Orientation Day, najaar 2017, Foto Bart Weerdenburg

How do we fix the gap between ‘Dutchies’ and international students?


Many international students experience a great distance between themselves and the Dutch students at the university. What causes this, and what can be done about it? DUB looked into it. “Dutch students need to change the way they look at internationals.”

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Janna Anne Dommerholt, originally from Germany, came to the Netherlands to study at Utrecht University more than two years ago. Janna Anne already knew the language, and it wasn’t that long of a journey – she only had to cross one border. Still, she does experience cultural differences. “The directness of Dutch people, and the way you approach people, that’s so different,” she says. “Dutch people are more likely to say what they’re thinking. Straight to your face. I like that, but it did take some time to get used to. And I can imagine international students from for instance non-western countries have a much harder time getting used to that.”

‘Dutch and international students are two completely separate groups’

The language barrier, among other things, means that not all foreign students feel comfortable in Utrecht. In fact, a questionnaire shows one in three international students sometimes feels depressed. Two in three say they feel lonely. International students don’t always manage to connect with Dutch students in their programmes. BuddyGoDutch, an organisation that aims to connect Dutch and international students through a buddy programme, also sees the divide. “Mostly, Dutch and international students live as two separate groups,” says Jorin Dijkstra, spokesperson for the association. She herself both studied and lived at the international UCU campus for three years. “Even there, where the two groups are clearly brought together, there are complaints of a divide – mostly coming from internationals.” One big cause, Dijkstra says, is that a many student houses with Dutch residents don’t allow foreign students.

‘We have one room in which everyone’s only allowed to speak English’

Janna Anne acknowledges the divide, although she herself hasn’t experienced any loneliness. The reason: ECU ’92, the study association for the Utrecht University School of Economics. She quickly joined the association, is now the president, and she says the association has ensured she hasn’t experienced much of the gap between internationals and Dutchies at the UU. “We speak a lot of English amongst ourselves, it’s our main language, and we have international board members as well: we aim to have a 50-50 ratio. And we have one room – the front room – in which you’re only allowed to speak English. That sounds strict, but it actually creates a great atmosphere in which everyone can participate.”

‘They often think: these people are only going to be here for one or two semesters’

But is the language barrier the only cause of the divide? Anne Hamburger, student dean for the UU, often works with student organisations, and organised a special session for international students last year. She thinks it’s also caused by the way Dutch students view international students: “They often think: these people are only going to be here for one or two semesters, and then they’re going to leave. So that makes them think these students mostly feel the need to visit popular tourist locations such as Volendam and Monnickendam, and to climb the Dom tower. In their eyes, it can feel like a useless endeavour to try and invest in these students.”

This makes it harder for international students to find friends at, for instance, sports associations at Olympos, because the associations think international students are just going to leave to go back to their home countries halfway through the season. “Even though there are really quite a lot of students who are going to be here for a longer time, and would love to participate in daily student life.”

“The Dutch student life is inextricably linked to Dutch culture and mentality,” says Kristiana Stoyanova, chairwoman of the Erasmus Student Network Utrecht (ESN). She’s convinced that as an international student, you need to prove that you’re willing to learn about and understand the Dutch mentality. “You have to show that you want to stay here after your studies.”

‘You have to work harder to get a social life’

Take Olivia Hall (19, student of Economics), for instance. She’s been in the Netherlands for two years, and doesn’t know when she wants to return to the UK yet. In fact: she might just stay here. Because yes, she likes it here. A divide? She sees it, sure. It was one of the reasons she, too, joined ECU ’92. “Because they spoke English there – even the Dutch members – I felt comfortable immediately,” she says. “I’ve been to house parties where everyone just keeps speaking Dutch. That makes you feel like such an outsider.” It’s not that she doesn’t get it, though. “I totally understand that it’s easier to communicate in your native language.” She also sees that Dutch people tend to seek each other out. “Some may know each other from back home, or have some mutual acquaintances. If you’re from a different country, you don’t have that kind of network. So you’re already one step behind, and you have to work harder to get a social life.”

Olivia would like to see foreign students get a little more insight into student associations in the Netherlands – in Utrecht, specifically. “It may be very different from their home countries, for example. I think it’d be a good thing to show students all the options they have, the organisations they could join. It’s a shame many student associations don’t want to accept foreign students, but thankfully there are alternatives. I think it’d be good to inform international students: what are the habits of Dutch people, what is the mentality like?”

‘University must bridge the gap’

Dean Anne Hamburger calls for all student organisation websites to be published – at least partially – in English, too. The UU had reserved funds for this goal last year, because many student associations stated they did want to publish their websites in English as well, but lacked the money to do so. “When the money was made available, only a few associations applied for it,” Hamburger says. “That’s such a shame, because it could really make a difference.”

Another thing Hamburger says could help: talk to student organisations about how they could involve international students in their associations more. Utrecht University also has a role to play in this, the dean says. The Utrecht Introduction Time (UIT) board, for instance, is already studying how the UIT days could be tailored more to the experience of international students (Dutch article). “The problem is just that the UIT starts relatively early. Many international students don’t have housing yet at that time.” There’s much work to do at other student organisations as well. Hamburger: “Last year, Triton’s started to set up an international competition. In my opinion, things like that should happen a lot more.”

BuddyGoDutch would also like to see associations focus on activities that can involve international students. But, the association says, part of the responsibility lies with Utrecht University: “In study programmes, you tend to see conversations stick to the study programme content. We think it’s important the university organises extracurricular activities as well, to help bridge the divide. We’re advising the UU: focus more on the social aspects of student life.”

‘I’m investing in the Dutch language’

The ESN also says students share the responsibility: “I’m investing a lot in learning the Dutch language,” says Kristiana Stoyanova. “When people see you’re trying to learn their language, they’ll accept you much faster, and they open up to you more. And you don’t have to speak fluent Dutch to do that.”

As for the language barrier: Janna Anne from ECU ’92 says some work’s yet to be done in that regard. “It should be as small as possible. Yes, it’s good to learn Dutch, but it should go both ways. In study programmes where it’s possible, I’d say: promote the use of English. Our Bachelor’s programme is in English, and that makes it easier for international students to communicate.” She’d also like to see associations assign international students to their boards. “They bring their own ideas and viewpoints which may differ from those of Dutch students. It can be refreshing, but you have to give them the chance first.”

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