EP: Wanted: Dutch friends

International students do not mingle well with their Dutch counterparts

“I would like to meet more Dutch people,” says graduate student Xuefei (29) from China in her kitchen. “As I live in the second tower of the Bishops building, which is completely occupied by international students, I am not likely to meet them at home.” author Rachel Voorbij

Utrecht harbours more than 2,000 international students. According to the International Student Barometer (ISB), most of them find it hard to settle into Utrecht student life. Xuefei is one of them. Ludovica (18) from Italy also has not yet succeeded in making any friends in Utrecht. “I had expected to meet some Dutch people and to develop friendships with them. Meanwhile, I have made friends with some international students and I do no longer feel as strong an urge to make Dutch friends as I did upon my arrival here.”

The integration of international students is not working out as it should be. This is partly caused by their ACCOMMODATION. International students, particularly the short stayers, often live together in the same student buildings and are not scattered among other Utrecht University student houses. Finding a privately rented room or a room in a student house for many of them is like looking for a needle in a haystack as there is a shortage of rooms and the ‘interview’ system frustrates it. International students therefore primarily depend upon Utrecht’s student housing organisation SSH.

SSH is a comfortable and reliable organisation for international students. Before arriving in Utrecht, they can arrange for a room with the Short Stay department through the Internet. They can select in which building they wish to live, they can immediately register and pay online.

Many international students end up in the larger buildings SSH has available. Although Dutch students in Utrecht also rent rooms in these buildings, most short stayers live in the towers or floors which are especially reserved for international students. Consequently, this system does not offer much opportunity for international students to mix with Dutch students.

Jesse van Mourik, Communication Officer of SSH’s Short Stay department, says this is inevitable. “Our core business is to provide for accommodation, not to facilitate integration. Moreover, we take care of furnishing and decorating the rooms provided for international students and for that purpose it is more practical to have these rooms within one unit.”

Furthermore, Van Mourik believes that housing international students among Dutch students may be difficult for the Dutch residents. “This has nothing to do with cultural differences, but most Dutch students like to know who their housemates are going to be. That is the reason why the ‘interview’ system is so common; it gives students a say in who will be their room-mates. “Students from China do not qualify for the ‘interview’ system. They have to be sure of their accommodation before they leave for the Netherlands. Also, you cannot place an international student in a group of Dutch students just like that; short stayers often leave after six months and some student units find this a problem.”

If SSH is unable to do much to encourage the integration of international students, who is? We ask Saskia van der Meer, Secretary to the Accommodation Board of the Bishops buildings at The Uithof. The Accommodation Board does not in the first place stand up for the interests of international students, she says. “Their interests and wishes are very different from those of Dutch students, which makes it hard to facilitate both groups. Students who will only stay in the Netherlands for six months have other needs than students who live here for years.”

International students have to resort to SOCIALISING outside the area where they live. How welcoming are Utrecht students? Erasmus student Eva (23) from Germany does not find it easy. “I go out in places where many Dutch people go, like Monza and Poema. I have had the occasional chat, but I have not managed to really get in touch with Dutch people.” Licia (23) from Italy is also trying very hard. “The other day, an Italian friend and I went to a party with only Dutch people, but nobody talked to us. Maybe they did not feel like speaking English.”

Chances are that Eva and Licia would easily make new friends at the ‘Erasmus Students’ Network (ESN). This Network organises a variety of activities for international students, such as pub-crawls, night-canoeing and weekend holidays at the Dutch Wadden islands. The Network offers international students ample opportunities to acquire a taste of the Netherlands. However, there is one small problem: membership is only open to international students.

“Last year, we noticed that this hampers the integration of international students,” says ESN President Rikkert Dahmen. “Our main objective is to organise activities for international students. However, we have decided to shift our focus to meeting Dutch students. There was already a mentor programme in place, which meant that two Dutch students would guide a group of ten international students, showing them around in Utrecht and doing all kinds of activities together. This way, even the short stayers got to know at least some Dutch people. After some two months, when the new students had become used to their new lives, the groups fell apart. The short stayers often hung on to their international friends. As we find it important that the mentor groups stick together, we have now developed a new approach. The mentors and international students now regularly meet for the International Kitchen, where various mentor groups meet to introduce to each other dishes from their home countries.”

