face. I had the time of my life! At the end of the semester I wrote a Photo Essay for a contest with the exchange program ISEP. As an alumni, I thought it would be nice to republish the essay here on my own travel blog, with a few additions. To share this memory and experience of a lifetime with Edgewood College, hopefully to inspire others to study abroad.
Dream come true
I wanted to study and live in the United States since I was about 13-years-old. Somehow I had a predilection for the US, a passion for the country and its culture, which I cannot easily explain in words. When I heard unexpectedly that I could do my study’s minor abroad, as the first student of my location ever, I knew this was an exceptional opportunity for me to seize. To me, studying in the US was absolutely a dream come true.
When I found out I was placed at the number 13 on my ISEP application list – Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin – to be honest I felt slightly disappointed at first. I was hoping to study in a metropolitan area like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco or Miami. What was I supposed to do in Wisconsin, the state of cows, cheese and beer?! I am from the country of Edam cheese and Heineken (The Netherlands)! No exotic beaches, no skyscrapers, no movie sets…
Oh well, it did not matter. I had a blast studying in Madison and would recommend it to anyone.
When I found out that Madison, capitol of the state Wisconsin in the Midwest, is one of the best US cities to live in, I became more and more excited. Madison was actually multiple times voted as the #1 College Party City of the US by Playboy (I have a copy). And the #1 Sports City of the US by Sports Illustrated. 25% of Madison’s population consists out of students, who keep the city alive. I learned that there are so many activities you can participate in; you only have to pick your favorite one! Cool, I’m in!
Full of expectations, hopes and dreams, plus two suitcases full of warm sweaters and snow boots, I arrived at Madison Dane County Regional Airport on January 7th, 2006. After a stressful stop-over at the huge international airport of Chicago, where I had to go through customs within a couple of hours, I was glad I set foot to Wisconsin – my home for the next 4.5 months. Let the fn begin! I checked in at a hotel for the first night (see Accommodation tips below).
The next day (a Sunday!) Ms. Sara Friar, Edgewood College’s Center for Global Education’s program assistant at that time, picked me up from the hotel where I had spent my first night in freezing Madison. I remember Sara was wearing huge thick mittens while driving her car. Her warm smile and chitchatting during the ride made me feel welcome instantly.
Edgewood College is a small private college with about 2.200 students then (now ± 2650). Significantly different from my own school back in The Netherlands, which is pretty big and impersonal (75K students). The small-scale, family-like atmosphere is, in my opinion, a strength of Edgewood College. Teachers know you well and classes are small. The teachers of Edgewood even give you their home phone numbers, so you can call them in the evening or during weekends, whenever you need some extra help after class. Now that is what I call service!
The campus was deserted when I arrived there on January 8th. Not strange, it was 10 days before classes started and all local students were gone for Winter Break. Soon I became close friends with the other international students at Edgewood College; Hélène and Laurene from France, Johannes from Germany and Jooyoung from South Korea. After all, we were in the same kind of situation, so we bonded quickly.
Making friends with Americans was a bigger challenge. I guess partly because the local students knew that I was there only temporarily. I honestly cannot remember any unfriendly student at Edgewood College. “We should meet up soon” was something I was told a lot, but rarely followed up by. I expected this more or less already. In the archives of the University of Amsterdam I read about similar experiences in essays of other exchange students that went before me. A pity but reality – just make sure you’ll have fun while it lasts.
Center for Global Education
Larry Laffrey and Sara Friar of the Center of Global Education of Edgewood College turned out to be angels. They are so kind, helpful and concerned, it felt like they were my family. I loved talking to and hanging around with them. So smart and traveled the world, definitely peers to learn from and look up to.
I was fortunate enough to work with Larry and Sara during my semester at Edgewood. I promoted the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP) and studying abroad in general among the students of Edgewood College, which was a lot of fun to do. Made big mood boards and talked to a lot of nice people who were interested in Europe and other parts of the world. A really nice part-time job that was interesting, brought some extra money on the table and was good for my resume.
I found the people in the Midwest to be extremely friendly. The bus driver warned me when my shoes are untied. The hairdresser brought me home by car. Where do you find that?!
It was a mild winter when I was in Madison, but it can be really cold out there. Since I am from The Netherlands, snow still has something magical to me, so I enjoyed the times it did snow in the first half of the semester. It could be very cold on clear days. I often wore thermal underwear underneath my clothes when going outside. Some days the temperature dropped to -20°C -5F. Some people must have thought I was crazy cycling between the city center and campus. Madison is pretty flat and it also has a decent bus system.
