Like most foreigners landing in the Netherlands, a not insubstantial part of my life for the past nine months has revolved around biking. While I once thought biking was a relatively simple activity, I’ve now come to realize its different forms. There’s fun biking, and there’s stress biking. There’s dry biking, and there’s wet biking (an unfortunate fact of Dutch life). There’s ‘I’m peacefully cycling through a field of tulips biking,’ and there’s ‘I’m going to get crushed by a herd of Amsterdam commuters’ biking. I’ve spent hundreds of hours biking in nearly every imaginable condition, and I’ve grown to love it wholeheartedly. For me, biking is not just a way to get from point A to point B, but it’s an action that engenders feelings of reflection and belonging— two notions that have defined my Fulbright experience.
I came to the Netherlands in September 2022 to conduct research on the intersection of political philosophy and technology policy. More specifically, I was interested in how the relationship between big tech companies and citizens affected the health of democracy in the European Union (EU), especially after the passage of regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Act and the Digital Services Act (DSA). But more broadly, as a freshly minted college graduate with aspirations of pursuing a PhD and academia one day, I came to the Netherlands to learn if I could be a researcher. Did I have the endurance, the drive, the appropriate level of passion, the temperament? In other words, I came to the Netherlands as a bundle of nerves, worried about the immediate future and what my Fulbright experience might mean for my intended career.
Luckily for me, the nerves have slowly lessened with every person I have met on my nine-month whirlwind research journey. When I struggled with writers’ block and imposter syndrome at Utrecht, my supervisor shared stories of his writing struggles and reassured me it was completely normal. At Tilburg, I went on a long walk with a brilliant law professor who encouraged me to pursue my dream of a JD/PhD, that it wasn’t an unrealistic goal. At the University of Amsterdam, my supervisor, a professor I have long looked up to in my field, told me my paper ideas were interesting and well-structured. But most impactful has been the community of PhDs and postdocs from universities around the Netherlands who have served as mentors and close friends. It’s with my PhD and postdoc friends that I learned I wasn’t the only one who struggled with doubt in their work, that I learned it was okay if my work didn’t follow a traditional 9-5 schedule, that I learned how important community is in the somewhat solidarity and transient life of a researcher.
On one of my last weekends in the Netherlands, I concluded that a fitting way to end this beautiful journey of a year was to cycle from my home in Utrecht to Amsterdam, a five-hour trek through mostly farmland. In truly uncharacteristic Dutch fashion, the weather was perfect– a temperate 65 degrees Fahrenheit and not a drop of rain on the horizon. And yet, so many stops along the way reminded me of my year here, and, most importantly, my new-turned-lifelong friends. Biking through the tree-lined roads along the Amstel River, I remembered late-night bike races through Wilhelmina Park with Jamie, Lily, and Anika, and idyllic rides through Amelisweerd forest to the pancake house with Tianna, Ainara, Panos, and Anna. When the Utrecht to Amsterdam NS train passed me 2 hours into my journey, I remembered the dozens of times I had taken that exact route to meet Joris, Matthias, Alex, and Maxim in Amsterdam, for dinner parties and museum visits and strolls along the canals. Even my stop at Jumbo, my personal favorite of Dutch grocery stores, reminded me of mid-afternoon kaastengel breaks with work friends-turned-lifelong friends. As the last hour of my journey and Amsterdam quickly approached (and as exhaustion had begun to set in), I was hit with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude to the Fulbright Commission for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime, gratitude to my supervisors and colleagues for furthering my love for philosophy, and, above all else, gratitude for the people I have met, kindred spirits and lifelong friends.
Kaitlyn Rentala was a recipient of a Fulbright-Schuman research grant to the European Union and spent the 2022-2023 academic year in Utrecht, Netherlands; Tilburg, Netherlands; and Amsterdam, Netherlands. Her research looks at how EU tech policy intersects with political philosophy. In particular, she is interested in devising a philosophical framework to compare the role of technology in liberal democracies versus authoritarian-leaning states. Kaitlyn graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from the University of Pennsylvania.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.