Student - June 12, 2013

Nothing quite as varied as student life

International students have already done one degree in their home country. What is student life like for the average Chinese, German, Greek, Indonesian, Ethiopian or Mexican student? And what do they do to relax here?
text: Nicolette Meerstadt, Rob Ramaker and Jeroen Bok

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There is a Dutch saying that your student days are the best days of your life. It is a time you can enjoy, spread your wings and discover who you are - without being weighed down by too many responsibilities. Most Dutch students leave the parental home to live on their own, they join a society and pay regular visits to the pub. They spare no expense either: they don't mind taking out a loan and spend more than five years studying.
International students who end up in Wageningen usually have different expectations. Many of them have worked for a while, some have a family. All are here for a shorter period - they only do a two-year Master's. A survey in 2012 showed that international students spend much more time studying than Dutch students. They go out just as often as Dutch students but do different things.
Most international students have already finished one degree in their home country. What was student life like there? How does that differ from the typical Dutch student life? What is the ideal way to relax back home? We asked twenty students from six countries: the five most common countries of origin plus Mexico, the Latin American country with the most Wageningen students. The result is an impressionistic sketch of different lifestyles. On street food, separate dorms and far-right debating societies.

The Chinese - a new hobby
'If you're going to Holland you'd better learn how to drink,' said a Dutch friend to a Chinese student when she told him about her university plans. She would have to expect wild drinking parties. That is very different to what Chinese students do in their weekends: sing in karaoke bars with their friends.
Here in Wageningen, they usually hold their parties at home. They meet up in someone's room on a weekday evening, eat together and drink a bit, for instance to lubricate the throat for some karaoke.
Sometimes they just spend their evenings studying. For Chinese students in the Netherlands have to work hard. They find it relatively difficult to read English and they are under a lot of pressure.
In China, students often share a room with three to seven other people. That is why they usually go out to a bar to party. They also almost always eat out as it is very affordable there, unlike the Netherlands. This explains why nearly all female Chinese students in Wageningen take up a new hobby: cooking.
 
The Germans - not a culture shock
German students who come to the Netherlands don't exactly get a culture shock. Student life is much the same. The students do find they stick together after the language course. In Germany, they would be more likely to hang out with similar kinds of people but here you share the experience of being abroad. And when you go out, you often end up in the International Club (an international society that puts on themed parties on Fridays and Saturdays in a farm building on the Marijkeweg). They are often several years older than the Dutch students. 'You really notice that,' says Johanne, who is 23. 'If you're 21, you're much more mature than a 17-year-old.' She thinks German students are also keener to achieve a good average grade. They know this matters when they are looking for a job back home. What is more, they have all made a deliberate choice to study abroad.
They find the many societies a typical feature of Dutch student life. 'Nearly everyone is a member of something,' remarks Johanne. And it is quite normal to have a 'committee year', not just because it looks good on your CV but also because you enjoy it.
It is also much more common in the Netherlands to join a social society such as Ceres. Members of German debating societies are controversial weirdos: people with far-right sympathies who 'sit in old houses drinking beer'.
They like life in Wageningen: you feel less like a number. Not only is Wageningen itself very small, the university is also personal and informal. You can just e-mail a professor and often they even know your name.

The Greeks - missing the evening sun
Greek students have high expectations of their student life in Wageningen: studying at a famous university with lots of international students. Greeks also see their time at university as the best days of their life: few responsibilities and frequent parties.
Back home, they usually party during the week - and are back at lectures at eight thirty the next morning. In Wageningen, they usually go out at the weekend to parties organized by other international students or to a cafe in the centre. And after three am, the party continues in the International Club, although nobody likes it much - but there's nothing better.
They find the international character a striking aspect of Wageningen life: meeting a wide range of people and tasting dishes from many different countries.
The biggest downside as far as the Greeks are concerned is the not very sunny Dutch weather. They do miss home when once again they get blown about and rained on during their daily bike ride to university. They would prefer to spend more time outdoors. In Greece, going to the beach with friends and eating there in the evening sun is a normal day.

