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The Denverite who really did go Dutch

When a Dutch and Denver professor swapped jobs last year, they also embarked on a fascinating globe-trotting correspondence.

March 2, 2018

By Mark Cox

You might remember two criminology professors did a real-life ‘Trading Places’ last October – swapping their jobs, countries and even homes for a four-month teaching exchange.

For both parties – Denverite Denise Mowder and Netherlands-based professor Juul Gooren – it was an exhilarating experience. And lucky for us, they kept notes.

1. First Impressions

Juul Gooren: Hi, Denise! Here I am in Denver. One thing I noticed immediately is how many of my colleagues and students have been affected by violence and mass incarceration. Of course, a lot of nice and beautiful things happen here as well! But I’m not used to hearing of such extreme cases. Life here just seems rougher.

Denise Mowder: Hi, Juul! Conversely, I spent my first weeks here traveling by train through Belgium, Paris and Germany, and my prevailing thought was how safe I felt. My husband and I are also walking around The Hague at all times of night without a concern, which we’d never do back home.

JG: When I first entered my classroom, I saw a sign advising how to respond when an active shooter is on the premises. As a European, it does make you look at students in a different way. And yet everyone is so friendly.

DM: After three weeks of teaching, I’ve found that both U.S. and Dutch students are exactly the same in one respect – they either have zero idea what they want to do with their degree or already have their futures all mapped out!

2. Crime and punishment

DM: An interesting discovery: While most of my Denver students mirror the pro-punishment perspective of U.S. society, Dutch students are much gentler. I played my criminology class footage of a rape trial to demonstrate how the criminal justice system can revictimize victims during such processes. But my class was much more shocked by the guilty man’s 50-year sentence. I can guarantee my American students wouldn’t have blinked twice.

JG: That’s so true. When I selected an extreme case for my class – a 12-year-old sentenced to 30 years for shooting a homeless person – I was surprised how many students thought the sentence fit the crime. And when I used killer Anders Breivik’s trial to explore the implications of insanity on particular cases, most were simply too amazed by his lenient sentence (21 years) to fully engage.

3. Cultural acclimatization

DM: Three big differences I’ve noticed living in The Hague. Fifty degrees Fahrenheit here is much colder than in dry Colorado. Without a car, we’re always thinking about tram and train schedules. And having no TV means we’ve missed our favorite shows – but have also enjoyed missing the latest Washington, D.C. dramas and hearing how the Broncos suck this season!

JG: I’m also adapting to new ways of getting around. Back home, I don’t own a car and do everything by foot or bike. But people here find that weird. And after driving for two months, I now realize that everything is geared toward cars – I’ve seen drive-thrus for cash, coffee, even cannabis!

DM: The Dutch weather has been a bigger hurdle than anticipated. People here are so much hardier. I see elderly folk riding bikes in wind and rain, and children walking to school without winter coats. Meanwhile, I’m still freezing beneath three thick layers and a heavy winter coat.

JG: Life is so speedy here and everyone’s always in a rush. In restaurants, the waiter usually brings my check before I’ve had a chance to glance over the dessert menu. Time is money. I suppose.

DM: News flash: We were not prepared for a Dutch New Year’s Eve. It was like a war zone. Fireworks and garbage can bonfires were blazing in every neighborhood until 4 a.m. The windows actually shook from the continued booms and bangs.

JG: Oops! Sorry, I should have warned you about that. It’s a very strange Dutch phenomenon.

4. College life

DM: I’m really enjoying your students, Juul – and especially the fact we get more class-time together over here. This week, we explored U.S. gun violence. They all switched from amazement to horror as they learned about the politics of gun control and the violence Americans deal with on a daily basis. But they also came up with some innovative gun control laws that could possibly pass U.S. political hurdles!

JG: Student engagement at U.S. universities is great. Your smaller classes mean students speak up more and interesting discussions unfold very naturally. I’m also struck by how many students really do aim for the highest score. We generally grade lower in The Netherlands, so I’ve had to adjust my grading curve a little.

DM: Juul, soon our planes will be crossing paths as we start our trips home. I’m just sitting at your desk thinking about the past 14 weeks and my little tryout of Dutch life – such a great experience.

JG: And I’m going to miss your lovely colleagues, who all work so hard. We’re lucky in The Netherlands to have more job security, vacation and pay – but you guys definitely have more autonomy in designing courses and exams. I’ll miss that.

5. Going home

JG: All good things come to an end. I’m back at school in The Hague, and think it might take some time to get adjusted. I would have loved another semester in Denver where, because of my temporary status, I got to play the exotic stranger and do all the fun stuff!

DM: Leaving Den Haag was bittersweet. My Dutch lifestyle was simple and I grew to enjoy the slow pace. I liked not having to drive everywhere. I enjoyed my local market without 45 aisles and a 20-minute wait at the checkout. I wonder, do we really need 25 different types of toilet paper?

JG: I think our collaboration has had real substance. The safety and security fields require an international scope, so having an active partnership with you guys on the other side of the Atlantic is great. You still set the tone when it comes to criminal justice and defense.

DM: Juul, you and I have taken important first steps to meld our two institutions. In the future, I can see our students really thriving at each other's Universities. And as for us, I would love to “switch” again someday. But this time, please, let’s do it in the spring …

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