Radboud University

Student story: Darja - Bachelor's student in Biology

Darja Sharonova, an international student at Radboud University from Latvia, tells us about the transition process from the school system to university, the unique characteristics of her programme and the student life in the Netherlands.

Darja Sharonova, a student at the Faculty of Science at Radboud University

Almost two years ago, 20-year-old Darja left the active life and the historical buildings of her hometown of Riga behind, so she could pursue her Bachelor’s degree in biology in the quiet and peaceful city of Nijmegen, as she describes it.

During her final year of high school, Darja had to make two choices: one about her future career and the other about the university where she’d continue her higher education. She enjoyed studying mathematics and biology at school, so eventually, Darja decided to become a biologist. After making the decision about the field, she had to select the country. “It was either the Netherlands or the UK, but in the end, I chose the Netherlands.”

An organisation specializing in helping high school students with their choice of university had advised Darja to have a look at the biology programme at Radboud University. She liked the programme and decided to apply to Radboud. Darja told her close friend about Radboud who, in turn, liked the Computer Science programme. That’s how the two friends ended up being first-year students together in Nijmegen in August 2018.

“What I enjoyed the most from the first period of classes was that we have many practical tutorials. Although Radboud is not a university of applied sciences, we have quite a lot of classes in labs. Nevertheless, no one cancelled the lectures, so we have both.”

The first courses of biology students were about animals, plants, their evolution and development. Darja mentioned that first-year students were sent to the labs from the very first week. "We were studying the plants, looking at their condition, leaves, and roots under a microscope, and learning how they grow, develop and interact.” The next courses were on zoology. Darja explained that they were dissecting different animals, from little worms to sharks and birds. “One day we dissected a stork and found an undigested mouse in his stomach, and then decided to dissect the mouse too. It was quite interesting.”

image4Darja and her classmates had to cycle for 15km for their class in biodiversity

It’s already Darja’s second year at Radboud. She admits that they have a lot of work to do. “I usually spend most of my time on the preparations for our classes in laboratories. For each class, we have to write lab reports and search for scientific articles on the relevant topics.” Darja noted that such a lifestyle can be unpleasant sometimes, but she also underlined that it helped her improve her skills in time management. She likes that the university gives autonomy to students to decide how to spend their time. “There is a certain guide that decides what kind of knowledge we have to get after completing the courses, of course, but each student decides for themselves on the learning methods.”

Darja told us that she was a “straight B” student in high school. This means that she was getting relatively high grades and generally was doing well on her schoolwork. Darja did not spend too much time on schoolwork. That’s not possible when you are a university student, is it?

“I spend much more time studying at university than I did at school. The learning process is more stressful here, and university professors are not like  school teachers. It’s not possible to get a good grade at university because “you’re good as a person”. At university, you really have to work. In the beginning, it was hard for me to plan my day properly, but I’m gradually getting there.”

Darja got a 7.5 out of 10 for her first exam at Radboud. She was not satisfied at all because the exam was not difficult, and she studied for it. “Then I realized that it’s normal at university, and no one gets straight 10s at Radboud.” Now Darja worries less about the grades, but she described her first 7.5 as quite a hit.

“At university, students have a second opportunity to take the exam, if they did not pass it on the first try. It was not the same at school. I think that one just needs to overcome this process of the transition from the school system to university. It’s not possible to be prepared for it. One just needs to adapt to this new environment step by step.”

Okay, you need to study a lot at university, but does that mean that studying is the only thing you do? Darja didn’t agree with that. During the first semester, she did not have many friends who also studied biology. After lectures and seminars, she would go home and do her own thing. During the second semester, Darja made some friends who were spending a lot of time studying at the university library. She started staying on campus after the lectures too. “It took me some time to adapt to this new environment and start to socialize.” Now Darja is participating more in the student life of the university. She is an active member of BeeVee, the study association of biology students.

“One of the biggest advantages of studying abroad is the chance to make friends from all over the world. It's such a gratifying feeling when you open the Snapchat map and see that you have friends almost everywhere”.

image5image3Darja and her friends recreated their photo from a club in the laboratory

Darja thinks that the Bachelor's in Biology is quite an extensive programme because it includes chemistry, molecular biology, physiology and ecology. Students also get a choice of three specialisations: green biology (zoology and botany), medical biology and environmental studies. Darja is leaning towards environmental studies. In her opinion, nowadays, it is a relevant and important specialisation. She thinks that environmental specialists can apply not only apply knowledge, but also logical reasoning and creativity to their work.

Darja had a conversation with the study advisor about the prospective jobs she could do after graduating because she was not sure about it yet. Her study advisor told her to take her time to make a decision. What Darja was sure about was that the life of a researcher was not her cup of tea. The study advisor ensured her that after some time she would understand what would be the perfect job for her. After that meeting, Darja also learned that the majority of biology students decide on that after completing the mandatory internship.

“The meeting with the study advisor was very helpful. To be honest, these meetings were a new phenomenon for me. Although Latvia is a European country, it still has this post-Soviet mentality that everyone should solve their problems on their own. For example, almost no one visited the educational psychologist at my school, because everyone was sure that they could cope with their issues without any help.”

In contrast, at Radboud, it is recommended (for some people even obligatory) to speak with the study advisor on such topics, as Darja noted. Students are asked to fill out a questionnaire, assess their own pros and cons, and then discuss them with the study advisor. “In the beginning, I also had this feeling that I didn’t need help. Then I realized that there was no point in rejecting the help if someone is offering it to you”.

image2Darja’s group grew "sorrel" during an experiment. They were testing the effect of light and level of flood on the growth of plants that are tolerant to flooding

Darja noted another difference between life in the Netherlands and in Latvia. Latvian women always put a lot of care in their appearance, and Darja is no exception. She likes wearing feminine outfits and dressing up for no special reason. “People often say, “Wow! Your dress is so nice! Do you have a date tonight?” I guess, people just think differently about appearance here.”

Darja’s plans are to stay in the Netherlands for a while to gain some work experience, but eventually, she wants to return to Latvia.

Author: Knar Ohanjanyan