The Indonesians - sharing a meal together
At some universities Indonesian students live on campus for their first year, with strict rules. Men and women are segregated. You have no gadgets apart from a phone and it's off to the dorm at nine o'clock. They flee campus after the first year. Going out is not part of Indonesian culture. If you say 'party' to an Indonesian, they immediately think of a wedding or birthday party. They prefer to meet up to share a meal and chat. That's also a way of studying, i.e. talking about the course work, asking questions and discussing issues.
In Wageningen they like to cook together, but that's not necessary back home. 'You can get hot food anywhere, anytime, even at night,' explains Titis. 'And it's cheap. So if you're tired after lectures, you don't have to cook.'
The Indonesian student society PPI plays an important role in their life in Wageningen. PPI has bases in cities all over the world; they even have their own radio service via the Internet. They also organize a conference for all European PPIers where they talk about their research. They exchange ideas to help their country advance. The students say this desire to help their country is the main reason why Indonesians study so hard.

The Ethiopians - it is important to graduate
Student life in Ethiopia takes place on campus as that is where 95 per cent of the students live. You sleep in dormitories and eat in the canteen. The students form a unit, a family.
There is no question of going out, dancing or drinking alcohol. Which is not surprising because being a student in Ethiopia is a serious business. Most students start work after their Bachelor's as a degree is very expensive. High fliers can request a grant. Others start a Master's after they have saved up for a few years or with the support of their parents. It is important to graduate and they feel a real sense of responsibility to their family.
Another factor that affects student life is the custom of marrying young, in your early twenties. But that seems to be changing slowly: more and more Ethiopians are choosing between early marriage and a second degree.
In Wageningen, they like to get together at the weekends. That means a tourist trip, wandering around the town together or going to the sports centre. Not necessarily to play a sport themselves: watching football is also fun.
They often stay in on weekday evenings. Being alone takes some getting used to but some find it more difficult than others. 'Here I always have access to the Internet, a real luxury,' says Hadush, who lives on the Bornsesteeg. 'I use social media to keep in touch and stay up to date with the latest news.' As far as eating is concerned, the students can't get used to Dutch food. Most eat Chinese food for lunch and cook their own food in the evenings. Two hot meals a day is standard practice.

The Mexicans - regrets on Friday morning
'I was a bit afraid before I came here,' says Elizabeth, who is 28. 'I thought Holland was very liberal and all drugs were allowed.' In practice, Wageningen turned out to be very small. It can even be difficult to really let your hair down when you go out because you always meet the same people, in lectures, in the supermarket and in the pub. Parties in Mexico begin around nine o'clock, after it gets dark. They are often spontaneous. You're with a group of friends drinking in someone's home or in a karaoke bar. There is always dancing later on. At around two o'clock you eat some street food and it's time to go to bed. You get just enough sleep to manage lectures the next day. In Wageningen, parties only start at one am and the craziest parties are always on a Thursday. 'You end up regretting it when you have lectures early the next day,' says Master's student Jorge.
In Mexico, they like to hang out in shopping malls and after lectures they go together to buy sweets or ice cream. It is also not unusual to go to the cinema once a week. They hardly have any sport clubs, although there are sports facilities on campus.
The Mexican students do like to plays sports in Wageningen, to relax and forget their work for a while. But they find cycling a major challenge. 'It's amazing how good the Dutch are at cycling, even when they are drunk and have someone on the back.'

Guest-editor Lauro-Jo Russel, Great-Brittain
'When I first started university - at 18 - I did go to nightclubs more. Now, when I'm at home I tend to go to dinner at people's houses rather than partying. I think I'm looking for a slower pace of life!
I think it is important for people to realise that not all young people spend their free time in the same way and some international students are uncomfortable with the Dutch style of partying. For some people it might be more enjoyable to share a meal together or to just hang out at someone's house rather than to go out to a party at one of the student organizations.'

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