Although Dutch people are not allowed to become members of ESN, there are some ways to engage them in these activities. Rikkert: “All committee members of our organisation - some 40 or 50 – are free to join in in our activities. In this way, some four Utrecht students are present at each activity. This may not be a whole lot, but it is a start.” Furthermore, Dahmen believes that international students should be more active ESN member themselves. “Only a few organise film nights. On this way they get in touch with Dutch people and are also introduced to Dutch red tape.”

If integration through their accommodation or social activities does not work, maybe the UNIVERSITY should offer some more assistance. Rikkert: “I do not think so. You cannot force Dutch and international students to mix. This is bound to fail.”

Femke van der Geest, Student Counsellor at the International Office agrees. “As a university, we are able to meet with some of their demands. In the end, however, teaching is our main duty. This does not mean that Faculties do not pay any attention to this problem. The Natural Sciences Graduate School, for example, used to organise two separate introduction days: one for Dutch and one for international students. Now they have combined both days.”

The International Office also stimulates the integration of international students to some extent, says Van der Geest: “We have commissioned the organisation of the Orientation Day and the Social Orientation Days, which are held twice a year to give international students the opportunity to get to know Utrecht University.”

According to ESN-er Rikkert, collaborating with STUDY AND STUDENT SOCIETIES, AND WITH SPORTS CLUBS will be the most effective. “After all, that is where you get a good taste of what Utrecht student life really is about. ESN already organises some activities with these study and student societies and sports clubs. There is a structural buddy programme, which we organise together with Navigators Student Society NSU, and we will be rowing at Triton’s soon. International students need to know that these societies and clubs exist. That is why we will be organising a sports fair early next year.”

Femke van der Geest agrees. “We have noticed that more and more Faculties involve their societies in organising events. The Executive Board has also brought this problem to the attention of the various societies. These have now become aware of what they can do and are willing to play a much more active role.”

Rob Franken, Internal Commissioner of the study society of the Faculty of Science A-Eskwadraat confirms that his society can help international students, but has not been very successful so far. “We concentrate on the graduate students, because it is not that easy to reach the undergraduate exchange students. Last year, we tried to organise activities for graduate students, but unfortunately these were cancelled due to the small number of registrations. I think that these students work very hard. The language barrier is also a problem. The majority of our members speak Dutch and will not be inclined to speak English when doing group activities.”

All in all, the integration of international students is doomed to remain an unachievable goal, Rikkert acknowledges. “You can give it your best shot, but the facts are that international students do not speak our language, there are big cultural differences and most of them only stay in Utrecht for six months, which on the whole is too short to make new friends.” According to Jesse van Mourik of SSH it all comes down to the fact that students need to take the initiative themselves. “It is up to the international students to meet Dutch students, and vice versa.”

Utrechts students abroad

Is Utrecht really in a bad way internationalisation-wise? Or is the situation not much better elsewhere? Marit de Vrijer spent four months in Salamanca in Spain and tells about her experiences there.

“I lived in a flat with other international students. Later we were joined by six other Dutch students. I mainly spent my time with them. In Salamanca I studied Spanish and this course was really only attended by international students. I therefore did not get into contact with any Spanish students much. Moreover I had an American boy-friend which resulted in frequently meeting up with the same group of international friends. When going out you really had to know where to go if you wanted to mix with the ‘locals’. But at the beginning most people went to ‘Camelot’, an Erasmus-type pub, and so I went there too.

“It really depends on who you meet, because I think that I should have been able to make more Spanish friends in Salamanca. I did join a Spanish fitness centre for instance. After the lessons we sometimes went for a drink with our group. There were also ‘intercambio’ meetings where two people practice each other’s language.”

“I do think though that the University really left me to my own devices there. I had much more to sort out and organise by myself than I had to in Utrecht. I think that Utrecht definitely offers more opportunities socially than Salamanca does.”

A different story: The Warande one year later

Last year saw stiff negotiations between the Accommodation Board of student flat The Warande and student housing agency SSH. SSH intended to house a total of 200 short stayers at the student complex in Zeist. Each student leaving the complex would be replaced by an international student. According to the board this was not in accordance with the agreements. “We felt the exchange students were forced upon us,” says Lennert.

Lennert has been living in the students flat for five years now and is a member of the Warande mini-bus committee. “By now the atmosphere has been largely improved. SSH now strives to inform the tenants in advance about the arrival of any new international students at the unit.” Clear agreements have also been made about the frequency of the placing of short stayers. Lennert: “No more than one or two international students will be placed per unit.”

