How internationals become activists abroad

A voice, a movement, a cause

Living abroad can give you a completely new perspective on the world. Many international students react by becoming activists. ‘We don’t have to just watch and wait.’
By Sara Penaguião / Photo
FocusGroningen – Feiko van der Veen

Louis Sandiford never expected to become a spokesperson for disgruntled, housing-vulnerable international students. But when he was confronted with the housing crisis, student exploitation, and poor living conditions at the Suikerlaan, the master student of environment and energy law found himself in the centre of a battle against housing developer Rizoem. ‘Everybody complained, but nobody really did anything’, he recalls. ‘So in the end, I started calling them.’

Sandiford came to Groningen from the UK for his dream program, but the housing crisis and the instability of being an international student provoked Sandiford to make a little noise. ‘I first went to Rizoem because we had problems with the contracts. And again later when the move in date was delayed. But it was not easy to establish a good relationship with them’.


He is one of the many international students who find themselves in the center of activist and political action in Groningen. Leaving their homecountries often gives students a fresh perspective on the world, their home country, and their own principles. Then they enter into the political sphere, joining political parties and activist groups for human and animal rights, both inside and outside the RUG. For these students, being an international means more than just getting the education they signed up for. It also means finding a voice, a cause, and a movement.

Sandiford’s problem-solving attitude meant that he had to confront people when facing adversities. ‘I tried to avoid contentious reactions. I just wanted things to go well. But it’s hard when people are confrontational.’


Sandiford and 248 other students are finally settled into their lives at the Suikerlaan, but the connections and contacts that Sandiford was able to establish along the way are still useful now when other problems arise. ‘The water was cut out the other day, we couldn’t shower in the morning, everyone was frustrated. I emailed Rizoem. It took them two days to basically say, “we didn’t think the water was out long enough to say anything.”’

I’m told I was lucky to find a place to live. But what does luck mean anymore?

Sandiford feels the university has let him and other students do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to fighting for the rights of Suikerlaan students. It makes him wonder. ‘I’m told I was lucky to find a place to live. But what does luck mean anymore? It’s constantly being told that the university is too much of a privilege. And this extends to having somewhere to live. I don’t think this basic right should be called luck.’

Far right

For German international relations student Malin Menzel, coming to Groningen was also a catalyst for political activism. There she was, standing in front of her laptop, watching scenes of a violent protest splash across the screen. A far-right group in Germany had taken to the streets to protest immigration after a man had allegedly been killed by Syrian immigrants. Menzel felt paralyzed with fear. Was history repeating itself? What could she possibly do about it?

‘For so long, I felt helpless about the rise of AfD voters in the last elections in Germany and the latest right-wing extremist demonstrations in East Germany’, she says. But being in Groningen gave her the space she needed to evaluate the political landscape in her homeland and across the rest of Europe. She realized she didn’t have to be helpless. She could be an activist.

‘I couldn’t just complain and not do anything’, she says. She had found a cause: fighting against rising nationalism. But to fight, she first needed to get into the ring. ‘I thought of joining a Dutch political party, but without speaking Dutch that wasn’t doable. Then I found Volt, a Pan-European political party that is against the rise of populist parties in Europe.’

Watch and wait

Volt, which is only two years old, aims to be transnational and pro-Eu. It seemed like the perfect place for a young political activist looking to make a measurable difference. ‘Any member can help shape its policies, and eventually, help shape the impact of EU policies on a local level’, Menzel says.

I found that young people really can make a difference.

Volt claims to be neither left- nor right-wing. Their political values are focused on equal opportunities, justice, dignity, and solidarity. The movement already counts more than fifteen thousand supporters across Europe, with groups in 32 countries and an official political party in ten, including the Netherlands. The goal is to become an official party in every country in Europe. ‘Our first priority is the elections for the European Parliament in 2019. And, once we have enough representation in the European Parliament, acting on a local and national level.’

The whole experience has made her more hopeful and maybe even stronger than before. ‘I found that young people really can make a difference. We don’t have to just watch and wait.’

White men

British Medical student Kimberly Crossley also discovered that one student can do something to change the world. As a first year medical student, she sat in an overcrowded lecture hall listening to experts explaining the future of medicine. As she looked around at her peers, it hit her: ‘We were in an auditorium with more than one hundred students – the majority of them female. But the panel giving the lecture was all middle-aged white men.’

Did that bother anyone else? she wondered. So she asked around. ‘I definitely wasn’t alone’, she says. ‘We are all worried about the same thing, but no one was talking about it.’

She decided to change that – and that’s how the Groningen Feminist Network (GFN) was born. ‘From that moment, a group of medical students started meeting at Het Concerthuis. It wasn’t long before we couldn’t fit there anymore.’

Safe place

Crossley had launched a movement by creating a safe place for students who want to explore feminism. And as more and more students from more and more faculties trickled in, Crossley knew she had been right: people needed a place to talk and learn from each other.

That night changed everything; it brought hope to my activist self

Crossley was a politically conscious person even before moving to Groningen. And while she had been involved in other feminist groups back in England, she had never taken the lead. She recalls the night that her efforts at the university really started to pay off; she remembers it vividly. ‘That night changed everything; it brought hope to my activist self’, she says.

She and a bunch of friends hosted a craft night where everyone painted signs and t-shirts with cheeky feminist slogans. As she bent her own work, she watched the rag-tag group of students solidifying into the beginning of a movement. ‘I watched people excitedly making plans and sharing ideas for a common cause. I felt so grateful. I smiled my face off all the way home.’

Women’s march

Since then, a couple hundred students have found the network and become members. The community lead group meets for discussions every week and organises crafting events, a book club, and even knitting groups. They also organise a Let’s Talk about Sex! campaign and helped organize the Women’s march in Groningen.

Crossley finally stepped down as a boardmember last September, but continues to be a member and work for the community. ‘I feel like I created something positive here. This is my contribution.’

Changing standard of fairness

When international students first arrive in a new country, everything can shift. And most importantly, their perspective of what’s okay and what is not, according to RUG political psychologist Martijn van Zomeren. ‘Being abroad can change what social comparisons you make – and your standard of fairness.’

They left a country where they had the social advantage of belonging, where they knew the language, where they could easily navigate the social institutions and norms. But then they enter a country where they may become the outsiders who struggle to communicate and don’t seem to have the same opportunities and advantages as their native peers.

It all comes down to something called ‘relative deprivation’, explains Van Zomeren. ‘That’s the experience of feeling worse off than others, which is based on subjective standards.’

When students suddenly find themselves at a social disadvantage that restricts their opportunities – for housing, for representation, or for political influence – they ‘can become aware of the different fairness standards of being in a different country.’ And then they step up to change what doesn’t seem right.


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