Fulbright Features: Learning about water management, biking, sense of belonging

Molly Cain, a Penn State alumna and doctoral student studying water management in the Netherlands on a Fulbright scholarship, has enjoyed being immersed in Dutch culture. Credit: Molly CainAll Rights Reserved.

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend masters degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is part of a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total isn’t yet released, at least 11 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 13 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.


Trudging through the underground sewer, I tightened my grip on my flashlight as storm water began to rise over my rubber boots and soak the legs of my disposable overalls. The sewer system’s response to the passing storm was almost immediate — first came a far-off rumble, like the sound of a tsunami about to engulf us. Then the pipes began to spew, causing the water to rise rapidly within the medieval canal. My class made an emergency exit through a manhole and emerged onto the streets of Antwerp, looking more like a team of crime scene investigators than a class of water management students.

Studying water management as a graduate student in the Netherlands has been an extremely hands-on experience. Although the rest of my coursework at Delft University of Technology may not be quite as exciting as that first field trip, it is no less valuable.

As a densely populated country with more than a quarter of its land area below sea level, the Netherlands has been coping with issues of development and flooding for centuries and is a world leader in all matters related to water management. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the Dutch government sent water containment experts to the U.S. to help the region recover from flooding. There is much to be learned from our Dutch colleagues.

During my time at TU Delft, I have been collaborating with researchers at the university to investigate a new technique for understanding how pollutants move through the environment. I will apply the knowledge I acquire at TU Delft to my doctoral research at Indiana University to understand the transport of water and nutrients in agricultural landscapes.

In addition to being the ideal location to study water resources, Delft is an amazing place to live. A quintessential Dutch town, Delft has canals that run through narrow brick streets lined with historic buildings, ancient churches and charming cafes and pubs.

Riding my single speed Dutch-style bike among hordes of cyclists on their daily commute, I still find it difficult to believe that I live in such a beautiful place. After having made futile searches for an empty spot in Dutch bike garages, however, I no longer find it difficult to believe that I reside in a country with more bikes than people.

My experiences abroad have fulfilled the Fulbright Program’s purpose to increase mutual understanding in ways that I never expected. The Netherlands is an idyllic country to live in for a truly international experience. Because there is such a large international student population in Delft, I not only have the opportunity to interact with the Dutch but also with people from countries throughout the world.

I often find myself with groups of friends of all different nationalities, discussing our perspectives on everything from movies to politics and our perceptions of one another’s nations. The names of countries that once evoked thoughts of famous landmarks, historic conflicts and general stereotypes now conjure thoughts of the friends I now know as individuals.

In general, the Dutch are extremely friendly and welcoming. As a whole, they are also linguistically talented. Although most Dutch people are fluent in English, I have tried to pick up some Dutch vocabulary during my time abroad and have acquired a favorite word — gezellig (pronounced heh-SELL-ick). While the term cannot be translated to English, its meaning ranges from cozy and quaint to friendly and enjoyable, but it also means much more than that. It can refer to a cozy café, but it can also connote a sense of belonging or an evening spent with friends. The word captures the spirit of Holland and the heart of Dutch culture. The hospitality and kindness I have been shown in the Netherlands has been truly gezellig.

Last Updated May 12, 2016