SSH wants more though, according to Lennert. “SSH is now focusing on setting up complete units for international guests. Current Utrecht students will be offered a removal proposal as a group which they are free to accept or refuse. If they accept, they will move and SSH will take over their unit and use it as an international student hall. If the tenants decline the offer then no more short stayers will join them, irrespective of the current number of international students at the unit.”

According to Lennert, the situation has not affected the atmosphere at the complex. “Everything is fine. Our tenants’ society has been organising various activities and partly thanks to the international students these are a big success. The short stayers also regularly visit Wombat, our pub, where we all meet up.”

integrated/not integrated strike out whichever is not applicable

Shawn / verenigde staten / 24 / Humanistics / spending 6 monts in
the netherlands

Number of friends: “Twelve.”

Number of Dutch friends: “A few acquaintances, that’s all.”

Why? “I have not had many real opportunities to meet them as I spend most of my time with international students. This obviously does not lead to many Dutch friendships.”

Favourite Dutch snack / dish:“The ‘broodjes kroket’ (type of sausage rolls) are very good indeed!”

Culture shock? “Not really. I am from Wisconsin, so there are many similarities; the fields and the love of cheese… I do appreciate the interaction during lectures. The Dutch have no trouble at all posing critical questions.”

Out in the town or international student parties? “Fifty-fifty. We tend to go to many so-called social gatherings, these are not very big parties.”

Dutch attractions visited so far: “De Keukenhof. I also got to see many windmills on my cycling trips.”

Who is the Dutch prime minister? “It is not Geert Wilders, is it?”

Integrated? “I am not integrated in the Dutch way. This is mainly the result of only socializing with international students. We have our own way of life”

Leonard / Australië / 21 / Geosciences / spending 6 monts in the netherlandsthe

Number of friends: “Twenty.”

Number of Dutch friends: “Four.”

Why? “The only Dutch friends I made I got to know through my studies.”

Favourite Dutch snack / dish: “Toffee waffles! I don’t know much about the Dutch cuisine really. The only Dutch friends I have never want to cook Dutch dishes as they themselves don’t like them.”

Culture shock? “I had to get used to all the cycling over here and to everything being so very close. Distances are very different in Australia.”

Out in the town or international student parties? “Both as much as the other.”

Dutch attractions visited so far: “I have visited many cities. Enschede, Nijmegen, Groningen, The Hague. And I frequently go on a cycling trip.”

Who is the Dutch prime minister? “I wouldn’t know!”

Integrated? “Not really, but I learned a lot. For instance, I couldn’t do without a bike anymore!”

Narayan /Australië / 22 / Humanistics / spending 6 monts in
the netherlands

Number of friends: “Twelve.”

Number of Dutch friends: “Zero.”

Why? “Probably because I do not live together with Dutch students. And the lessons I follow are mainly attended by international students.”

Favourite Dutch snack / dish: “I eat lots of chips with mayonnaise, but besides this I have no clue what would be a good or typically Dutch dish.”

Culture shock? “It struck me that some people are quite nationalistic when it comes to their language. One time a guy even started yelling at me saying that I had to learn the language if I wished to live here.”

Dutch attractions visited so far: “I went to De Haar Castle. I have also visited many different places by bike.”

Out in the town or international student parties? “I guess it’s a 50-50 split.”

Who is the Dutch prime minister? “I don’t know, but the Queen is called Mary, right?”

Integrated? “I now unconsciously join in in things. For instance, the Dutch all go outside when the sun shines. Me too now. I far more appreciate the sun and Spring time than I did when I still lived in Australia.”

Noémi / Hongarije / 20 / biology Master 
 / spending three years in the 

Number of friends: “Six.”

Number of Dutch friends: “One.”

Why? “As I do not really have a large circle of friends I don’t frequently meet new people, Dutch ones included. Besides, I live mainly with international students.”

Favourite Dutch snack / dish: “ Bitterballen (type of deep-fried meatballs) with mustard and toasted sandwiches.”

Culture shock? “Before I came here I had a very liberal view of the Netherlands, I thought everything was possible and that everyone would be smoking dope. I have now realised that reality is quite different. Lots of Dutch do not use drugs and they seem very organised.”

Out in the town or international student parties? “Both as much as the other.”

Dutch attractions visited so far: “I went on a tour boat along the Utrecht canals, I visited the Heineken museum and climbed the Dom Tower.”

Who is the Dutch prime minister? “I should know this, shouldn’t I?”

Integrated? “I don’t speak the language but I can read a little as I learned German. I also wish to participate more in city life. I really should join a student society like Veritas but I am not sure whether that’s open to international students.”