Wageningen is one of the most international universities in the Netherlands with nearly a quarter of its students coming from other countries. But does that make it an international community? It does not always seem that way to foreign students. Cultural differences and practical obstacles leave them leading separate lives.
Relations between Dutch and international students (and staff) were the theme of the first One World Week, held from 14 to 16 May on the Wageningen campus. The aim was to bring the two groups closer together. This is necessary because currently Dutch and foreign students often mix like oil and water - i.e. not at all.
'Many first-years don't realize how many foreign students there actually are', says Soline de Jong of the international student society IxESN, which was also involved in the event. 'They certainly don't meet them at lectures.' As a result, says De Jong, students acquire a circle of exclusively Dutch friends in the Bachelor's phase. Their social life revolves around Dutch clubs and societies. By the time they start to meet international students in the Master's phase, they often have little room for new friends. That is how international students see things too: the Dutch are affable and obliging but it is much more difficult to become real friends with them. Carmen Vazquez Martin from Spain has also noticed this: 'Dutch students often form cliques. Usually they all did their Bachelor's together in Wageningen and that makes it difficult for an outsider to join them.'
The other international student society, ISOW, is also aware that it is much more difficult to foster a sense of community than you might expect at an international university like Wageningen. Committee member Christine says that it is difficult to get Dutch students to join in with the various activities even though international students would actually like more contact with the Dutch. 'The only exception is the salsa lessons - they are popular with the Dutch.'
The rigid social structure is not the only thing preventing more contact; another problem is language. English became the official working language of Wageningen UR in 2008, but however much effort the university puts into producing policy documents and teaching materials in English, there is still a language barrier in everyday life.
Soline says the Dutch can be quite rude, for instance, when it comes to talking in Dutch: 'If a foreign flatmate comes into the kitchen, they will just carry on talking in Dutch. Often they don't even realize, but it can make foreign students feel excluded.'
Of course, conversing in your native language is a lot easier: if Dutch is your mother tongue it is not easy to use English to have a natter in the pub, crack jokes based on wordplay or discuss Dutch political developments. And foreign students are not exactly eager to learn Dutch either. That does not help matters, says Master's student Perrine from Belgium. 'I can understand that foreign students are not keen on mastering Dutch completely but they ought at least to learn how to pronounce certain words correctly. Haarweg, Hoogvliet or straat for instance.'
Initially, Marta (from Spain) did not particularly feel a need to integrate, but now she has decided to stay in the Netherlands and is learning Dutch. 'I notice that Dutch people really appreciate this, even if you just know a few simple expressions in Dutch.'
The language is a barrier in the major student societies as well. The working language for them is Dutch and that is not going to change. 'Our traditions go back 135 years and they are closely intertwined with our language', says Coen Teeuw of Ceres, explaining his position. 'It would be pretty radical if we were to overturn all that.' Foreign students are allowed to join Ceres but the use of Dutch is not up for discussion. 'We enjoy doing things with international students but we don't want this to mean Ceres loses its identity. We do organize open activities where everyone is welcome. For example, we have a salsa workshop and a talk during One World Week.'
Like Ceres, SSR-W also wants to keep the Dutch language. 'It would be a barrier for Dutch students if they couldn't join in conversations at the table or in the pub', says Auke Loonen. And she does not think foreign students are really interested in joining the society. 'Many international students just come for a Master's degree or an Erasmus exchange; they aren't potential long-term members.'
It seems foreign students attach less importance to student societies. Their priority is to graduate in good time, in part because it is very expensive for them to study abroad. But the will is there, notes Christine from the international student society ISOW. 'African and Asian students join in our activities at first but drop off after a couple of months, when they feel the pressure of their degree work.'
However, foreign students are curious to learn more about Dutch culture. They register en masse for tourist trips in the weekend. Students from outside Europe enjoy excursions to cities and sights like the Keukenhof tulips, says Soline. 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and they would really like to see all of Europe.' But these excursions are not at all what Dutch students want. They prefer to relax at the weekend or visit their parents.
