At Your Service
A year and a half after graduating in clinical psychology from the University of Nijmegen (1985), I was hired by the WAU. It was difficult at first because there were times when I was counselling people older than myself." A decade later, Jeanine Hermans is Dean for Foreign Students - a position created in 1991 to cater especially to the needs of the foreign student population in Wageningen. With ten years of experience under her belt, Ms. Hermans has learned to adjust to the particular needs of foreigners. It hasn't always been easy - I think people expect a man or an older woman. Some people react uncomfortably at first because they were not expecting to see a woman in a position of authority, and this makes them behave differently."
But as soon as somebody makes a comment about it like, I didn't expect a young woman to be the Dean, then it is usually OK. It is in the open so the barriers are down. I am also very Dutch, for instance I want to shake everybody's hand when they come in, and I have had to learn to react to the subtleties of other cultures, where such behaviour might be totally inappropriate. At other moments people wait for me to sit before they take their place."
Dean Hermans cautions that although she works towards creating a relaxed and open atmosphere, this does not infer that she feels that being totally informal with students is the right way to do the job. I am not completely casual with the students who come to see me. Of course there are people you get to know, so things may become a little more informal but I think it is important to maintain an official atmosphere. The idea is to provide support for the person, while showing them confidence and respect. I cannot always help the person in the way which they would prefer, and being casual would only complicate this."
The Dean's office deals with everything of importance to the students' lives in terms of their social existence in Wageningen: insurance, housing, residence permits, and providing basic information on day to day survival here. Ms. Hermans describes her job as, Dealing with the exceptions regarding the various situations or concerns which students have. I try to make tailor-made decisions to smooth over a situation which is often not altogether clear. Sometimes an apparently small problem is really the mask to a deeper concern. People who come here from developing countries are often total strangers to our way of life. They are completely removed from their own support networks. It is our job to offer a network which can direct them when they need assistance. At other times I can play a role when their concern is of a more personal nature. They can share what they want with me in confidence."
Despite her background in psychology, Hermans is adamant about how far her role should go, I am not here to psychoanalyse the students. We do not monitor how the students are doing through some kind of check-up system. Treating them with respect means letting them decide if and when they need to discuss something with us. These people are all adults and they can make their own decisions." Some people might find this approach very Dutch in the sense that it is a reactive kind of help, (given once it has been requested), but the Dean feels that students themselves should take the initiative to use the services offered by her office. If regular appointment hours, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 11:00 -13:00, are not suitable, then students are encouraged to make an appointment by telephone.
According to Jeanine Hermans the creation of the Dean's office for foreign students is, one of the most significant changes within the university in the last years, because it signals that the foreign student population has become an important part of the university in Wageningen." However, this has not meant that her job of providing a service to the foreign students is one which has always received a warm welcome from the rest of the university community. Occasionally the argument that we are pampering the foreign students with special services has been raised with a negative connotation. However, foreign students start from a different position often because of their age as well as cultural and language differences. I have had to defend the fact that this requires a separate strategy. They are far from home and friends, so we must provide that kind of support."
Dean Hermans admits that there are definitely many people who extend friendship and understanding to the foreign students here, but she feels that the university could stand to be a bit more sensitive to the needs of the foreign students. As long as I hear from students that there are still areas of life here which are difficult because of misunderstandings or insensitivities, I believe that we as a university community can continue to improve the hospitality we offer our foreign students."