Stronger Voice for MSc Students
Wageningen's international students are slowly finding their place within the University. Building up their own independently-run support networks, they are developing a clearer position for themselves
What surprised me the most when I joined the International Student Panel (ISP) was that nobody could answer all our questions on the history of the group, or exactly what we should do with it, reports Anne Michaut, who represents the Agricultural Economics study programme. When we took over last January, there was no proper overlap with last year's group, and we had to start from zero to figure out how to run it. Which is exactly what the current members of the ISP have done. In eight months, the panel has undergone a complete overhaul in its internal and external structure. Originally established by the Dean's Office for International Students in 1991, the ISP has developed into an important independent political body through which MSc students have an official voice in the university
One of their first projects was to create a formal handbook with rules and regulations as well as to provide a historical overview of important decisions. We needed to know when certain key decisions were made, which have an influence on the running of the ISP, continues Christiaan Loef, another member of the ISP. The students sifted through the massive pile of archives of previous years' minutes in order to get a clearer vision on the panel. Besides this, they created a more formalised structure on how they run meetings, write up minutes, and make commitments for action. A newsletter was also created in order to regularly inform and involve the MSc population
Another important internal change came about this year with the development of a new position within the ISP. Loef joined the new group in January as the first Dutch MSc student to sit on the panel, providing a bridge between the ISP and the Dutch student council. Loef: The biggest challenge has been to stimulate awareness among the Dutch students that the ISP even exists, and that communication between the two groups is important. They have been very supportive, but it's been a long process. Loef will also look at the statutes for Dutch students and translate the relevant parts for international students. International students don't even know what their rights are, he explains
The panel also underwent a major external transformation this year as a more direct link was established with the University Executive Board. The Foreign Student Consultation Group (FSCG) was set up, which includes two to three members of the ISP. The FSCG will meet with the Rector or Vice-Rector and the Dean six times per year, with the students chairing the meetings and organising the agenda. The FSCG has given the ISP a very clear focus and is a much more efficient and effective way of communicating with the University, reports ISP vice-president Mark Richmond. Previously, no such forum existed, and the head of the ISP would simply meet regularly with the Dean, and occasionally with the University Board. It's not just one person who runs the ISP anymore, it's become a real group in this new structure, Loef says proudly
Hermans Replaced by a Dean Team
International students prefer high-tech bikes
One of the first challenges facing international students in Wageningen is the all-important bicycle. About 50% of the students who buy my bikes haven't had much experience riding one, says Henk Hommelberg, one of the second-hand suppliers to international students. Walk your bike home and practice behind your flat before attempting to ride on the roads, he advises them. Hommelberg buys old bicycles from different wholesalers and municipalities, then fixes them up to sell to the new students. International students always want lots of gears and brakes on the handlebars, while Dutch students prefer the simple bikes with the brakes which work by pedalling backwards. I tell them that these more complicated bikes with all sorts of wires will present more problems, but they insist on this higher technology. Hommelberg will exchange bicycles if students encounter a major problem. And I'll fix a flat tyre once, but then tell them they have to do it themselves the next time, adding with a wink, Of course, when they keep coming back, I can't turn them away can I?
Asked whether many students return because of stolen bicycles, he becomes serious. That happens a lot. Last year, a woman from Suriname came back three times to replace stolen bikes. Brightening up again he continues, I used to sell locks with the bikes, but then students would come back and say I sold them a bad lock. Laughing, he adds, They have to buy their own locks now - too many problems with that.
Hommelberg started selling second-hand bicycles when he retired, so that he could finance his real passion, carrier pigeons. You'd be surprised how expensive it is to get them transported all the way to Spain, and then released to fly back home. Having worked overseas for 18 years in the petroleum industry, the international students have a special place in his heart. I love asking a student where in Nigeria, for example, they come from - they always stop dead in their tracks at that.
What offends in one culture may be perfectly normal in another
In my country, we only ride bikes when we are children.
I was shocked to be invited out for dinner in Holland, and I had to pay for my meal.
These were some of the many reactions shared by the new group of MSc students participating in the Intercultural Communications Workshop last week. For a period of three days, they discussed the ways of the Dutch, exchanging views on cultural differences and learning how to cope with them while so far from home. Dealing with all the differences that you encounter living in a new culture can be exhausting. This is normal, reassures Nannie Streefkerk, from the International Training Centre for Cross-Cultural Management. She offers the following advice: When you're feeling low, spoil yourself, plan something special at a time when you know you will especially be feeling lonely. Rent a car with a group of friends and go to Paris for the weekend. But if it gets really bad, go to the Dean's office and ask for help.
In another workshop, cross-cultural communication trainer Toni Kofi showed how what is offensive to one culture may be perfectly normal to another. Take the question of making eye contact, for example. In Holland, if you don't make eye contact, people wonder what you are hiding and it is considered to be offensive. But in Africa, if you look people in the eye, they will think that you are challenging them and being disrespectful
Many students commented on how strange they felt when confronted by things like having to make appointments to socialise or seeing couples kiss in public. When you feel strange in a new place, it's because you're looking at it through the eyes of your own culture. Kofi warns that students should make sure they deal with the strangenesses and not hold them inside. The moment you think, he is very rude, I don't like that, then it becomes an unconscious reaction to the person which may eventually lead to irritation. Living in a diverse culture such as in Wageningen, provides an opportunity to educate each other on the differences in meaning for your culture. Through this experience, you will also come to appreciate your own culture more than ever before.
