International members

Mingle with the Dutch

The RUG’s student population is growing ever more international, but thus far, only a few international students have found their way to a vereniging. What is it like to be a non-Dutch person in such a traditionally Dutch setting?
By Anne Floor Lanting / Illustration by Kalle Wolters

Although many Dutch student associations have international members, their numbers remain limited. That stands in contrast to the trend at the university, where international student numbers are growing and the Dutch population is declining.

There are many reasons internationals might not feel drawn to these student associations, but the language barrier is easily the biggest obstacle. But the board members of several associations say that joining offers international students a chance to learn Dutch.

The ‘Dutch’ student associations may not attract many international students because of the distinctive but subtle student subcultures that play a role within each of these associations.

Student associations may eventually be forced to sacrifice their own distinctive culture to a certain extent in the interest of openness, but Daan van Dijk from Contractus doubts any group would be eager to do so.

This year, Dizkartes took part in the ‘Integration Night’: a pub crawl with most of Groningen’s student associations included as stops along the route.

Reading time: 8 minutes (1,444 words)

The atmosphere at Albertus was like nothing the Canadian Tess Debelle (21) had experienced before. ‘There is always so much going on, things like themed parties or events. You can be involved as much as you want, by joining a committee, dispuut or house’, she says. For Dekel Viner (21) from Israel, he eventually found his place at Cleopatra. ‘It really is a place where people know me and where I can go and always see familiar faces with whom I can grab a drink and talk about life.’

Debelle is a third year medical student and joined Albertus in her second year in Groningen. She already had quite a few Dutch friends – some of whom were connected to Albertus – before she joined, but her former housemate was a member of Albertus. ‘I had been at Albertus quite a few times before I joined, and loved it. Additionally, quite a few friends of mine from my study were already members or wanted to become a member, so it seemed like fun and a easy transition.’

Viner, an artificial intelligence student, also learned about his student association via a housemate. ‘He was joining Cleopatra and we thought it would be fun if we joined together. I guess we were both looking to be more social and were searching for the Dutch experience. The Dutch associations are perhaps considered a little crazier than the international ones, and we were curious about this’, Viner says.

On one hand

Though the total number of students enrolling at the RUG is declining, the number of international students is increasing. But this pattern is barely reflected in the membership of Groningen’s many student associations. Daan van Dijk recognizes this as a board member of Contractus, the overarching body of seven of the largest student associations in Groningen. ‘The amount of internationals that have become a member of the student associations of Contractus in the past couple of years is relatively low.’

The board members of the associations themselves affirm that they are not popular with international students. Wieke Stolwijk is a board member of Albertus, one of the seven associations affiliated with Contractus. ‘In total, Albertus has 2,300 members, and about twelve of our members are internationals. Per year, about three international students become a member of Albertus’, she says.

The language barrier

Groningen’s second largest student association, Vindicat, does not score any better. The association has about 2,190 members, of which only about ten are international students. Dizkartes does not actually know exactly how many international members they have. ‘We do not ask students where they are from when they sign up as new members’, says board member Irene Legters.

The situation is no different at the smaller associations, either. ‘Cleopatra has a couple of international members, yet the amount can probably be counted on one hand’, says Geke Langhuis, board member of student association Cleopatra, which has around 280 members.

There are many different reasons internationals might not feel drawn to these student associations, but the language barrier is far and away the biggest obstacle. Most board members acknowledge the role language plays in why there are so few international students in their associations, yet at the same time, they point out that joining a student association offers international students a good opportunity to learn Dutch.

‘We notice that the international students who become a member learn the Dutch language very quickly’, Stolwijk says. Legters has observed that at Dizkartes as well. ‘One of our international members is a guy from Germany who already understood Dutch when he signed up, but he couldn’t really speak it yet. During his time at Dizkartes, he learned how to speak Dutch really well.’

‘It is so different’

Both Debelle and Viner admit that adjusting was hard for them initially. ‘I have learned Dutch entirely through Albertus, so I could not really speak the language for the first few months’, Debelle says. ‘But everyone was happy to help me out, and I quickly improved.’