As soon as the snow and the ice melts in Wisconsin, the state turns straight to summer-ish kind of weather. Lots of sunshine and not much rain. That’s why locals say Wisconsin basically has only two seasons: winter and summer, there is not much in between. Not the grey, drizzle kind of weather with lots of wind like I knew from winter and spring time back home.
Edgewood College has a beautiful campus, next to Lake Wingra and a stretch of woods, so you can see the seasons change magnificently. There are squirrels in the trees, but as I learned there: “they’re like rats but with a cuter outfit”.
The courses at Edgewood College were fun and interesting. As a senior student the courses that were closely related to my major back home (marketing) were not difficult. I think this mainly has to do with the fact that American students still take a lot of general courses during their first two years of their Bachelor study, like Literature and Arts. Whereas Dutch students start with their major straight away and do not take courses outside their major field of study during their Bachelor, except the minor. Both systems have pros and cons.
However, since I took five different courses in one semester, I did spend a lot of time studying; working on assignments, quizzes, etc. I felt it was more about the workload to digest, just having to do a lot, it was not difficult. The courses I had in this senior year felt more like junior classes back home, especially in terms on marketing level. I guess it is one of the reasons why many Americans want to do a Master studies after their Bachelor? And why HR departments in the US are less picky on the applicant’s major when recruiting/matching to an open position.
One of the things that made it most challenging for me was the language difference. My English was already pretty good, but when you take Business Law classes for example, there is a lot of terminology to learn. The application process with ISEP also includes a TOEFL test.
More than studying
Besides taking classes I did many other things during my stay in the US. I lived life to the max since I realized four-and-a-half months would be over quickly! Among other things I visited Milwaukee (3x), Chicago (2x), San Francisco, Vancouver (Canada), New York City and Philadelphia. And loved it!
I went to the largest 3-day horse fair in the US. I learned how to dance the salsa. Participated in several panels and the International Club of Edgewood College. I shopped and I partied. Also I attended several sports events, such as a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game and a Badgers football game. Besides, I went to many local events, theater shows, etc.
The funny thing I found is that in Madison they have so-called Rathskellers. Locals find this “typical Wisconsin”, same counts for bratwurst LOL Obviously those things are German. In this area many people decent from German, Belgian, Norwegian and Danish immigrants. I guess that explains the decent public transport network here too.
When applying for Edgewood, I could apply for a room or a shared apartment (double room). I choose the last option as I was used to have my own 2-room apartment back home. So I shared the apartment on campus with an American girl from up state. I tried to make friends with her but we had different interests and priorities in life. For example, I love traveling while she had never left the state. And there was a few years of age difference. Fortunately my roomie was very nice and tolerant. Plus she had a TV and lots of DVDs for cozy movie nights indoors!
Living together went quite smoothly. We found our way of sharing a household together quite naturally. That was a bit of luck, especially since I was not used to share my apartment. I heard a few stories about not so positive experiences with roommates. I guess you need to be a bit lucky and stay open minded. Fortunately we had two rooms, which we used as a living room and bed room, plus a kitchen and bathroom to ourselves. Most students have a room only. This setting also meant that I could choose to eat either in the campus canteen or prepare something myself, which felt like a privilege.
As a 23-year-old senior student I was slightly older than most Bachelor students. Looking back, perhaps I was above average serious for my age? At home I had not much time to have fun next to my studies, I was always working or studying. Especially female students at Edgewood College turned out to be quite creative. It was cute to see they hung for example colored paper works of ‘art’ on their doors and in the canteen, things like that. I was not used to that, you would not see that in my home institution, and I remember a French exchange student who noticed the same difference.
During my study abroad exchange I made a close friend: Chris from Utrecht, so she’s also from The Netherlands. We actually met each other co-incidentally at the US consulate in Amsterdam. I cut my finger shortly before having to give my finger prints for my visa, which is how we started talking while standing in line. It turned out we just both celebrated our birthdays (hers Dec 3 and mine Dec 4, it was Dec 5). What a coincidence! We clicked.
We had a really good time together in Madison. Chris studied a semester at the University of Wisconsin (UW), which is THE big university in Madison. Our friendship made it easier for me to access the frequent events and interesting people of UW. At least I had a party & events partner in crime. Right in between my campus and her student house was a little wine bar we liked to meet up and talk for hours.
