Interview: What's MBA expat life in Amsterdam like?
What's studying an MBA like in an international city such as Amsterdam? John Pappas, student at Nyenrode Business University, shares his experiences.
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is John Pappas, 39 years old from Trumbull, Connecticut in the United States. I currently live in Diemen with my two children - my 8-year-old son and my 4-year-old daughter, and our golden retriever. I was previously a communications and content marketing strategist in the U.S. for almost two decades.
Why did you decide to study an MBA?
My partner was offered a contract position at Booking.com, based in Amsterdam. Although I was employed at the Financial Accounting Foundation in Norwalk, Connecticut at the time, I decided to leave my job to support her new career opportunity. I soon found myself in a unique and proud position as a trailing (male) spouse and we moved to start a new adventure in the Netherlands in July 2019.
When I was first presented with the opportunity to move to the Netherlands, I started to conduct a career search in public relations, communications, and content marketing. I found the search to be rather difficult - as a majority of the positions in that field required me to be fluent in Dutch. There was also a lack of more senior opportunities available, and I found myself far overqualified for the opportunities that I was pursuing.
One of my U.S. friends who lived abroad in Singapore told me of the value an international MBA holds in the U.S. career market. I decided to shift my focus and apply to a full-time MBA program at Nyenrode Business University and the University of Amsterdam. I found the programs to be more affordable than expected, content-intensive, and they can be completed in only one year - as opposed to traditional two-year programs that are more spread out.
I chose Nyenrode because of their small class size and European immersion programs in Prague, Valencia, Bologna, Copenhagen, and Madrid. They also have strong business relationships with companies in the U.S. and have an active community of alumni in the U.S. as well.
And why in Amsterdam? Why this city, and not another city in Europe? What do you love about Amsterdam and what do you dislike?
Amsterdam is a great city for American expats. I attribute this to the multicultural aspects of the city, the various types of businesses located here, and, frankly, the heavy use of the English language. It has made my transition to this country smoother knowing that most of the Netherlands’ citizens (and other expats from across the world who moved here) speak English.
I love that bicycles are the most common mode of transportation. I was a little suspect of this before moving here, but I have actively embraced the biking culture and it is one of my favorite activities of each day (as long as it is not in the rain!).
The transit system is also very efficient within the city of Amsterdam. However, I find that traveling outside the city to other towns and cities via transit is inconvenient. It is these times when I miss my car the most. If I only knew ahead of time that my apartment had a dedicated garaged parking spot, I would have shipped over my car and we would be able to travel across the Netherlands and to other countries with much more ease.
What does your week look like? Do you have a lot of free time? What type of extracurricular activities do you recommend doing to make the most out of your degree?
I am a full-time student, so I spend my weekdays in classes, lectures, and workshops. That part of the program is the time and effort equivalent of a full-time job.
I find that most of my free time is dedicated to spending quality time with my son and daughter. They both attend the AICS international school system here in Amsterdam and partake in (very engaging) after-school activities offered by Woest-Zuid.
I take them to different cities in the Netherlands and Belgium and thoroughly explore Amsterdam. We have traveled to Apenheul, Muiderslot castle, the Eindhoven light festival, the Christmas market in Haarlem, and the Spoorwegmuseum in Utrecht - amongst many other trips.
My son absolutely loves biking here in Amsterdam. We bike to and from their school every day, and often bike along the Rijnkanaal. Both children are enrolled in the swimming diploma lesson program in Diemen, which is mandatory if they want to swim as a part of summer camp activities.
My four-year-old daughter also loves Dutch cheese, stroopwafels, the cookies from Van Stapele Koekmakerij, and poffertjes - so we are always on the lookout for those treats as we tour the city (especially in the De 9 Straatjes area).
After spending time with my children, the remainder of my free time is spent studying, reading, preparing for the next class, working with colleagues on group assignments, and completing my individual assignments.
Although a full-time MBA program is very demanding, I gladly prioritize time with my children over the program. This approach may be a little detrimental to my educational experience, but a strong work-life balance (I guess now study-life balance) is an important part of my value system as a father.
Did you experience culture shock, or is Dutch culture similar to your own?
I took an “Introduction to Dutch culture” class when I first arrived here in Amsterdam, and I found that the culture was not that much different than in the U.S. But I have found some minor differences.
"It is great to be a part of a city that is truly international."
For example, I do find that, as an American, I am more extroverted, informal, and social than the residents here in Amsterdam. When people find out that I am an American, they usually smile big and say how friendly we are as a nationality. They also follow that statement up with “and loud.”
When walking around the city, I often find myself the only one who says “bless you” when someone sneezes, holds doors open for people, or offers my seat to women on the tram, bus, or train. While it makes my kind gestures stand out in a crowd, it can also be a little socially awkward if nobody else replicates or appreciates them.
Lastly, I was positively surprised to see that the city is so diverse and has more nationalities than I can count. Although I worked in major cities in the U.S., I never felt that there were that many nationalities surrounding me. It is great to be a part of a city that is truly international.
Studying abroad, what were your biggest challenges? And what did you think was going to be a challenge, but wasn’t?
My biggest challenge, by far, is relearning algebra, equations, and other math-related skills. Almost two decades in the public relations and communications industry does not make for a good mathematician!
I am also a senior member of my class with the most work experience. Although I provide a different and seasoned perspective to the class, it takes me a longer time to “catch on” and remember how to learn and perform in an academic environment.
I am glad that Nyenrode and my fellow MBA colleagues appreciate that I am not a recent student and that I bring value to the program based on my real-life experience—and not my on-paper, test-taking, and exam performance.
What practical tips could you give people looking into studying an MBA in Amsterdam?
If you are a trailing partner and are not able to land the right career opportunity in Amsterdam, you should consider a one-year full-time MBA program. Sure, it will be an incredibly challenging experience, but you will gain international business experience, develop friendships, and learn more than you could ever dream of in one year's time.
Also, I believe that most MBA students in Amsterdam live on the Our Campus area in Diemen. Although I do not live there, if you plan on becoming an MBA student in Amsterdam, you may want to live on that campus or nearby so you can have closer relationships with your colleagues.
What are your plans after getting your degree?
After graduation, I plan on returning back to the U.S. with my children to apply my knowledge of international business, management, and the needs of different sectors to further my career in public relations, communications, or content marketing.
My goal is to live somewhere on the East Coast within driving distance of our extended family who live in the state of Pennsylvania. I look forward to my children sharing their experiences in the Netherlands with friends and family in the U.S. And hopefully, we will be able to live in a town where we can continue to bike!
Want to know more about getting an MBA in the Netherlands? Contact Nyenrode Business University, which offers three different MBA programs, for more information.