News - April 11, 2012

In the deep end

Studying is hard work. And the pressure goes up a notch for international students in a strange country, far from their family and friends. 'I lay awake at night and couldn't concentrate during the day. I just couldn't cope anymore.'

Nhan Tran Van: ‘The pressure was so high that I lay awake at night for hours.’
Every year about 700 international students arrive in Wageningen for a Bachelor's or a Master's degree programme. They are enthusiastic and excited about their venture abroad and are made very welcome by the university. But after the first flush of introduction days comes the cold shower: stress related to their studies, homesickness and the Dutch climate. In some cases, these stresses lead to serious problems and a small minority get depressed and feel like throwing in the towel.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the degree programme itself, say the students. 'The approach is so different to what I was used to in Vietnam', says Nhan Tran Van (32), who came to Wageningen in 2010 to do an MSc in Animal Sciences. 'In Vietnam you study the literature and then you take your exam. Here you go into the material at much greater depth. You are expected to think about the 'how's and the 'why's of it.'
The Wageningen education system can indeed cause considerable stress for international students, admits Jeroen Ouburg, International Students team leader at the Student Service Centre. Ouburg regularly meets overseas students who find it hard to adapt to their new university. He thinks it is because they are not used to the interactive teaching style used at Wageningen, and because the timespan of the modules is different. 'The periods here are relatively short, so students have to hit the road running. That makes more demands on them.'
For 31-year-old Nadine Tchetkoua Wacka, group work presented quite a challenge. 'In Cameroon, where I come from, it is not polite to air your opinions in public. And suddenly now, that was exactly what was expected of Master's students of Environmental Technology. 'Because you are being assessed on it, you think twice before you open your mouth. I was always wondering, "Should I say something?"
It is not just the classes that make their studies arduous; many foreign students are also under pressure from family, or from the sponsor funding their studies. They feel they must achieve great things, says Ouburg. 'Parents have often saved for years to enable the child to study abroad, which gives the students the feeling that they absolutely must not fail.' Nadine confirms this. 'My parents are paying for my degree course and my rent. They made huge sacrifices in order for me to study at Wageningen. So I worked incredibly hard.' Everything revolved around Nadine's studies. She studied every day, both through the week and at weekends. 'I didn't want just to pass my courses; I wanted high grades. If I was invited out I always said, "Sorry, I am too busy".'
For Nhan too, his degree certificate was the prime goal. He refused to return to Vietnam without a degree. 'Everyone would have laughed at me. The pressure was so high that I lay awake at night. Then I was too tired to concentrate during the day.'
Snow, wind and frost
Most foreign students come from warmer climes than the Netherlands, and the chilly climate gets them down. Nhan: 'It is difficult to make contact with other students if it is raining or cold. People want to get home as quickly as possible. You don't get more than a "Hi, how are you?" out of them.' Nhan had very little contact with his housemates at the start. They occasionally had a chat in the kitchen as they cooked, but it did not go beyond that. 'I spent the evenings alone in my room.'

