Problems of Dutch Caribbean students a blind spot

Accommodation, financial worries, lack of support … It is sometimes hard for Dutch Caribbean students in the Netherlands. “You start off at a disadvantage.”

“Dutch Caribbean students are also under great pressure. They are alone in another country, have financial stress, deal with extremely high expectations and miss their family. (Photo: Marjolein van der Veldt)

Last year, the National Ombudsman raised the alarm about students from the Caribbean part of the Netherlands who come to the Netherlands to study. These are the countries of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten plus the islands of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba.

Once here, the Dutch Caribbean students encounter prejudice, sometimes have language issues, have difficulties getting health insurance, have problems with official institutions and do not always have a network on which to fall back on, states the report. It’s no wonder that the numbers that drop out of higher education are relatively high. Delta asked two Dutch Caribbean TU Delft alumna about their experiences.

“What I did not fully understand at the time was the additional responsibility you have if you move to another country at the age of 18 and have to find out everything for yourself,” says Laura Croes from Aruba. Last year she obtained her bachelor’s at TU Delft and is now doing a master’s in Zurich. “Just think of the basic things like doing your shopping, paying tax or registering at the municipality. All these extra things take a lot of time and money and are responsibilities that Dutch students don’t always have.”

‘Many Dutch Caribbean students graduate with a debt of EUR 50,000 or more’

TU Delft alumna Nadège Heyligar (Industrial Design Engineering) also came up against these issues. “When I moved to Delft my Dutch friends fell under their parents’ insurance, but that was out of the question for me. I had to take out the highest loan I could to cover myself. You start off at a disadvantage. Many Dutch Caribbean students graduate with a debt of EUR 50,000 or more, while Dutch students often have lower debts.”

They may be simple examples, but they do illustrate the problems faced by Dutch Caribbean students. Outgoing Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven sent a formal letter to the House of Representatives in August. Even just applying for a National Insurance Number is hard, she wrote. Students can only do this if they are registered at a municipality. No National Insurance Number also means no DigiD which is cumbersome and time consuming if you need to arrange things like accommodation in advance. Croes says that “I had sent all my documents by post from Aruba to DUO in the Netherlands. It then took months before I heard if my application was approved.”

Information in advance about studying
Apart from administration difficulties, the Minister also criticised the way the education system prepares prospective students for studying abroad and the information provided to them. Young people in the Dutch Caribbean wanting to study often have little choice but to go to the Netherlands. “If you have Dutch nationality, you have the right to the same study loans as Dutch students and you pay the same tuition fees,” explains Croes. “This makes the Netherlands far more affordable than countries like the United States.”

‘Dutch Caribbean students usually decide on their study on the basis of a website and old flyers’

“But the information for prospective students can and must be better,” Heyligar adds. She now works as a teacher at The Hague University of Applied Sciences and sees that Dutch Caribbean students switch studies more often. “They usually decide on their study on the basis of a website and old flyers, but do not have the opportunity to visit open days and test the atmosphere.”

When Heyligar studied at TU Delft herself, representatives of ABC Compas – the TU Delft Student Association for students from Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao – went to the Antilles. “Sharing personal experiences is a highly valuable way of sharing information.”

In a written response, the Association stated that it is still doing its best to provide information every year. “But it is a laborious process. We receive nothing from TU Delft than the minimum help. We are treated like any other Dutch student who can just jump on the train and go to their old secondary school and talk to the pupils. So we are very dependent on the members who may happen to be on one of the islands during the information periods.”

Attached to the letter that outgoing Minister Van Engelshoven wrote was a thick report from ResearchNed, a research bureau, about the experiences and the study successes of Dutch Caribbean students. According to ResearchNed, every year 750 start at higher professional education and 250 at university. After eight years, only 40% of the Caribbean students obtain their higher professional education diplomas and 75% their university diplomas. The gap between expectations and reality is greater among them than among other students, say the researchers. 

This gap is partly because several Dutch Caribbean young people start their study with a language disadvantage. The university and university of applied sciences assume that they master the Dutch language at a high level. This is not easy when their home language is Papiamento or English.

Culture shock
But language is only one of the dozens of problems that Caribbean students face. Apart from practical obstacles, there are also socio-emotional and psychological problems.

“I experienced a real culture shock, for example,” says Heyligar. “This was in small things like washing and rinsing your dishes in the same tub of water to getting on with fellow students who were very different to you. There are biases on both sides.” She believes that Dutch Caribbean students sometimes have a negative image of Dutch people. They assume that Dutch people do not like them and they judge them on the basis of that assumption. “Then it’s hard to make friends if you don’t understand the culture and the people. This works both ways.”

Croes mostly remembers the cold. “The cold and dark days had a negative effect on my mental well-being.”

‘You can help students with the language, but if someone is homesick?’

“Dutch Caribbean students are also under great pressure,” says Heyligar. “They are alone in another country, have financial stress, deal with extremely high expectations and miss their family. You can help students with the language or with opening a bank account, but what do you do if someone is homesick?”

She speaks from experience. “My academic counsellor could not help me and was unable to understand my problems. And this while the solution was so easy – I should just go back to Curaçao for a couple of months to recharge my battery and spend some time with my family.”

So Heyligar preferred to talk with her fellow students at ABC Compas. “There were people there like me, students who went through the same things. But they are also ‘ordinary’ students. What would happen if a crisis occurred? It would be good if professionals – a professor or confidential advisor – would be there for this particular group of students.”

‘A complete exception to the rule’

Despite the struggles, Croes finished her studies on time. But she emphasises that “I am a complete exception to the rule”. Heyligar took a little longer and knows several students whose studies took longer too. “They often get stuck during their graduation process when they have to be responsible for the outcomes themselves and have to be completely self-motivated.”

She blames this partly on the Dutch Caribbean education system that allows little room for one’s own input. “Dutch school pupils get a lot of freedom and this makes them self-reliant. That freedom is a lot more complicated for Caribbean students. If academic counsellors and supervisors are aware of this, they can support their students better. This would relieve some of the pressure. Graduating on time should not be a requirement. The effects of a couple of months of study delay are doable.”

They seem to be a forgotten group. While the issues faced by international students are high on the agenda, Dutch Caribbean students fall between the cracks. Heyligar says that “We are expected to be the same as Dutch students. And even if we would want to be, we are not the same. We do the same final exams, and that’s it.”

This is why Heyligar, in her position as a teacher at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, is closely involved in the Caribbean Empowerment (CarE), a support project for first year Dutch Caribbean students. CarE comprises teachers that know the school system and either come from the Caribbean or understand the issues well.” In informal, fortnightly meetings, the students learn skills like collaboration and planning and there is also space to simply sit down and chat.

Whether something like this would work at TU Delft is hard for her to judge. What TU Delft can do is look into the challenges faced by these students. “At present the problems of Dutch Caribbean students go unnoticed. At The Hague University of Applied Sciences the Inclusive Education research group is closely involved. Perhaps the Diversity & Inclusion Office could take on this role at TU Delft? Raising the issue and involving the teachers would make a world of difference.”

  • When asked, TU Delft Diversity Officer David Keyson informed us that a survey is being prepared to gather more background information about discrimination figures. But given the small number of Dutch Caribbean students and the privacy regulations, it will be difficult to zoom in on their specific problems, he says. For a follow-up, he refers to Nitesh Bharosa, Diversity Officer at the Faculty of Technology, Policy & Management, who would be more familiar with this issue. Bharosa was not available for comment.
News editor Marjolein van der Veldt

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.