Rude and direct
A good way of getting to know students from other countries is to share a house or corridor. Then you will see them every day, which is a good basis for close friendships. But there are not many international corridors or houses. Many Dutch students find it difficult to have to talk in English at the dinner table and they prefer to watch Dutch TV programmes. Or they do not know any suitable candidates. 'I live in Dutch accommodation on the Haarweg and we are allowed to choose our own housemates', says Bachelor's student Lucia. 'We don't exclude foreign students but we usually get candidates by word of mouth, and that means we end up with Dutch acquaintances.'
Even if students do share a house or corridor, that does not necessarily mean they will develop close relationships. Cultural differences can easily throw a spanner in the works. For instance, the Spanish habit of eating later in the evening does not always combine well with the Dutch tradition of sitting down to dinner at the end of the afternoon, as Marta Agujetas from Spain discovered. 'I would have a much closer bond with my Haarweg housemates if we ate together', she thinks. 'But I find eating between six and seven too early. I do my best occasionally but I prefer to eat between eight and nine so that I can get everything done before then. That's just the way I am.'
And finally, foreigners sometimes find it hard to appreciate Dutch ways, which can seem rude and direct. Bachelor's student Mette Kienhorst often hears that foreign students are critical of the Dutch way of life. 'They prefer to keep their distance. Personally, I like having international friends. I am keen to learn from their different world views and the way they respond to situations.'
So is it all bad news? No. There are definitely signs of improvement in places, signs of increasing harmony between Dutch and foreign students. Idealis is one organization that has seen this. 'Fifteen years ago there was a lot of discussion about the maximum number of foreign students on Dutch corridors', recalls spokesman Jan Harkema. 'Now we get the reverse discussion: students wondering why foreign students have to be housed separately.' That is why Idealis plans offering Dutch and foreign students the same choices in a couple of years' time. 'The students are ready for this, they complain much less and there are fewer prejudices.'
IxESN also has good news. The society links up new foreign students with Dutch students via a so-called buddy programme. That has been functioning perfectly as of this year, says Soline. During the winter AID, Dutch buddy couples looked after groups of new Master's students. 'That introductory period is important for getting to know people; it's when you make your first friends. We are currently keeping these groups together by organizing an activity every month. And that works. The groups are much closer than in previous years.'
So students do want to integrate and they are curious about each other. Which means you need to find ways of breaking down those everyday barriers. That conclusion is shared by Astrid van den Heuvel, responsible for internationalization within the university. 'Students increasingly choose intercultural modules. They have the will and the interest but sometimes lack the opportunity.' Van den Heuvel was one of the people behind the One World Week, a week full of activities and talks aimed at bringing together staff and students of different nationalities. 'Integration is about taking action', says Van den Heuvel. 'That is why we put effort and money in One World Week, so that people could actually meet each other.' She is not bothered by the fact that some activities attracted less interest. 'It is a question of trial and error; we will simply learn from these results.'
Nicolette Meerstadt and Ines Muňoz Sanchez
Quality needs diversity
As of January, Wageningen UR has had official 'Guidelines for intercultural collaboration', stating that all students and staff are expected to have an international orientation. The document contains four guiding principles for effective intercultural collaboration.
Empathy: Being open to the points of view and feelings of others. Making sure that other people soon feel welcome.
Respect: Speaking a shared language, providing room for forming opinions and meeting the needs of other people. For example, explain about your own background, talk Dutch slowly and ask questions if something is unclear.
Authenticity: ‘Inclusion' is the norm. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their origin, religion or political views. Talk to others about who they are and what they have to offer. Then everyone will feel included. Give consideration to everyone's talents and then they will grow.
Listen: Behaviour can have different meanings in different cultures. Be open to new perspectives ('be mindful'). Your product will be of a higher quality if you allow for cultural differences from the start.