Wetenschap - 20 december 2001

Children of PhD students still want to go home after 4 years here

Children of PhD students still want to go home after 4 years here

'Wageningen is a safe place to live'

Some international PhD students stay in Wageningen for as long as four years. Their partners and children usually accompany them. The children attend school but partners have to entertain themselves as the government does not permit them to work. Language can form a barrier. "It's often the start of a very international learning experience," says one of them.

Gilma Chitarra, PhD student in the Food Hygiene and Microbiology Group came to Wageningen five years ago from Brazil. Her husband Luiz Chitarra was starting his PhD at Plant Research International,and she and their nine-year-old twins came along. "It was a good opportunity for an international experience for the whole family." Soon afterwards she also applied for and was awarded a PhD scholarship. "The Dutch government doesn't allow partners to work, but it's not much fun with nothing to do. So when the chance came to do a PhD, I seized the opportunity.

Brazilian PhD student Ana Viveiros arrived in October 1997 with her husband Ricardo Fonseca and their three children aged 2, 8 and 10. Viveiros was teaching at Lavras University in Brazil when the opportunity came up to go abroad for a PhD. "My husband encouraged me to go, although I could have done one in Brazil. I started working on my English because I had to take an exam to get a scholarship, but my husband kept putting this off. When we finally left two years later he still had no English."

Language has formed a stumbling block during their stay. "It is difficult for him to make friends here because he can't understand much. He can't read notices at our son's school or go to the doctor on his own. What happens is that I do everything outside the house and he takes care of everything at home."

Warm welcome

Upon arrival both families already had a place to live. Chitarra remembers the warm welcome. "Ruud van de Bilt from Plant Research International and some Brazilians had arranged a Christmas tree, a full refrigerator and cups for example." Viveiros recalls her disappointment when she found out that their flat badly needed a lick of paint, and had no floor covering or lamps. "In Brazil you hire someone to fix these things, here we had to manage ourselves. We stayed with friends for the first few days until we'd fixed the living room and bedrooms. But at least we had a house."

Viveiros' youngest son went to the creche twice a week. "The first six months he did nothing but cry because he could not make himself understood. His teachers asked me for a list of essential words in Portuguese. If they hadn't shown so much patience I would surely have given up. Now he's totally bilingual. My daughter became fluent in Dutch very quickly, whereas my eldest son never saw much use in learning a language he'll never use in Brazil."

Viveiros and Chitarra do not speak Dutch. Viveiros: "I came to Wageningen because I heard that all programmes were in English. Still we receive e-mails and other information in Dutch. Chitarra finds this frustrating too. "It's the start of an international learning experience. Happily I learned to open my mouth during coffee breaks and ask what people are talking about when the conversation is in Dutch."

Going home

Viveiros will return to Brazil in January after she has defended her thesis on semen collection and preservation and African catfish. She and her family are looking forward to living in their own house again, as well as familiar food, family, friends and the good weather. "I really miss social contacts outside family and work. I don't know any of the other people living in the flats here." Chitarra's husband is already back in Brazil, and works at the IMBRAPA Institute. She will return at the end of next year with the children. "Wageningen is a safe place. The longer you stay the harder it gets to go back. But we still want to go home, our family is in Brazil and that's what counts most."

New arrival

Andr? Santos, PhD student in Environmental Technology, is just at the beginning of his stay in Wageningen. He has already been waiting for four months for his wife and 2-year-old son to arrive. "My government scholarship became available before their visa was ready, so I came on my own. The Dean's office explained that the university cannot bear responsibility for my family, but when you arrive here you know nothing and are confronted with strange rules. I got the most help from Brazilians already here." With some luck he will get a house in April. "I'm upset because I cannot organise my life here. But the main problem is that I don't know exactly when my family will arrive."

Yvonne de Hilster

Re:ageer