Helping the twain meet

Making friends is not rocket science. But, sometimes, you just need a little nudge in the right direction. Especially when it comes to making friends with people outside your comfort zone or from outside your country.

According to a report by Nuffic’s Study in Holland initiative, in 2012-2013 over 90,000 international students were enrolled in the Netherlands. These included 43,500 European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) students and 20,350 non-EU/EFTA students, 9,600 students within Erasmus or with residence permits for internship and 17,050 other inbound diploma and credit mobile students.

In order to make international students feel welcome and integrate well into Dutch society, universities across the country have introduced a number of initiatives. Some work. Some don’t. But everyone agrees it’s important to keep trying.

Even more so as a recent report put together by the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands didn’t have good news on that front. Called Make It in the Netherlands, the report stated that while 70% international students express an interest in staying on in the Netherlands after graduating, only 27% of them actually end up doing so. While part of the suggested solutions including making learning Dutch easier, the report also points out that international students and Dutch students often exist in their own ‘bubbles’ and rarely interact outside of the classroom.

“International students find it difficult to connect with Dutch students and to put down roots in Dutch society. We plan to change this situation with extra buddies, an annual cultural connection award, through internationalisation of participation bodies and student associations, and through an active alumni policy,” the report says. Their action plan to address this issue is called ‘Breaking the Bubble’.

Why integration matters?

In the past few years, various departments at TU Delft have been working actively towards a more international atmosphere on campus. Initiatives at an executive level include hosting key ceremonies in English and ensuring all official communication is in English as well as Dutch. These are many ideas discussed extensively by Anka Mulder, vice president of the Executive Board in her interview to Delta on page 10.

There’s more going at other levels of the university as well. The Central International Office of the university has placed an emphasis on the topic on their agenda for 2014. “Life is much more fun and enriching if you are doing something you enjoy and see a variety of different perspectives from around the world,” says Elco van Noort, director Central International Office, TU Delft. “I prefer to advise our international students more towards acculturation, which involves becoming an active member of their new community, while maintaining their own cultural identity. So, I would advise students to get involved and explore links between their own culture and that of the Netherlands. Obviously the same applies to Dutch students. Meet others while you have the chance,” he adds.

Delft, Amsterdam, Utrecht – everyone’s talking about it The University of Amsterdam (UvA) has over 2,500 international students enrolled with the majority coming from UK, US, China, Greece and Germany. Aside from special orientation programmes offered by the UvA and the International Student Network Amsterdam, the university has other plans. “Of course we think it is very important that both Dutch and International students integrate. Not only in the classroom, but just as much outside. Both parties can learn tremendously from each other in habits, culture and language.

In some classes we try to keep the number of Dutch students at a maximum of 50%, which gives us a more active discussion with a more international view on controversial topics,” says Hans Hulst, communication advisor, UvA. In 2014-2015 they are starting the Amsterdam Excellence Track, an extracurricular programme for excellent students. “Half of this group of thirty comes from countries outside the EU and will all be receiving the Amsterdam Excellence Scholarship (of €25,000). The rest of the groups are excellent Dutch students.” The aim of the programme is to prepare them as future leaders and ambassadors for the UvA and having a mixed group will benefit integration as well.

Another Dutch university with an int Another Dutch university with an international character is Utrecht University, which has more than 1,200 new international students arrive each September. “We organise a university-wide orientation for all international students, which includes a lecture on Dutch study culture. In addition, most programmes or faculties organise their own introductory activities. International students are also welcome to join the Utrechtse Introductie Tijd (UIT),” says Roy Keeris, director Communication and Marketing, University of Utrecht. “Students come from a variety of backgrounds. And can learn a great deal from each other, both inside and outside the classroom. It is important to foster an understanding of different cultures, so that interaction can be open, and free of stereotypes,” he adds. 

While there is no university-wide policy on this matter, there are a number of initiatives at the graduate school and faculty level. These activities range from buddy-programmes to an extra focus on integration in the classroom.

