Separate worlds

Research shows that Dutch and international students are not sufficiently integrated – and Delft is no exception. Language and culture often prove to be obstacles. “During get-togethers, we speak Dutch to each other.”

It’s lunch break at Aerospace Engineering (AE), and the students and staff are walking in the direction of the canteen. Looking and listening closely, one can’t help but notice that this is TU Delft’s most international faculty. Twenty-seven per cent of the Bachelor’s students, and no fewer than 39 per cent of the Master’s students, have international origins (see infographic). Lectures, public meetings, official documents: almost everything is in English.

As Douwe van den Brink, secretary of the VSV ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ study association, frankly acknowledges, this international nature is not reflected in the association. While almost all of the students (90-95 per cent) joined the association due to the discount on textbooks, nearly all of the active members are Dutch – with the exception of a few Belgians and Germans. The association did try having an international committee, but after one year with a few enthusiastic members, it petered out.

“It’s still difficult to attract international students,” Van den Brink explains. “Our policy is to do as much as we can in English, but we meet in Dutch. During get-togethers we also speak Dutch. There is certainly a division, yes.”

He notices this in particular during the association’s social activities. Last week, the karaoke evening – which was heavily promoted in English – attracted hardly any international students. “Foreigners are here to focus on their studies,” Van den Brink suspects. “The Dutch find it easier to sit back for a year or so.”

Even the Belgians, explains the student, tend to hang out with each other. Traditionally, the Belgians have formed the largest group of international students at AE. Language can’t be the reason why they stick together – so what is? According to the chair of the VSV, Jef Miechelssen, who is himself Belgian, it depends on the attitude with which a student comes to the Netherlands. “I came to Delft with a Dutch friend, and he introduced to the students’ union. There I’m one of the few. In my year, there were three or four real Belgians and a few others with Dutch parents. This year there was one English-speaking first-year. At a certain point, he got fed up with the fact that everything was in Dutch.”

Shy Belgians

Back at AE, Miechelssen thinks that the reasons for the Belgians’ lack of integration are mainly cultural. “Belgians have a very different nature. They are often a bit shyer. They can’t always deal with the fact that the Dutch are more direct. So they tend to stay with each other. They sometimes look at me strangely – they think that I’m becoming Dutch. Belgians who integrate are in the minority.”

Jad Masri, chair of the Delft International Student Society (Diss), recognises this lack of integration between Dutch and foreign students. He can speak about it from his own experience. Masri was born in Lebanon and grew up in Montreal, Canada. Since 2010, the Netherlands has been the fifth country in which he’s lived. He’s a first-year student on the Master’s in Petroleum Engineering. He does have Dutch friends, he says, but in his daily life he’s surrounded by international students he got to know during the introduction week, or through his housemates.

“There is too little contact from both sides. It’s something that starts on arrival in Delft. Students have their own introduction programmes, with the exception of one team-building meeting that’s held at the end, organised by the faculties. Due to these separate introductions, the two groups subsequently have their own friends and places in which they hang out.”

And as a result, everyone goes to separate parties. It’s a shame, thinks the Diss chair. At the beginning of March, during one of the most recent large Diss events, the association therefore handed out free tickets to the Dutch student associations. “The number of Dutch rose significantly”, Masri says. But even then, they only made up a paltry 10 per cent of the total.

One of Diss’s aims for this year is to help improve integration – something that’s also supported by the other international student associations (Best, Aegee and Aisec). The associations think that integration must largely take place at the faculties. From his own experience, Masri knows that international and Dutch students bond most quickly if they go on trips that are organised by their faculties. This brings everyone together.

This is also the case at AE. Study trips, lectures related to academic disciplines – the VSV study association’s more serious activities attract more international students. Students also work together on projects. Van den Brink: “If you’re following the English-language track, then you’re often in a project group with international students. Then you get to know each other. I’ve made lasting friendships this way – a Russian and an American. Although I have to say that I don’t see them often any more.”