As for Nadine (photo left) , the bitterly cold weather got her down. 'I hated it. The days were so short. When I left for the university in the morning, it was dark, and when I went home again, it was dark too. It depressed me. I didn't dare go out on the streets when it was icy, because I was scared of falling over.' She preferred to stay at home. But alone in their rooms, the students just got homesick.
Nhan lived with his parents in Vietnam and saw them every day. He had never been away from home for more than a month. 'I still speak to them regularly now, but I couldn't tell them what I was struggling with. They were already so worried about me. And also, they do not have an academic background so they wouldn't understand.'
Nadine had other concerns. Her father became seriously ill in October 2010. 'I couldn't stop thinking about him and I couldn't concentrate on my studies anymore.' She wanted to fly back to be with her father, but her mother advised against it. 'She said I had better stay here because otherwise I would miss two weeks of lectures.' Against her will, Nadine stayed in Wageningen.
Nhan considered returning to Vietnam for good. He only managed to pass one of the three courses he took during his first period. When he faced two very tough courses in his second period as well, it was too much for him. 'I had already written an email to my sponsor saying I wanted to stop. I just couldn't cope anymore.' But he ­hesitated before sending it. 'I thought: hundreds of international students have been through this before me. If they could do it, why wouldn't I be able to?' So the email was deleted.
Not all international students find it hard to settle in. Some can cope with changes better than others. Ouburg: 'Some students just accept that they are having a difficult time, and that making the switch takes time.'
Take for instance Satya Sriram Valluri (24) from India (phoro right), who is in the second year of the MSc in Food Technology. 'It felt very strange to come to the Netherlands. I had never been abroad and Dutch culture is so different.' But Satya de­cided that this environment was his home now. 'You don't often get the chance to study abroad.'  What is more, he knew that if he got his degree, it would be easier for him to make a career in India. This does not mean that Satya did not have some difficult moments. He did not pass his first courses, for example ('I was in shock; I had never failed anything before!'), and he often felt lonely at first. 'During the AID I met all sorts of nice people and I was busy all the time. That changed when lectures began, because every­one went their own way. Then I started to feel homesick.'
Satya's extravert personality pulled him through. 'I invited people to eat with me or to have a drink, I joined in ISOW and IxESN activities and I did sports at the Bongerd. I also wrote articles for the newsletter of a student society. That way I kept loneliness at bay.'
Other people need rather more support. And the university has plenty of provision for that. Student counsellors help with planning your studies, and there are deans and student psychologists who can help if you have personal problems. And if you are missing the 'family feeling' there are host families and buddy programmes you can sign up for. But students do need to take the initiative themselves to seek help. And for some, that is a big step.
Student psychologist
Nhan and Nadine both took that step eventually. Nhan called on his student counsellor, who advised him on the best choice of courses for him. He postponed his resits for the time being. 'I needed to focus on the here and how', says Nhan. 'I could do those resits in the summer as well.' His new attitude to his work bore fruit. In the third period, he had two courses and passed them both. 'That gave me confidence that I would manage it.'
Nadine's student counsellor referred her to the student psychologist. She helped Nadine to realize that she had set herself far too high standards and that her mind needed some rest as well. 'She pointed out things I had never given any thought to. For example, she urged me to eat better. I was only eating bread because I didn't take the time to cook. But if you don't eat well, you can't function properly either.' They agreed that Nadine would invite a friend to eat with her once a week. This helped her to eat well and to build up her social network at the same time.
This gave her the energy she needed. 'It was really nice. It felt great to forget about my studies for a while. And the nice thing was that my studies suddenly started going much better. My head didn't feel so full anymore and I could concentrate much better.'
The success rate among international students is not monitored centrally, but recent research shows that most international students manage to complete their degree courses on time in spite of all the problems. Among the non-western students, a good 80 percent even manage to get their Master's within two years. 'Of course external pressures play a role in their graduating on schedule', says Ouburg. 'But students themselves realize that they will benefit a lot by completing their degree. Wageningen has a good reputation, so when they go home they are guaranteed a good job and a rosy future for themselves and their families. So they are highly motivated to make it.'
Nhan, Nadine and Satya have got used to Dutch life by now. So much so, in fact, that they would rather like to stay longer. Nhan is considering doing another degree and once she has handed in her MSc thesis, Nadine plans to look for a PhD position. Meanwhile, Satya nowadays makes appointments with his parents to meet on Skype. 'They thought that was really wierd. In India you just call, with­out making an appointment. They are a bit afraid that I am becoming too Dutch!'
Buddy Families
There are several services at the university that do their best to help international students to make themselves at home fast: the Student Service Centre, student counsellors, study associations and student societies such as IxESN and ISOW. They provide information about what students can expect, about the opportunities that are available, and also about the need to take the initiative themselves.
In December, IxESN received 25,000 euros from the Wageningen Alumni Fund for its buddy programme, as a prize for the 'best idea for promoting intercultural student life'. In the buddy programme, a group of international students is linked up with a couple of Dutch students to form a 'buddy family' which continues to get together after the introduction week. The Dutch ­students help the inter­national students with all kinds of practical matters, and the family also goes to parties and out for meals together. The mutual contact helps the international students to feel at home faster. It also promotes inte­gration between Dutch and international students.