We gathered a large group of international and American friends, with whom we went out several times a week. Drinks in Madison are very affordable for students and Ian’s Pizza is the best pizza place ever haha We had a blast every time we came together. Chris and I organized our own cozy ‘Dutch nights’, to imitate the Dutch coziness we missed sometimes, with wine and cheese. And to celebrate Queen’s Day together. She is this yellow type of personality, which I enjoy hanging out with. She made me laugh, always gave me positive vibes and courage. Sadly we lost touch a few years later.
In Madison I truly regained my happiness in life. Madison is such a vivid city, it gave me the energy that I needed to enjoy life more than I did before my exchange. While still you can be quickly in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the gorgeous nature surroundings. This study abroad experience also made me appreciate my own country again. I learned a lot from my time in the USA, and not only academically. Being surrounded by the positive attitude of the Americans was a pleasant experience to me, also changing my own attitude in a positive way.
Although I had some difficult times during my stay, missing people back home, it was the best experience I ever had. An amazing experience of a lifetime. A turning point that played an important role in who I am today. Studying abroad made me stronger and so proud of myself. I pulled it off on my own. My dream to study in the US has become reality. And it was even better than I could ever imagine; I am one lucky dog!
Madison really turned out to be My Lucky #13!
Just do it
To everyone who considers studying abroad I would like to say: just do it! You will not regret it! Okay, it will cost you some money, effort and maybe even some tears, but it will definitely be worth it. Studying abroad is a unique once in a lifetime experience, which no one can ever take away from you. You will make friends all over the world and you will grow personally. And ISEP makes it attainable.
Don’t count too much on friend or family to come over and visit you when studying abroad, or even contact you a lot. My cousin Astrid from New Zealand did visit me in Madison, which was fantastic!
Although I wanted to go to the US for school since a teenager, I did not know long in advance that I would get this opportunity to study abroad during my Bachelor studies, did not see it coming. My UPE’s location (HvA) was sadly enough not international oriented at all. But then my school’s board merged with another school’s board (UvA), which came with the opportunity to join ISEP as an exchange student. A lucky coincidence or meant to be? Doesn’t matter, I grabbed my chance and made the most out of it, that’s what counts.
How it worked for me
A female student from Edgewood College was matched with me by ISEP. She went to the University of Amsterdam, and I went to Edgewood College. Starting half way the year, it was not ideal, giving less choice for the exchange that actually works via some sort of auction. You list the universities and colleagues you would like to join, write a motivation and submit a package with all kinds of ISEP forms and other documentation. And then ISEP tries to find a 1-on-1 exchange match. The normal form lists 10 schools/members, but I listed 15 as I went half way the year (Jan-Jun). Just to make sure I would get in!
I learned about the new ISEP study abroad opportunity in February, which was too late to go in September. Therefore I joined as of January 2006. I was the first of my school’s location to join the program ever, so had to sort out a lot on my own, but that was no problem.
Since I had exemption for half a year due to earlier work experience, I could actually finish my Bachelor studies in 3.5 years. Instead I chose to add the study abroad experience with ISEP. This earned some extra credits (32) for that on top of the normal study load for a Bachelor studies in The Netherlands (240). As a result, I graduated with 272 points within the normal 4 years.
I already figured out that studying in the US without an exchange program like ISEP would be a very expensive mission. Columbia University in NYC was already charged USD 64K p/y tuition only at that time. Yikes!
You pay your home institute’s tuition, the exchange student you are matched with does the same. This meant in practice that I paid EUR 1500 tuition and she paid the approx. USD 25.000 tuition that Edgewood College charged students at the time (now >USD 30K p/y). So a great deal for me. You also pay a fee to cover housing, campus food program, etc. which was like EUR 1000 p/m. In addition, I needed to take out two extra insurances, next to my Dutch health insurance.
I worked at the Center for Global Education and the campus reception, but my visa only allowed me to work a certain number of hours a week. During my study abroad period, I continued to receive my study financing from the Dutch government including a loan. In addition, I borrowed 8K from an uncle and received a few hundred euros as scholarship from a private Dutch fund. Unfortunately I could not sublet my apartment and kept my car back home, so those costs continued during my absence.
