Organisation - February 28, 2013

A sociable melting pot: so it is possible, Beringhem rocks

A disused retirement home in boring old Bennekom: not the most promising of new housing options for foreign students, at first sight. But they were in for a nice surprise. Beringhem is a hive of activity and a big contrast with the dull social life in the Bornsesteeg residence in Wageningen. What is the secret? We took a peek behind the scenes at both locations. By Linda van der Nat and Nicolette Meerstadt

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'I sometimes wonder if they know what they are letting themselves in for,' says Jeroen Ouburg, team leader at the Student Service Centre, referring to the international students who come to him with requests to move to the Bornsesteeg. Of course, the rent is lower, you get a kitchen of your own and the campus is a stone's throw away. But there is a downside to it too, explains Ouburg. 'Because there are no communal spaces, it is harder for residents at the Bornsesteeg to make contact, and all the more so if you are not used to needing to do so in your own culture.'
At first sight, the former nursing home at Beringhem which was taken over last autumn did not seem like an improvement. Given the distance from the campus and the nightlife of Wageningen, it was assumed that students would want to move elsewhere as soon as they could. But in no time rumours were flying around that the opposite was true. Beringhem is buzzing with communal activities, the many different nationalities mix a lot and almost everyone who is living there wants to stay put: the number of transfer requests is minimal.
Ouburg has an explanation for this: 'The space in Beringhem enabled us to create communal areas. That stimulates students to make contact. As well as that, we deliberately chose to create as diverse a group of students as possible in the first batch to be admitted.'
It would not be easy to repeat the Beringhem formula for success in the Bornsesteeg, because it lacks communal areas. Ouburg does want to see whether a more balanced mix of nationalities could be created in Bornsesteeg next summer. Because it is true that 'you certainly hear stories about students who are lonely.'
Beringhem, Bennekom
Number of students: 160
Rent: about 400 euros per month
Nationalities: mix


Eating together every evening, dropping in on each other without knocking, film nights and wild parties with homebrewed beer. All in all, the residents of the former nursing home Beringhem in Bennekom reckon they have a 'high quality of life'.
The university bought the ex-nursing home in December 2011 to address the shortage of accommodation for international students. The roughly 100 rooms were adapted for use by students and the 34 attached units for PhD researchers. The recreation rooms on each floor were converted into large communal kitchen-diners with metres of kitchen counters, and an island with plenty of stove burners.
The first residents of the former nursing home were none too enthusiastic when they heard they were to be put up in Bennekom. 'I thought, fuck, I won't even be living in Wageningen!' says Ianna Dantas from Brazil. 'The building reminded me of an old prison,' says Gvantsa Khutsishvili from Georgia. Wageningen town centre with all its cosy pubs is quite a bike ride away and although the campus is within easy reach, it still seems a long way after a heavy snowfall. As they say themselves, the international students are not 'experienced cyclists', and the nearest bus stop is fifteen minutes' walk away.
Bu the initial scepticism soon melted away. In spite of the big range of nationalities, the international students at Beringhem feel like one big family. And that is partly because of the shared facilities, thinks Gvantsa. 'The kitchen on the first floor is the central point at Beringhem. After classes, everyone gathers here to cook and eat.' Gvantsa: 'As an international student in the Netherlands you are pretty much thrown back on your own resources. But as soon as you enter the kitchen interaction comes about in a natural way. You come home after classes and you are tired, but you do need to eat.' VHL student Farkhad Rakhmatov from Russia sees the importance of a communal meeting point, too. 'The first time you come into the kitchen you say hello and introduce yourself, then you get chatting and gradually get to know each other better.' And shy residents get invited to join in a meal as well.
The 'Bennekools', as the students are called, have already formed a close community. Friendships have been formed across all the floors, says Ianna. 'I cannot even stay on my own in my room anymore; I want to do things with the others.' The students share both their joys and their woes, they revise together for exams, celebrate carnival and go on city trips. It doesn't matter where you come from, or what your religion or sexual orientation are. 'We are always there for each other,' says Ianna. She mentions a student who put out an emergency call on the Beringhem Facebook page: she was desperate for some dope. Ianna laughs: 'She had what she needed in 15 minutes.'
The former nursing home works like a small village: there is a committee that organizes an international dinner every night, on the ground floor lives a student who cuts her fellow residents' hair for them, and on the third floor lives a guy from Costa Rica who brews his own beer. The people living on the first floor bought second-hand sofas and have a screen so they can hold relaxed film nights on a regular basis. The garden is used as a barbecue venue summer and winter. There are occasional parties, but they have to be registered with the town council at least two weeks in advance after an incident with a gate crasher dressed up as Hitler.
Of course the Bennekools have all the same little conflicts that any student house with common areas faces. 'We have a few notorious non-cleaners here,' says Farkhad. 'Then you get pasta going mouldy in the kitchen. We tried to work out who it is, but we have not succeeded yet.' In Ianna's view, these sorts of irritation are all part of the deal. 'And I like discussing cleaning rosters and household duties together.'
The rents at Beringhem are a little higher than those in the high-rise residences in Wageningen. Farkhad: 'The people who leave here do so because of the rent.' She wouldn't leave Beringhem if you paid her to. She is not the only one. 'I wouldn't want to live in the Bornsesteeg,' says Mexican Luz Verstegui Tena. 'You know what they call it? Mordor.'
Bornsesteeg, Wageningen
Number of students: 640
Rent: about 300 euros
Nationalities: mainly Chinese and African students

