Can international students play ‘lullepot’ at the USC fraternity?

This academic year, there are over 112.000 international students in the Netherlands, with 164 nationalities, says Dutch organisation for internationalisation Nuffic. Over 30.000 of them are taking a few classes or doing internships, but 81.000 came here for a full educational programme.

Wouldn’t it make sense, then, if there were more opportunities for casual meetings between Dutch and foreign students? Utrecht University thinks so. “Traditionally the UU isn’t a very internationally-oriented university, but we’re seeing an increase in international students,” says Marieke de Bakker, head of student counseling at the UU Academic Affairs’ Office. “Our wish to have an international community is mentioned in our Strategic Plan.” According to De Bakker, such a community implies mingling of Dutch and foreign students. Not just at the university, but at student associations, too. “Utrecht is a very active city in terms of student associations, so we’d like international students to find their place there, too.”

The songs we sing, the ‘lullepot’ game where someone climbs on top of the table and tells a story – these are traditions that are closely connected to the Dutch language.

Most Dutch student associations don’t have a very international character. The USC fraternity (1.057 members) and student association Veritas (1.750 members) don’t have any international members at all. Reinier van Doorn, USC rector, says the language barrier is hard to overcome. “The songs we sing, the ‘lullepot’ game where someone climbs on top of the table and tells a story – these are traditions that are closely connected to the Dutch language.”

Janneke Sloet van Oldruitenborgh, president of Wageningen’s WSV Ceres, affirms this. “”It’s always been this way’ is an argument we hear often. We want to safeguard our traditions and keep our character intact. If we had international students at our association, and we had to speak English, that might change.”

Student association Albertus Magnus (Groningen, 2.400 members) does have international members – two handfuls, total. Vice president Sophie Offringa says ‘the culture isn’t ready’ to switch to English, but she notices members are adapting to the international students without difficulty. “When they’re there, people speak English.”

If the university becomes more international, the USC needs to adapt.

It’s not just the language that poses a problem – the duration of the membership is also a factor. Reinier van Doorn (USC): “We’re members for life, and the build-up in years matters. You start as a freshman in the dorms, you leave after your fifth year; your entire membership you’re part of a year club. This helps you bond with each other. That won’t work if you’re only there for a semester, or two years. You risk groups falling apart.” On the other hand: “If the university becomes more international, the USC needs to adapt. We’re not a rigid organization that wants to keep everything the way it is. In time, I’m sure it’ll be completely normal that international students can join, too.”

Floris Foekens, president of Veritas, questions this. “Every year, we have a group of international students visit for dinner and drinks. We show them our association, we tell them our ways and traditions. But I never get the idea that many of them want to join – partially because we don’t really have an international character, but also because there are associations like I*ESN. Those cater much better to the needs of the international students, and to the duration of their stay.”

Foreign students are a diverse group: there are those who come to the Netherlands for a bachelor and a master’s degree and then want to stay and live here, but there are also exchange students who come to take just a few classes. Marieke de Bakker thinks it’s most important for the first group to join the culture of the student associations. Not only do they spend more time here, they’re usually more keen to get to know Dutch people. Kroes: “Of course it would be great if exchange students could participate in student life more, too, but that seems less likely to happen, given their short stays.”

Martina Baas is secretary of the Groningen branch of student association I*ESN, which consists of mostly international – but also Dutch – members. She says exchange students are looking for other things than ‘degree’ students. “They want to enjoy their temporary home for a semester. That’s much too short a time to really get involved in a student association.” These students find their place with I*ESN, says Baas. “The now matters to them – not the future.”

The University of Groningen has considered starting a new international student association, says student assessor Mark de Jager, who advises the Executive Board on student affairs. International students don’t show much interest in the traditional student associations. De Jager: “The pressure to study without delays is enormous. Their studies are expensive, they can’t afford to take extra time. Furthermore, their view of student associations is often vastly different. In Germany, for instance, associations are elitist groups, like American fraternities.” International students do like the parties and events, De Jager says, “but becoming a member is often too big a step for them.”

The University of Groningen would rather encourage the Dutch associations to organize open parties for international students. De Jager: “Twice a year, the university organizes seminars for student associations, with workshops and tips about how to make your association more international. The last one was in February; this August, we’ll hold another edition, in which we exchange our best practices. That works well.”

Of course, a small group of Dutch and international students do meet at I*ESN, but it’s not enough. We’d like to see these meetings happening on a much larger scale. 

Even so, universities are still aiming for further internationalization of the Dutch student associations. Kroes: “Of course, a small group of Dutch and international students do meet at I*ESN, but it’s not enough. We’d like to see these meetings happening on a much larger scale.” De Bakker: “We know international students are often excluded from student assocations – whether on purpose or not – because of things like Dutch-only websites. As a university, it’s one of our goals to work on diversity and internationalization; if for no other reason than that today’s world needs people with intercultural competencies. Therefore we, as the institution that sponsors the associations, have to keep encouraging these discussions and stimulate awareness – in the same way we do with things like hazing rituals. Because if we let the associations be in charge of these changes, progress goes slower than we as an institution find acceptable.”

On the yearly Integration Night in Groningen, several student associations open their doors to international students. In other parts of the country, associations are considering organizing similar events, where international students can meet Dutch ones. Maastricht University is even starting a location, specifically meant to be used by student associations for events for international and Dutch students. The building, called Kaleido, is mostly meant for the smaller associations that don’t have their own accommodations.

WSV Ceres, a student association in Wageningen, organizes ‘open nights’ every now and then. They are also considering to introduce a special ‘international membership’ that will allow international students (limited) access to the association. “Not on our traditional club night – that’s Monday night,” explains president Janneke Sloet van Oldruitenborgh, “but on Thursdays and Fridays, for example.”

This article was first published in Transfer, the independent magazine on internationalization in higher education.