Dutch student organizations
The range of Dutch student associations on offer in Wageningen is very diverse. Students following the same study programme organize their own groups, as do students who share the same Christian beliefs. There are even separate organisations for students who have grown up in a certain part of the Netherlands, for example the northern province Friesland
There are four big Dutch student societies where all students are welcome. They have their own building in which dinner is served every weekday for everybody who wants a cheap meal. If you want to you join their other activities, you have to become a member of the society. For KSV Franciscus, Ceres en SSR this is only possible at the beginning of a new academic year and you have to follow their introduction period in which you have to carry out a number of assignments and in which parties are organized. Unitas is a society for students and other young people living in Wageningen, and you can become a member of this society at any point during the year without following an introductory period. Non-members can also go the discos held every Thursday and Saturday night at low cost
Each student apartment block has a pub with cheap drinks. These pubs are open if there are volunteers available to serve. People who live in a student flat can also organize a party for themselves and their friends in these pubs
For people who play an instrument or like to sing, the biggest student music association is the Wageningen Student Choir and Orchestra Association (Dutch abbreviation: WSKOV). They perform twice a year in the auditorium of the University (Aula)
The Wageningen student organisation (Dutch abbreviation: WSO) is there to look after the interests of all students in Wageningen. They organised protests against high rent charged for student accommodation and they lead an ongoing discussion about how the university deals with students. They also have their own shop in which students can buy a wide range of items at reduced prices, from pencils to computers and from study books to passport photographs. (MS)
PhD students initiating their support network
International PhD students are not a cohesive or organised group and consequently lose out on some of the opportunities offered in Wageningen. A guide with a clear set of standards is needed, to inform PhD students of what they can expect in terms of facilities, communication channels, and relevant institutional information upon arrival here. A forum enabling greater exchanges on PhD research is also needed, including both Dutch and international PhD students. These were some of the recommendations sent to the WAU's administration, the Graduate Schools, the Dean's Office for International Students and PhD students. The recommendations came from the second meeting of fourteen international PhD students who are looking for ways to create a PhD support network
Julia Wright, one of the group, is amazed by the variety of comments coming from the meetings. Every student has a different story. But the common thread through them all is the lack of communication existing between the University and international PhD students. Trying to reach Wageningen's PhD students in the first place is proving to be a challenge. There does not seem to be a list in the University with the numbers, locations or names of all PhD students, whether international or Dutch, Wright continues
Another surprise was that postgraduate schools in the University do not always liaise with the Dean's Office, which has a confidential but incomplete list of international PhD students at the WAU. All graduate schools at the WAU have a Dutch student PhD representative on their Board, but they often do not communicate important developments to international students unless specifically asked. The ISP has also concluded that it is unable to meet the variety of needs of PhD students on top of those of MSc and exchange students
Providing orientation for international PhD students is more complicated than for MSc students because they arrive at different times and their stays also vary in length. Alenka Verbole, now at the end of her PhD, has been intimately involved in the developments in the international student community since coming to the WAU to do a MSc in 1991: There is a big difference between doing a MSc and a PhD in Wageningen. MSc students at least have daily encounters with other international students in their classes and departments. Also, they have institutional support from special Programme Directors, who can help them when they have problems. If you're not socially active, you can become completely isolated as a PhD student. Even when they are socially active, many PhD students prefer the more mature crowd of the International Club
Khalid Shah, who holds one of the two seats designated to PhD students on the ISOW board, comments on the low level of participation of PhD students. Up until now, the two seats have been held by PhD students who got involved while doing an MSc. Running the ISOW is a lot of work, and PhD students tend to come for a shorter time and need to work very hard to get their research done on time. There will be a PhD student meeting on Wednesday 2nd September at 21.00 in the Loburg Cafe, opposite the cinema in the Molenstraat
New variation on old MSc theme
This week marks the introduction of a new MSc programme at the WAU, which is unusual for a number of reasons. The European MSc in Food Studies combines food science, technology, engineering and business management. This is the result of a coordinated effort between universities in five countries together with six companies working in the food industry. The 18-month programme is the first of its kind involving such a widespread cooperative effort which brings academics and business together. Thirteen students will follow intensive two-month courses taught at five European universities: in Wageningen, Ireland, England, France and Sweden. Wageningen University course director Henk van den Broek had hoped for up to twenty students, but thinks that the number is lower due to the current high demand for food scientists and marketers, which is sweeping potential students up into jobs immediately after their first degree. This MSc course will be offered every two years
ISOW: Home Away from Home
Three years ago, when students Khalid Shah and Roberto la Rovere started their MSc studies, they found that international students needed to create their own space to support one another in the short time they are away from home. There has been an International Club in Wageningen for 40 years, but although it was originally set up by students, it has grown to accommodate the whole international community here. The International Club is a great place to dance on the weekend, but we wanted an independent student organisation which was also open during the week, recalls Shah. Their motivation was threefold: to create a meeting place for international students, to offer a separate prayer room for Muslim students, and to provide entertainment and free social activities. In its first two years, the ISOW has organised social activities such as free movie nights, World Cup viewing on the big-screen and Greek dancing, as well as a network which organised a discussion series on a variety of extension and development issues