Where Are They Now? QUEST Couple Reflects On Working in Netherlands

Jessica and Erick Alves de Sa of Cohort 16 met through QUEST and just returned to the DMV after living in the Netherlands for almost five years.

Jess and Erick met during their sophomore year at QUEST Camp when they were assigned to the same 190H team. They started dating about a year and a half later and have been together for about ten years. 

Erick worked for ExxonMobil after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering. Since his parents are from Brazil, Erick had always been interested in working internationally. He expressed this during his on-campus interview for an internship with ExxonMobil during his junior year. He was placed into the Global Project Management organization. Once he accepted a position after graduation, it was only a matter of time before he went abroad for a project.

Since beginning at ExxonMobil, Erick had worked on the early-stage case selection for an expansion of a refinery in Rotterdam, Netherlands, one of the largest ports in Europe. When the project was green-lit, he decided to follow the project as part of the Project Management Team, prompting him and Jess to move to the Netherlands.

Jess studied bioengineering at UMD and worked for IBM after graduation. After moving, she worked in data engineering for Cool Blue, the second-largest e-commerce company in the Netherlands. While working in Rotterdam, Jess had to adjust to differences in the professional norms. 

“The Dutch are very honest, and they’re very comfortable giving and receiving feedback,” Jess said, explaining the difference between how managers communicate in the U.S. compared to the Netherlands. “Here, if you asked your boss ‘Hey, how am I doing?’ and you weren’t doing a great job, they may say, ‘I mean, you’re doing well. Things are going good. Maybe keep focusing on improving this.’ In the Netherlands, they would say, ‘You’re not meeting my expectations right now, and I think you need to spend more time working on this. We’re gonna have a review in 3 months and we’ll get back to it.’”

Although this required a change in perspective, Jess appreciated this communication style. “It’s very different, but once you get used to working that way, you always know where you stand and you get really comfortable receiving and giving feedback. It took a while to adjust to, but I’m really appreciative now because I was able to grow a lot. I now know that feedback is a gift someone wants to give you.” 

Erick and Jess enjoyed being immersed in the culture of the Netherlands. Erick said, “You can get around everywhere by cycling. The Dutch are some of the best cyclists in the world. As soon as you can stand on two feet, they put two wheels under you. It’s not a very sedentary culture. Everyone is moving around and outdoors.” Jess gained new perspective from the simplicity of the Dutch lifestyle. “They’re not interested in big houses, clothes, or cars, and they’re super happy.”

While in Rotterdam, Erick and Jess not only learned about Dutch culture, but also enjoyed becoming friends with coworkers from other countries. “Making friends with the Dutch could be difficult because it’s a small country. They have tight-knit friend groups, they’re close to their families,” Erick said. “We made really close friendships with coworkers who were also on expat assignments. That was kind of like our little family, and we made sure that we celebrated Thanksgiving every year. A small turkey was $100 there.”

After Erick’s project ended, they decided to backpack in South America for four months before returning to the U.S. They visited Erick’s family in Brazil, and additionally traveled to Chile, Argentina, and Colombia. Taking this time to travel gave them an opportunity to reflect on their time in the Netherlands and re-energize before searching for new jobs.

“Now we’re back, and I’m pumped to start working again,” Jess said. “I think you need some of that detox time to get some perspective. I think of some of the things I was worried about at work 8 months ago, and they’re so irrelevant now. Stepping out of it and seeing other people’s lives and other types of day-to-day schedules, you realize there’s so much you’re worried about that does not matter at all.”

Erick believes his experience in Rotterdam will influence his priorities when searching for a new career path. “As we’re looking for our next career moves, I’ve got exposure to the work-life balance in the Netherlands. They’re holistic human beings, compared to American counterparts who think of their worth as tied to performance at work. In the Netherlands, that’s just one aspect of your life.” In his job search, he’s interested in finding a company that “values [me] as a human being as opposed to a piece of a big corporate puzzle.”

Jess agrees that finding a company with an ideal work-life balance will be important to her, as well as a culture of communication similar to what she experienced in the Netherlands. “I don’t think I could go back to sugar-coating everything,” she said.

For all QUEST students, whether or not you’re interested in working abroad, Erick suggests to never limit yourself. “Don’t have that preconception of putting yourself into a box. If you ever ask yourself at the end of the day ‘Why am I doing this?’ and if what you’re doing really isn’t of interest to you, don’t hold back. Make a change, take time off. Take care of yourself, work is not the #1.”

Jess suggests that QUEST students keep an open mind about living abroad. “Realize we have one way of life here and that’s wonderful, but there are plenty of other ways of life that are also wonderful,” she said. “People aren’t that different. People’s lives all around the world at the superficial layer can be different, but at the end of the day, everyone has the same things they’re looking for.”

Considering their overall experience in Rotterdam, Erick reflected, “5 years changes anybody regardless of where you are. We’re indebted to the experience of living abroad. You take a piece of where you’ve lived with you all around.”

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