Science - November 13, 2008

ICE SKATING ON THE DAY OF THE INTERNATIONAL STUDENT

‘It was quite nice. It is important to meet other international students. And it is also a way of networking’, says Andrew Muhame from Uganda, who is doing the Master’s in Food Quality Management. He was one of over one hundred WUR international students attending the Day of the International Student on Saturday 8 November at the World Forum in The Hague.

Many students jumped on stage to dance with the Senegalese dance and percussion group on the Day of the International Student.
About two thousand international students from all over Holland attended the day, run by Nuffic, the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education. Andrew Muhame notes that next year Wageningen University should organize buses, as Van Hall Larenstein does. This time, some university students got on the VHL bus, causing others to have to make their own way to The Hague.

Upon entering the World Forum, the students received orange shirts, and the main hall was decorated orange too. The day was opened by Dutch minister of Education, Culture and Science, Mr Ronald Plasterk. ‘The minister told us to see our possibilities and potential’, says Andrew. Plasterk also referred to his own stay in London as a fourth year biology student. He remembered one rainy Sunday afternoon there, when he felt quite lonely. ‘That afternoon I felt a bit sorry for myself, but also strong: I am here, I can do it. Maybe I learned more from that experience than from all the lessons at King's College’, Plasterk reminisced.

After the official bit, the enthusiasm of a Senegalese dance and percussion troupe created a party mood and many students jumped on stage to dance with the performers. Afternoon activities included ice skating, a salsa workshop, jazz dancing and a quiz with ‘questions like how many dikes Holland has and whether Dutch eat potatoes with mayonnaise or tomato sauce. You could win a laptop or an iPod.’ Unfortunately Andrew did not win the quiz, but he did win two tickets for a Dion Warwick concert, in a lottery.

Students could participate in workshops, for example about how to find a job in the Netherlands. And there were lots of opportunities to meet other students, during the dinner and evening party as well. ‘Everyone was wearing a name tag with the university they attend and their country of origin printed on it. That really helped to interact’, thinks Andrew. He met some compatriots who are studying at the University Twente in Enschede. But he was shocked to find out that people did not know Wageningen. ‘They asked us: where is Wageningen? We felt like we should hide our badges’, he laughs.

ADVICE TO INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS
In a lecture on ‘How to survive the low countries’, Kerstin Schweighöfer of the Foreign Press Association, who has worked in Holland for eighteen years, offers some advice.
To start with, Schweighöfer suggests, ‘Just bear in mind that the Dutch are stranger than you imagined in your wildest dreams!’. Her first piece of advice is to learn Dutch, because people will ‘love you for the effort and it opens doors to Dutch society’. She admits it can be difficult, because the Dutch speak English whenever they get the chance, ‘not just to be helpful, but also to demonstrate how good they are at foreign languages.’
On the stereotype of the permissive Dutch, Schweighöfer says, ‘It is not true that the Dutch are stoned all the time. Tourists are!’ She explains a bit about Dutch pragmatism, with soft drugs officially prohibited but tolerated, and legal abortion contributing to a very low abortion rate.
Schweighöfer also rejects the idea that Dutch woman are emancipated. ‘As soon as a Dutch woman gets a baby – Master’s degree or not – she either goes part time or stops working at all.’ As a result, ‘only six percent of the top positions in big companies are occupied by women. This is the same level as in Botswana or Pakistan.’
But Schweighöfer does confirm some of the clichés. It’s true that the Dutch are big on bikes, and they do go mad during soccer championships. Holland is not a great nation on the culinary front. ‘But there are some highlights: pancakes and cheese. And luckily there is the culinary heritage of the former colonies.’ Schweighöfer recommends trying Surinamese and Indonesian food.
She ends on a serious note about tolerance, and the change in the political climate that followed two political murders a few years ago. ‘The Netherlands became one of the countries with the strictest immigration policies in Europe. As a foreigner you might occasionally feel some hostility.’ But the worst is over, she reassures the students. ‘After all, this is still Holland, a country where you can feel incredibly free.’

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