Lonely weekends, closed doors and always cooking and eating alone. One common area for the whole building, and that is fully booked for the next two months. The residents of the Bornsesteeg often do not even know who their neighbours are. 'It is just like living in a box,' says one.
The high-rise flat on the Bornsesteeg was designated for foreign students exclusively in 2007. All the rooms have their own kitchens and some share a bathroom. There are no shared kitchens or living rooms. A cleaning company keeps the toilets and bathrooms clean. On the ground floor there is a large meeting room, Number 3. But that is usually only used at weekends.
At first he was pleased he could move from a private room in Ede to Wageningen. Very close to campus and a reasonable rent. But the Bornsesteeg turned out to be a lonely place for Birhane Abebe. 'It took a month before I found out that there were three other Ethiopians living on the same corridor,' he says. 'I just about know them by name and face but we have very little contact.' Everyone on his corridor keeps their room door locked, in any case. 'I never know who is at home, or even who they all are.'
Birhane is the reserved type. His coursemates say it took quite some time before he even dared to look them in the eye if he asked them something. 'I have to have a reason to step over my boundaries,' he explains. 'A communal area could help a lot with that, because you automatically run into each other.'
At the university in Ethiopia it was a very different story. There Birhane shared a room with seven others and they ate together in a big canteen. A sharp contrast with the chilly atmosphere at the Bornsesteeg, where he doesn't even know the others along his corridor. 'Last weekend I saw just one friend between Friday and Monday. I went to the C1000 once and spent the rest of the weekend in my room. Facebooking and Skyping with the folks back home.' He reckons at least half the people in the block live like that, whereas real social contact is a deep human need. 'When I am with friends I can relax and share what's on my mind, and that makes me happy. I miss that now.'
Birhane does not want to shift to a different complex, though. He likes the building, which is relatively new. The lifts work well and it is nice and close to the Forum. 'And I've got some fellow countrymen on the same corridor. Even if I don't talk to them, I like the idea that they are there.'
But it is possible to have a sociable time in the Bornsesteeg. It just takes a bit more organizing. On the third floor they don't let the lack of communal space bother them. 'We eat together in our rooms and watch films together,' says Yue Liu from China. My corridor is great; we know and trust each other. Doors are left open here.' So he has never felt lonely himself, but he is aware that it is an issue in the building. His corridor is the big exception. The key factors are the dominant culture on a corridor and the residents themselves. 'The quiet corridors need a few active people to cheer them up. You can hope for that but you cannot make it happen.' 

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