Study abroad in Delft led PSU student to transportation focus

Marisa DeMull with Pete Jordan, author of "In the City of Bikes: the story of the Amsterdam Cyclist," whom she met during the summer program.

When Portland State University student Marisa DeMull signed up for the summer 2014 study abroad course in the Netherlands, she wasn't necessarily looking for a new major. A civil engineering student, DeMull thought the summer program just sounded like a great way to get course credit.

DeMull learned that she could get six credits for the two-week program and applied immediately, a week from the deadline.

“I tried spreading the word. It’s the best program, and so few people really know about it, which is unfortunate,” DeMull said.

After two weeks in Delft and a series of lectures, bike tours, and eye-opening conversations, the PSU senior returned home to Portland State and declared a change in her program of study: she would now focus on transportation, a sub-field within civil engineering.

"Until this trip, I didn't really know that was a career choice," DeMull said. "I love riding bikes, but to design bike routes for a living? I met all these engineers who are completely devoted to bicycles, who just live and breathe it."

Practitioners give daily lectures to the students in the course, and Peter Furth of Northeastern University, who founded the Sustainable Transportation in the Netherlands partner course, also lectures. After 4 hours of lecture in the morning, the group typically heads out for an afternoon of touring around on bicycle.

"You could show me photos all day of what a roundabout looks like, and I wouldn’t really understand, but when we bike to one corner of that intersection and watch vehicles traverse for 20 minutes, you learn how important all of the details become. Even the way they time their signals is all thought out to keep pedestrians and bicyclists safe. The experience of seeing those things in person is well worth it," DeMull said.

The class visits several cities in the Netherlands, riding from town to town through the Dutch countryside. They also get to meet with civil engineers and planners who work in the cities.

One of the spots on the agenda is Houten, a modern town designed for plentiful bicycles and limited auto travel. For DeMull, the best part of the visit to Houton was sitting down with the city planner and talking to him about the city.

"The whole culture of infrastructure in Holland is brilliant and resourceful," DeMull said. "“It’s amazing how the entire country was built around fighting against the water taking over, and how much work they are putting into just surviving.”

Though she learned a lot from talking to Dutch transportation professionals and the faculty lectures, DeMull says she gained just as much from conversations with her fellow students in the course.

"Interacting with the grad students definitely influenced me," she said. "Just talking with them in the evenings, over drinks. They all had more advanced coursework than me, some had been working in the discipline for ten years and came back to get their masters, so they were able to give me a fascinating perspective."

DeMull would recommend the Delft program to any senior or graduate student with an interest in sustainable cities. "Seeing it gives you a totally new perspective," she said.

The course dates for the summer 2015 term are July 2–17. For those interested in the course, there will an informational meeting and free pizza lunch on Wednesday, February 11 at 12 pm. Alumni from the program will be there to answer questions.

For more information about this study abroad opportunity, see the program brochure or read additional background about the course.

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