Lots of talent but little time

TU Delft officially opened the 2010-2011 academic year last Monday during a ceremony held at the Aula auditorium among a host of dignitaries and invited guests.

The theme for the opening of the academic year was ‘No waste: moving towards a more aware and enriching future’. The premise being that energy sources and raw materials are finite resources.

Nowadays, society as a whole is concerned with sustainability, pollution, efficiency and costs. Hence, wastage in any form is no longer tolerated, which is a fact that not only applies to the Netherlands but to the whole world, and also to educational institutions and students.

The ceremony began on a serious note. Outside the Aula the
employees’ union was protesting, armed with a street organ and banners, proclaiming that TU Delft was losing highly skilled scientific staff because the university would not offer higher wages. Inside the Aula, the president of TU Delft’s Executive Board, Dirk Jan van den Berg, had an urgent message for first-year students: ‘Get everything you can out of this’, was one of his opening lines. He spoke of a ‘difficult task’ in a world that was rapidly and irreversibly changing and in which the students must compete. And also about the good students in China and elsewhere – their competition. And about how the Netherlands was increasingly relying on knowledge and innovation – on the students then, the future engineers.

Peter Voser, CEO of Shell, the oil company, was the event’s keynote speaker. He was on hand to discuss the consequences of this ‘no-waste’ mentality for large international organizations like his company. According to Voser, there is much to be done: reducing energy use, discovering new energy sources and cutting CO2 emissions. “Because the world’s population is growing”, Voser said, “more and more people will therefore need energy for their laptops, ovens, cars….” This will all be highly reliant on technology – on the students, the future engineers.

Menno Bentveld, a Dutch television presentator, then led a panel discussion, in which, among other issues, the idea of time and time wasting were explored, with a particular focus on the responsibilities that students and the next generation of engineers must face.

Bentveld was full of praise for students as compared to the dumb outside world. You must cherish students, Bentveld said, but completing your studies could be done ‘a bit faster’ than the average of 7.2 years it takes a TU Delft undergraduates to get their degrees.
Ultimately, the first-year students received a series of strong messages. There is a lot of talent out there, but little time. No time to waste. So in which way will the new students choose to go? A good question for them to brood on during their first lectures. 

Ever watched a movie in a foreign language without subtitles? If so, then you probably noticed two things: it’s amazing how quickly you lose track of the plot, and trying to understand individual words eats up lots of mental energy. If you’re an international student, this is probably comparable to your experience in socializing in your host country: people around you talking in a foreign language about something you’re desperately trying to understand – and no subtitles!

Sure, this experience probably isn’t unique to the international students of TU Delft; a foreign student going to school in Madrid or Copenhagen would probably experience similar frustrations.

But how can one adjust oneself to a foreign-language environment so as to make the studying and living abroad experience more efficient and enriching?
As an international student in Delft, for the first year of my stay here I mostly interacted with other international students: being a foreigner with no friends or family in this strange new land automatically makes you friendly and well-disposed toward strangers. Having international friends is great, but after having heard so much about these friendly, tolerant Dutch people and having observed their strange student society rituals, themed parties, and multitasking on a bicycle skills, I was eager to get out there and socialize with some Dutch folk, and maybe even make some good friends along the way.
At the university lecture halls I eventually did meet many Dutch people who seemed quite nice and friendly, but our conversations were sadly always limited to inverse matrices and Steiner components, because frankly, everything else was always discussed in Dutch. I mean, normally, you can easily strike up a conversation with some strangers by commenting on something they’re discussing, or adding a joke to the topic of conversation, right? But what do you do in situations where you don’t know what the conversation is about? “Ehh hmm aah…I heard you say ‘zaterdag’, you must be discussing last Saturday’s future-themed Jakoba party? It was da bomb!” Bit of an awkward moment when you discover they were discussing nothing of the sort!

In project-rooms students generally work in closer-knit groups of eight to twelve people, and of course English is the language of instruction, so at least all the technical conversations should be in English, right? Luckily, the TU thought ahead, and to ensure that all groups learn and communicate in English, they devised a plan to diversify the project groups by ‘spreading the internationals thin’ among the various groups. Consequently, I always found myself to be the only non-Dutch-speaking student in an all-Dutch group. But despite the TU’s good intentions, I can honestly say their plan didn’t quite work out.

Sure the day would begin in English, but as soon as somebody had a question or couldn’t remember a certain word, people would switch over to Dutch. Asking pointed questions in English generally helped, and most guys would apologize and start speaking English again, but not for long. It’s one thing if it’s a private conversation, but if they’re discussing our project, then I have the right to know what they’re talking about. But how could an ‘undutchable’ like me ever know the difference? A second ago these guys were talking about ailerons and trim-tabs, so what’s the chance that they haven’t switched their conversation to the drunken antics of that blonde chick at Speakers last Friday night? Because I certainly don’t want to know about that!

Eventually I took to inserting phrases like “echt waar?” and “maar natuuurlijk!” into conversations to remind them of my undutchable presence. This generally seems to work, and is less annoying than whining “Guys, please switch over to English” all the time. I’m also now the proud owner of a long, foamy flotation device with the words ’English stick‘ written on it, and I threaten people with violence in case they refuse to cooperate! This however tends to have the adverse effect, as many of the Dutch students say they feel oppressed being beaten with a stick for speaking their own language in their own country — fancy that?

But jokes aside, how can an international student fully benefit from the great TU Delft education and experience if even all of the technical discussions are in Dutch? Most Dutch friends of mine simply offer the following solution: just learn Dutch! And then add that they’re in fact helping to enrich our Dutch experience by only speaking Dutch around us, as this way we’ll learn the language in no time! Truth is – they’re right! The more Dutch I hear, the better I understand it, and the faster I’ll learn it. But is it why I came to study at TU Delft? As an engineering student, would I rather benefit from Dutch language training or from knowing what was going on in my project-room?
Ok, I understand, we’re all human, and when you’re tired and your head is full of computations, and some international is nagging you about speaking in English when you can hardly retain the information in your head in your own native Dutch, just remember: for those international students, English usually isn’t their native language either, and they’d also prefer to speak to you in their native Ukrainian, Swahili, Mandarin or whatever, but nonetheless they’d be eternally grateful if you’d just switch to a language we all can understand! Rest assured, though, your efforts to help fellow (international) students won’t go unnoticed: just one Dutch person in a group switching over to English can make a huge difference at the end of the day.

Olga Motsyk, from Ukraine, is a BSc student studying aerospace engineering.

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