If you can afford it, I would recommend to buy a cheap car in the US, to see more of your surroundings during weekend trips and school breaks. During Spring Break I flew to San Francisco and Vancouver on my own. Since I could not find a travel buddy who could afford the same trip, I decided to go solo.
Even when the public transport is good in the city that you are placed in, a car is much faster and can take you anywhere. Luckily, Madison has a pretty decent bus system, which I used to do grocery shopping at West Towne Mall for example. Keep in mind that renting a car below 25 years of age can be a challenge in the US. So buying a car might be easier for students, especially when going for a full school year.
In my opinion the costs of a study abroad experience via ISEP is relatively cheap and affordable, especially compared to the normal tuition fees for private colleges and universities in the US. I had no financial support from my parents and I still made it. Only if I could have known sooner that the opportunity would present itself, I could have saved the money myself in advance instead of borrowing it from my uncle. But it was a good solution for the given situation and I never regretted it. Paid him back within a few years.
Studying abroad is a good investment. The study abroad experience paid itself back easily. Already purely by the positive experience itself and the personal growth I gained from it. And definitely also career wise. Having a study abroad experience on my CV helped to get that international job that I aspired. 15 years later and I am a successfull marketing manager.
Edgewood College has welcomed international students to its campus from >30 countries for over 65 years. A great choice!
Contrary to its bigger state brother Milwaukee, Madison is a safe city that is a great choice for students. It is known for the great atmosphere and facilities, sporty, easy to get around by public transport. I went back to visit Madison in 2010 and I would love to revisit in the future. Just to soak up the atmosphere. In Milwaukee we visited the impressive Black Holocaust Museum and the Milwaukee Brewers. Madison is located about 3.5 hours by car (150 miles) northwest of Chicago, IL.
In Madison, be sure to visit Capitol Square and the Farmer’s Market, which is the largest in the US (Wed & Sat Apr-Nov). Madison has dozens of parks, picturesque lakes and a bike-trail system that most cities can only be jealous of. Madison is the proud home of the Badgers American football team. It’s a sporty city. To be honest I did not see many oversized people and at school you also see this sporty attitude. Often I felt overdressed, wearing jeans and a blouse or something, as most students here wear sweat pants and sports sweaters and shirts to school.
The Capitol building of Madison is only a few inches shorter than the National Capitol in Washington D.C.
Best places to drink & eat
As mentioned earlier, I loved going out at for example State Street Brats – especially when they had a Drink Stock Exchange Night – and getting pizza slices at Ian’s afterwards. I enjoyed it a bit extra because back home I did not really have a student life as I was working about 20 hours a week to pay my bills. This is a video that I shot in front of Brats one evening LOL
Potbelly’s at State Street was my favorite sandwhich spot. The Old Fashioned for diner – their specialty is cheese battered in beer LOL The beer menu has 100+ beers, mostly locally brewed. But there are many good restaurants in Madison, see also the map below for more suggestions.
For your orientation, please find below a map of Madison, WI, USA.
If you would like to visit Madison, WI as a tourist, or for your first night after arrival as an international student, I would recommend to stay at one of these hotels in the city center:
- Best Western Premier Park Hotel
- Double Tree by Hilton Madison Downtown
- The Madison Concourse Hotel
- The Edgewater
If you want to rent a car in Madison for day or longer trips, I would suggest to have a look at Sunny Cars. If you are 25 years or younger, you may want to contact them first for the possibilities, but otherwise you can easily book a rental car with them online. Make sure you have an international driver’s license with you, when picking up the car.
Personally, when it concerns renting a car, I would recommend Sunny Cars, an all-inclusive, worry free rental concept with affordable, fair prices, great service and no unpleasant surprises upon pick up or drop off. I am a big fan and use them all the time! In most countries the 2nd driver, free cancellation up to 4 hours in advance and all-risk insurance are standard included. Ideal, I use them all the time!
Skyscanner is a good tool to check and to compare flight possibilities and prices.
For the student visa you will need to make an appointment with the US Embassy in your country. For ESTA you can apply online. ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. This is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
I hope that you liked this article and – in case you are interested to study abroad yourself – found it useful. Please feel free to ask me any questions you may have on this topic via the comment box below or social media. If you are interested in ISEP, make sure you check whether your university (of your interest) back home is an ISEP member or not, which is essential to join the exchange program. Good luck!
Last Updated on 02/14/2021 by Flitter Fever