Viner points out that things sometimes got lost in translation, all the same. ‘It was weird for me at Cleopatra at first, because I am not the most outgoing person. Trying to socialise with Dutch people then can be difficult when you have a bit of a cultural and language barrier.’

He thinks the ‘Dutch’ student associations don’t attract many international students because of the distinctive but subtle student subcultures that play a role within each of these associations. ‘It sometimes seems like every association has their own style and you have to belong to that style to belong in the association. Within international student organisations, there is no specific culture you have to learn’, he explains (see box ‘Contractus student associations’).

Contractus’ student associations

The seven student associations in Contractus each have their own character, even though they are all united in their goal to facilitate gezelligheid.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] At 200 years old, Vindicat (full name: Vindicat Atque Polit) is Groningen’s oldest student association. Vindicat describes itself as a traditional association with close-knit sub-structures, such as year clubs and Vindicat houses.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] Albertus Magnus was originally a Catholic organisation, but that has since been watered down. The association holds its customs and traditions in high esteem: there is a mandatory introductory period wherein prospective members learn about the club’s culture.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] Dizkartes describes itself as the biggest non-traditional student association of Groningen and also of the Netherlands. Dizkartes does not consider itself overtly traditional or overtly alternative.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] Cleopatra is a non-traditional student association without any obligations – or hazing. The association says it has a laidback atmosphere where everyone is accepted.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] Bernlef is the association for Frisian students in Groningen. Bernlef holds the Frisian language and culture in high esteem, but describes itself as having an open character.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] Navigators is the largest Christian student association in Groningen with around 450 members. The association strives for a good balance between student life and engaging deeply with Christian faith.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] Unitas is a relatively small, traditional student association. The association says it values unity, affordability and equality.

Groningen’s student population will only internationalise even further in the coming years. The student associations are clearly not up to speed, but do they even intend to catch up?

Within Contractus, internationalisation is an oft discussed topic, but actions speak louder than words. Van Dijk acknowledges that internationalisation is essential to the growth of student associations because the amount of Dutch students in Groningen is slowly shrinking, but he thinks it is important that the student associations in Groningen ask themselves what the merit of internationalising is, aside from purely growing their membership numbers.

Student associations may eventually be forced to sacrifice their own distinctive culture to a certain extent in the interest of openness, and Van Dijk doubts any group would be eager to do so. Legters says, ‘Traditions play a big role within these associations. When it comes to internationalising, student associations – Dizkartes included – don’t want to lose their own identity.’


Nevertheless, Dizkartes is already considering ways to meet internationals in the middle, such as creating a sub association especially for international students. Albertus also hopes to play a role in furthering integration between internationals and Dutchies by organising events meant for both groups of students, Stolwijk says (see box ‘International associations’).

This year, Dizkartes took part in the ‘Integration Night’: a pub crawl with most of Groningen’s student associations included as stops along the route. Van Dijk is enthusiastic about the potential for these sorts of events. ‘The idea is that internationals feel at home quickly within a student association and find many Dutch friends with whom they can experience fantastic student days in Groningen.’

International associations

Apart from all the ‘Dutch’ student associations in Groningen, there are also many student organisations that focus more specifically on international students.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] ESN Groningen’s goal is to represent international students and provide opportunities for cultural understanding and self-development. The organisation coordinates excursions, parties and hitchhiking trips throughout the year.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] AEGEE Groningen , the European student association, likes to combine business with pleasure. Their activities often focus on travel and cultural life in Europe and the European Union.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] SIB is also known as the Dutch United Nations Student Association and often organises lectures and symposia dealing with international topics and visits to embassies and NATO.

[icon type=”glyphicon glyphicon-stop” color=”#334351″] There are also smaller international student organisations in Groningen that are there for specific subgroups of international students: Africa, Latin America, India, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Britain, Ireland, Germany and Turkey all have their own students clubs in the city.


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