Joint week

The head of the TU Delft international office, Elco van Noort, agrees with the students that integration works best in the faculties. In particular, Industrial Design Engineering (IDE), Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EEMCS) and Technology, Policy and Management (TPM) are doing something about this, he explains. At IDE, all of the Master’s students on the Master’s degree programme, including Dutch students who have been at TU Delft for years, take part in an obligatory joint week at the beginning of each semester. “Then they learn about educational goals, career prospects and writing a Master’s thesis.” During the programme, the faculty deliberately mixes students from different countries. “As a result of all this, in surveys, international students from IDE clearly foster more feelings of friendship towards Dutch students than colleagues in other faculties.” Van Noort hopes that other faculties will follow IDE’s lead, and thus recently gave a presentation on this to the directors of education.

After this, it’s up to the students to make something of it, as Van Noort thinks that initiatives that come from the students have more chance of succeeding than those that come from above. “Once the introduction week is over, it’s out of our hands. There are already sports and cultural events on Friday evenings, which are attended by international students and some Dutch students.” However, it’s not straightforward for the student associations, either. All international students are keen to have Dutch friends, acknowledges the Diss chair, Masri. “The problem is that a large proportion of them do not have English as their first language. Together with Aegee, we’ve set up the Tandem language programme. This is a website that links people to others who want to learn a language. Over seven hundred people have signed up. With this, we hope to break through the barrier.”

But Masri is convinced that language isn’t enough: “Cultural differences, in addition, can sometimes mean that some international students keep themselves to themselves and seek connections with people who have the same background and speak the same language. It’s also their own responsibility to seek connections and participate. I want to emphasise that cultural differences can in fact be a rich resource. We want to encourage students to share their cultures with each other.” He’s noticed that cooking for each other works well.

However, it’s also necessary to have Dutch students for this. The Head of the International Office, Van Noort, understands that Dutch students don’t always do their best to get to know their international colleagues. “It’s difficult to switch suddenly to speaking English in your circle of friends. It means you have a much narrower vocabulary. What’s more, the Dutch are already busy in the evenings. They already have social networks, meaning that they’re not desperately looking for friends. International students study all day and have free social schedules in the evenings. When they look around them, they find that unfortunately, the Dutch have already gone. The key seems to lie with the Dutch students, but we don’t have a solution to this problem yet.”

Building friendships

Together with a number of other parties, the Dutch National Union of Students(Landelijke Studentenvakbond, LSVb) held a ‘Buddy Coordinator Day’ on 17 March. The objective was to improve buddy programmes so that they could help to improve the integration of international students. The fact is that Dutch students and their foreign fellow students often have little contact with each other. According to the LSVb, mentor programmes are of little help. Short meetings do not result in friendships, or only in friendships between international students. The LSVb had already concluded from a survey held in 2013 that the two groups live in separate worlds. The TU Delft International Student Barometer of April 2013 gives the same picture. Asked about their feelings of friendship towards Dutch students, around 66 per cent said they experienced such feelings – meaning that 34 per cent did not. At the same time, international students say that they consider these kinds of friendships to be of great importance.

The advantages of integration

International students study faster, get slightly better grades, pass with distinction more often, and go on to become PhD students more often, says Elco van Noort from the International Office. What’s more, TU Delft is building up a global network of alumni, who support each other and the university. The Dutch can find work abroad more easily thanks to the international contacts that they have gained during their studies. Foreign students with Dutch friends settle in the Netherlands more often, which is good for the economy. Gaining work experience during one’s studies also makes it easier to stay. Van Noort: “Unfortunately we’ve only had limited success in helping international students get jobs on the side during their studies in Delft, for example as student teaching assistants. As a result, the worlds remain needlessly divided.” Research shows that 64 per cent of international Master’s students would like to stay in the Netherlands. In practice, the proportion is much lower: the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis cautiously suggests 19 per cent – which already means an annual benefit to the economy of 740 million euros.

Editor Redactie

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