Associations as a melting pot
Mixing it up
Hellenic Student Association
It all started with an observation from Marios Lazarou (26), a third-year medical student: ‘People aren’t familiar with Hellenic culture, but they are interested in it.’ He estimated there are around six hundred Greek and Cypriot students in Groningen and decided he should gather them together and introduce their culture to others.
He had soon built a team with five board members and himself as the president and recruited forty students for five committees. The Hellenic Student Association started with a small-scale event – a ‘meet and Greek’ at a pub, where they wanted to drink beer and listen to Greek and Cypriot music.
‘It was supposed to be relaxed and casual. We expected a maximum of a hundred participants’, says public relations officer Andrea Pantelide (21), a second-year mathematics and economics student.
But it turned out a little differently, adds Sonia Kakoulli (21), a second-year medical student and the internal affairs officer. ‘There were around two hundred students queueing. The event was supposed to end at midnight, but it lasted until 4.30 a.m. And that was only because the owner wanted to close. Otherwise, it might have been even later.’
Many of the attendees were not even from Greece or Cyprus. ‘I was shocked by how many non-Hellenic students are interested in our culture’, says Andrea. Now, one-fifth of the members are from other countries. ‘For some events, we’ve even had one-third international attendees’, says Marios.
And that, of course, was the goal all along, says Andrea. ‘We aren’t moving Hellenic society to Groningen; we are spreading the culture.’
Korean Student Association
‘We don’t speak Korean during our meetings because we have a Kazakh and a Dutch person on our board’, says second-year physics student Jitae Na (22), the president of the Korean Student Association.
English is also the primary language at events and for any communication with the public. ‘We want to include everyone who’s interested in Korean culture’, he says.
The association wasn’t always open to non-Koreans. But last year, it was almost disbanded because there weren’t enough Koreans in Groningen to sustain it. ‘During the pandemic, there were hardly any Koreans here’, says Jitae. ‘Most returned home, and the exchange students either cancelled their plans to come or postponed them.’
Last year’s board wanted to throw in the towel, but Jitae intervened and took over. ‘This is my culture. I couldn’t just do nothing and let the Korean association disappear’, he says.
Jitae came to Groningen in 2019. Before that, he attended high school in New Zealand for six years. Being away from home for such a long time has made him feel even more connected to Korean culture. ‘No matter how long I stay overseas, I’m still Korean. And I want to help other Koreans feel comfortable in Groningen.’
There are many Koreans who come here on exchange for one or two semesters. ‘But I rarely meet anyone who is here for their entire study program’, says Jitae. ‘That means we would need to fill the board vacancies every semester. And every time, I would have to explain again how we operate. That isn’t good for the development of the organisation.
And so he decided to open up the Korean association to everyone. ‘Otherwise, we’d be dead.’ Now, their mission is not only to support Korean students in Groningen, but also to provide a place to anyone who wants to experience the culture.
It’s been a success, he says, and a revelation as well: ‘I was surprised at how many European students are interested in our culture – they like K-pop music, Korean food, and they want to go on exchange to Korea’, he says. ‘We are very active now.’
African & Caribbean Students Association
Spreading out the map, the African continent and the Caribbean are thousands of kilometres apart. There are barely even any direct flights between them. However, in Groningen, students from these two parts of the world have come together in a single student association.
‘There are only a few Africans in Groningen, but even fewer Caribbeans’, explains secretary Tolani Oladejo (19), a second-year European law student. ‘It’s very difficult for them to have a Caribbean community if we don’t include them.’
Together, Africa and the Caribbean consist of seventy countries. ‘But we have strong connections because of their history of colonisation’, says social coordinator Sonia Uwase (23), a third-year spatial planning and design student from Rwanda. ‘We share many cultural similarities, making it easier to resonate with each other.’
And so the association decided last year to include Caribbean students and change its name.
Their events serve not only to build social circles, but also to provide education. ‘We organised a debate event on the experience of being a black woman in a predominantly white society. We discussed our challenges, shared our experiences, and supported one another’, says Sonia.
They focus on addressing mental health issues. ‘These are topics that are often difficult to discuss in other communities. It’s challenging to make others understand’, she adds.
Tolani has firsthand experience of being a black woman who lives in a predominantly white society. While she was born in Ireland and holds Irish nationality, both her parents are from Nigeria. Here in Groningen, she prefers to surround herself with African and Caribbean students. ‘I feel more at home with the African and Caribbean student association, where I can find connection and understanding.’