• Partner support could be so much better

    Take us seriously, please

    More and more internationals are coming to work for the university. They often bring their partners along, but they feel overlooked by the RUG.

    A shorter version of this article was published in the paper magazine UK #5, September 2014.

    It was like a slap in the face for Helena Rico from Portugal. In Lisbon, she was head of communication and public relations at the Technical University. When her husband, Pedro de Faria, was offered a job in the Faculty of Business and Economics, her family based their decision to come here on promises of support she got.

    ‘I have emails from the university before we arrived, informing me that they had a dedicated service to support partners with their job search’, she recalls, sitting in an airy meeting space at ERIBA, where she now works as a research manager.


    After her arrival in 2009, she – like all partners of international staff – got three advisory meetings with career services advisors. During these, partners get their CV assessed, practice for job interviews, and receive possible job contacts.

    However, meetings with those professional contacts are not arranged – partners must handle that themselves. That may come as a shock: job hunting is different in every culture, and not all partners can accept that it’s normal in Dutch society to approach employers directly rather than being introduced.

    Rico didn’t find that very supportive. ‘No one expects the university to hand you a job or to create one for you, but there has to be something more. The university needs to look at you as a professional seriously and see, this woman can offer this, so let’s back her up!’

    Rico also attended support meetings for partners, but felt they were more to entertain than anything else. ‘I was not looking for social contacts, I was looking for a job!’

    Dutch classes are no longer free

    International staff advisor Ina Hofstee understands. She organizes the meetings because she believes it’s important for partners to get together. ‘These meetings may not lead to a job straight away or any real, tangible possibilities, but I see that people can at least support one another and inspire each other’, she says.

    It wasn’t the only problem, though. When foreign employees accept a job here, their partners can become internal job candidates. Ironically, they don’t get an account to log into the university site to view the vacancies.

    Then, there’s the Dutch language. Dutch classes for partners were subsidized by the municipality, but due to cut backs and international employees’ tax status, that ended in 2012. While free to international students, they are no longer free for international partners.

    Many partners are overqualified

    Those language skills are essential for getting a job, especially since many partners are overqualified for positions available through temp agencies. For Rico, finding work was tough. She was unemployed between 2009 and 2011.

    ‘It affects everything: your personal life, your relationship with your partner and your kids, and your family abroad. Everything changes’, she says, now on the other side of her personal battle.

    Rico knows that human resources works hard to help, drawing on personal networks and friends for contacts. But taking partners’ needs seriously has to be a priority for university policy makers, too. ‘There are so many of us dealing with this problem’, Rico says.

    She’s not the only one complaining. Some internationals even doubt how serious the university’s commitment to internationalisation is, according to a recent report from Human Resources.

    Things are changing. The Board of Directors have asked Hofstee and her collaborator, career advisor Ine Verhoeff, to create a policy for Partner Support. They aim to fix the problems and – just maybe – get some funding. Faculty human resources are discussing the issue in September.

    ‘We can’t create jobs that aren’t there’

    Outside the RUG, the International Welcome Centre North – an all-in-one location for skilled migrants and their families – will open its doors in November. Connect International, a non-profit organization for immigrants in the northern provinces, will be part of it.

    Karen Prowse, general manager of Connect, is herself an American expat. ‘We can’t guarantee jobs and we can’t create jobs that aren’t there, so the only thing we can do is focus on the individual and offer guidance. However, none of this will be free’, Prowse emphasizes.

    ‘People have to realize that this will be a professional service. If you’re on a certain level and you want a job, you may need to employ a headhunter – that’s kind of normal worldwide.’

    The IWCN will also have an administrative employee from the RUG on staff. Addressing partners’ professional needs is the second degree of internationalization: researchers will not come here if there are no possibilities for their partners.

    ‘It is a problem the university has made for themselves’, Rico says. ‘They’re willing to be international, but they’re not aware that much more needs to be done to really get there.’

    Ana Bosnic, Serbia:
    alumni ambassador, now what?

    Ana Bosnic from Serbia, met her husband, Juan Henriquez from Chile, in 2010 in Groningen when Bosnic was studying abroad at the university. Henriquez is doing a PhD in law and, after returning to Serbia for a few years to teach elementary school (as well as serving as an international alumni ambassador), Bosnic returned to Groningen this spring to be with her husband.

    Now that she’s back as a partner, she has attended the Partner Support meetings, applied for multiple university jobs and has so far had one meeting with a career advisor on how to best present herself through her CV and cover letter.

    Over the summer, she’s tried everything. ‘I’m freelancing a little bit and giving classes, I’m just exploring it all because I want to make myself useful.’ She is also volunteering with a handful of research projects, has applied for PhD positions and at least one job, but she has already heard she didn’t get it. ‘I never got the reason why I was rejected, which was disappointing.’

    Bosnic knows that the best way to increase her chances of finding work is to learn Dutch. ‘I think the Partner Support system should offer free or very cheap Dutch classes. It is hard to be motivated if you do it on your own.’
    Bosnic already speaks three languages – Serbian, English and Spanish.

    For her, it’s just the matter of being able to afford 580 euros for the course. But it’s a catch-22 situation: you can’t afford to take Dutch classes now until you have a job, but you can’t get a job without those language skills. For now, she’s planning to get Dutch lessons from a friend in exchange for Serbian lessons, and her job hunt continues.

    UPDATE: In October, Ana found out she will receive a contract beginning in December to do a PhD in the Artificial Intelligence department of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. She will be working in the Cognitive Modeling research group, and her research focus will be aspects of quantification in Serbian and Dutch, specifically ‘language acquisition to see how ambiguous sentences are interpreted by children and adults.’

    Gillian Erasmus, South Africa: so lucky

    For Gillian Erasmus from South Africa, not being able to speak Dutch hasn’t been an issue in finding work – she is one of the lucky ones. She is an attorney back home, and she already had a job at the university lined up before she and her husband, Nicolas Erasmus, ever set foot in Groningen.

    When Nicolas was offered a post-doc position in the physics department, his supervisor was got Gillian in touch with Professor Colombi Ciacchi, Academic Director of the Groningen Centre for Law and Governance, who needed a research assistant. ‘It was the perfect opportunity for me’, Gillian says. She and Nicolas are grateful to have found work in their fields at the same institution.

    ‘By virtue of our marriage, I was entitled to a work visa, too’, she explains. The visa will be put to good use, at least for now – her current position will be less than a year long. Once it ends, she may have to test her luck again to find new work at the RUG.

    But Gillian has nothing but good things to say about the help they got from human resources, even before they arrived. ‘HR assisted Nicolas with getting his work visa through the Dutch embassy in South Africa, and they were very clear on what the requirements were and how to go about it.’

    ‘Once we arrived in the Netherlands, both of us went straight to human resources, and they were extremely helpful. I’ve found them willing and approachable with all my queries, and they really made the transition to the university as smooth as possible.’