Living and working in Belgium

We spoke to Jeffrey Bredeson from the USA, who was ‘stationed’ in Brussels when he was responsible for European sales for a multi-billion dollar company. Here he talks about his daughter’s experience in a Brussels international school, about life in Brussels, and more generally about the pros and cons of being an expat.

Could you kick off by telling us when and where your daughter attended an international school?

 

She moved to Brussels, Belgium with us in June 2008, which was the beginning of the summer between her Junior (11th grade) and Senior (12th grade) school year. She attended the International School of Brussels (ISB) in Watermael Boisfort, Belgium.

 

 

Could you explain something about your circumstances that led you to choose the school: presumably you were living and working abroad. What were your choices at the time?

 

Yes, I took an international assignment with a large, global company. At the time of our moving to Belgium, our daughter was 17 years old, and it was a difficult job to convince her to move with us as she naturally desired to complete her high school years in Zionsville, Indianapolis with her classmates.

We toured two schools in the Brussels area before choosing ISB. The first one was called St. Johns International School in Waterloo, Belgium (yes, the site of the famous Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated). The reasons that we chose ISB were as follows:

1. Our daughter’s preference

2. Location (ISB was much closer to our home in Etterbeek)

3. No religious affiliation (St. Johns had a Catholic affiliation)

How did you all feel about the idea of her attending this school?

 

My wife and I felt very good about it. We felt that it would broaden her and give her a deeper appreciation of cultural differences. Also, we felt that it would enhance her resume and improve her confidence (although she is not lacking in this area) and enable her to learn that she could succeed and make friends anywhere in the world. It is a great opportunity for a child!

 

She was of course excited and nervous: she was excited to see Europe and learn new things, but she was nervous to see if she would fit in with this diverse peer group. She did very well. I will never forget that the first weekend after she started school, she was going downtown Brussels with a group of friends from school. She integrated very well.

Please could you tell us a little about the school?

 

ISB is a good school. Keep in mind that Brussels has a fairly high concentration of expats, so there is high demand for international education. Due to this, the schools may come off as a little haughty at first, but once you get familiar with the people, you are fine. This is typical of the Belgian culture as well, where it’s not expected nor polite to talk to people you do not know. This creates an environment of isolation for new people, so expats tend to gather unto themselves, which is not the best situation.

 

Our daughter participated in Advanced Placement classes [a curriculum in the US and Canada offering standardised courses to high school students roughly equivalent to undergraduate courses in college], but since she was only there one year, she could not participate in the International Baccalaureate (IB ) programme. This was a little disappointing. The IB gives the student a real ‘leg up’ on the competition when applying for university. Our daughter is currently a sophomore at Purdue University studying BioChem, and during the application process, they were impressed that she had international experience, but really wanted the IB graduation.

 

The facilities at ISB were another reason that we chose the school. The administrative building is an old chateau that is quite impressive, and the campus has all the amenities, including football field, basketball gym, science rooms, etc. They were really prepared to let the kids have some extracurricular activities that reminded them of home.

 

As I recall, there were students from 70 countries attending ISB, which made it very interesting. Each year the school hosted an ‘International Exposition’ where the students (and their parents) would set up booths with things to sample and buy that were representative of their home cultures. This was a very fun event that really emphasised the diversity of the student body.

 

What are some of the ways it contrasted with schools back home?

 

The biggest difference from a scholastic perspective was the availability of the IB program. Also, they offered a wider variety of language and cultural classes than in the US. Other than that, I think they did a good job of making the schooling as familiar as possible to all the students – a difficult job.

 

Were there many staff from the UK working at the school?

 

The staff was multi-cultural. There were many Brits and Americans that were ‘expatted’ to work at ISB. This, again, gave the students a sense of home. Our daughter did great in the year that she was there, which was evidenced by her election into the National Honours Society. I am sure that she would agree that this was due, in part, to the good teachers and instruction that she received.

 

What would you say was the biggest ‘pro’ of her attending an international school?

It has to be the exposure to other cultures and confidence that comes along with successful integration into a multi-cultural peer group. I think that there will be many long-term benefits that she will receive from having the international experience as well.

 

And the biggest ‘con’?

She would probably tell you that it was missing her friends back home and not graduating from her home high school. But, she is constantly saying that she misses her time in Brussels and would go back if she could… so, obviously, the good outweighs the bad.

 

Could you briefly give us a flavour of what it’s like to live and work in Brussels, and any particular pros and cons?

 

What I will say here will, I believe, be consistent with all expats: the pros are the international exposure for the worker (me, in this case) and the student. My career has blossomed since my expat experience both due to successes that I have had that can be partially attributed to the expat experience and due to the ‘global business’ experience that large companies are looking for today. You cannot discount the impact of global experience on your resume. Companies want people who are culturally intelligent and aware. The best evidence of this is living and successfully working abroad.

 

The challenge to expat living is the ‘Trailing Spouse Syndrome’ (yes, they have created a term for it!). For the first year living in Brussels, my wife had our daughter there as a companion. Keep in mind that I was responsible for sales for all of Europe for a multi-billion dollar company, so I travelled a great deal. As long as our daughter was there, then my wife was OK. However, after she left, my wife felt very isolated in Brussels. Also, life goes on in the home country with or without you, so while we were in Brussels, our older daughter got married (we went home for the wedding, but my wife was not able to participate in all those things that women dream of … picking out the wedding dress with the daughter, planning the details of the wedding with the daughter, attend the wedding shower, etc) and had a baby. So, we became grandparents (very young ones, though… come on!) while we were overseas. Again, we went home for the birth of the grandson, but she did not get to watch our daughter through her pregnancy, she did not attend the baby shower, etc.

 

The end of the story is that we moved home prematurely for my wife’s benefit. I had to quit the company that expatted me and find a new job… or risk the possibility of divorce. So, it is stressful for the spouse, especially when he or she is moving to a location that does not speak their native tongue.

 

Overall, though, a great, great experience. Would I do it again? My wife and I have discussed this and we would do it again, but only to an English-speaking country.

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us, and for being so candid.

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