Back in Delft, the Introduction Programme for BSc and MSc students in 2014 will offer more opportunities to integrate with Dutch students and Dutch student life, including Dutch welcome activities, involvement in some OWEE (Dutch orientation) activities, dinners in fraternities and an exciting celebration of Koningsdag or Kings Day, with Dutch games and competitions to give new international students a flavour of Holland.

“PhD students and staff members have a different introduction programme, which is tailored to the needs of this more mature group. They arrive throughout the year and need to form links within the university and integrate into Dutch life,” says Van Noort.

One such incentive catering to this category of newcomers is Come2TUDelft, an online platform through which PhDs and staff can find information, sign up for activities and talk to others. Dinner with Dutch PhDs, along with workshops such as Meet the Dutch and a Survival Tour of campus and town, are some initiatives which have been developed so far with varying results. “We intend to continue these initiatives in 2014 and, at the same time, extend the PhD and staff introduction programme to provide more opportunities to integrate into TU Delft and Dutch life,” adds Van Noort.

Student bodies can make a difference too

In Breaking the Bubble, the action plan in Make in the Netherlands mentioned above, solutions mentioned include a Buddy Programme and ensuring that student associations (sport-based, interest-based, programme-based etc.) take international students into consideration.

TU Delft student council group ORAS was certainly listening. The issue of integration even made it to their 2014 election manifesto: Greater social and academic integration will foster a dynamic international environment.

But, they aren’t the only ones. Several other clubs on campus have a similar impetus. The Delft Energy Club – a student run platform that focuses on energy – takes pride in its international character. Of their 1,400 members, an estimated 40% are international students. “The goal of the Energy Club is to stimulate innovation and to offer opportunities to students to unleash their potential. Therefore, organising events and activities where students and researchers from different backgrounds meet is what we do continuously,” says Fritz Dankers, secretary of the Energy Club board.

The club also organises monthly Energy Breaks together with the Delft Energy Initiative. Dankers feels that multi-disciplinary projects are a great platform for integration as people with different specialisations and from different backgrounds come together and learn to work in project-teams. “This is something clearly valued by TU Delft,” he adds.

Another such group is YoungDelft, a networking group for TU employees who are younger than 36 years of age. With a board that comprises a mix of Dutch and international staff, Young Delft is a microcosm of the university. “The board is just as diverse as our activities. We have Iranians, Taiwanese, Chinese, American, Polish, and Dutch people in our board. A Brazilian and an Iranian person are joining us soon and a Mexican and Indian recently left,” says Eveline Vreede, the chair of the organisation. Vreede says working together gives them a more nuanced appreciation of socio-cultural differences, whether in terms of managerial styles or communication. “We take into account differences in preference between men and women and cultural interests even when we organise our sport activities, social activities, and other activities that enhance skills or knowledge. This makes it fun for both the Dutch employees as well as the internationals,” says Vreede. Homecooked meal nights, kayaking, beach games are some of the many social events they’ve hosted. All official communication of YoungDelft is in English but that is not always easy. “Of course sometimes there are misunderstandings because of language, more specifically because of cultural interpretation of language,” she says.

Have a hobby? Find a group

Vreede acknowledges Dutch and internationals don’t mix sufficiently. Dutch students are usually involved within their own communities (student associations, student houses, sports, etc.) and international students find it easier to slip into groups among themselves. Vreede offers some advice: “Just do it! Just go to the party of another association, or call them over. Have an intercultural potluck. Sit somewhere different in the lecture hall every time and talk to the people around you.”

Dr. Daniel Farley, an American who completed his post-doc at TU Delft in 2013, counts a number of Dutch people among his friends. His path to feeling integrated involved an exchange of knowledge – about beer. A beer aficionado, Farley says he met a lot of local people at speciality pubs and beer tastings. “Once they realised that I knew what I was talking about, especially when it came to American beer, they opened up. I’m not really one to strike up a conversation, but this way I was in my comfort zone even though I was among strangers,” he says.  

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