The 'international' classroom

Not so welcome after all

The University of Groningen strives to be a top-tier international university. But despite their efforts to make internationals feel at home, many students still experience prejudice and discrimination within the institution.
By Megan Embry

This is the second of a two-part series exploring the problem of subtle prejudice among students and staff at the RUG. Go to part 1

The UKrant didn’t mean any harm when it ran an article about Anglicisation at the university a few weeks ago. The idea was to show that more internationals participate in university politics every year. ‘Internationals are taking over’, the first paragraph announces. ‘They can be found in faculty councils and even in the University Council.’

But in the Facebook comment section, students were quick to point out that the word ‘even’ is problematic. ‘Are you for real?’, alumnus Paolo Petrocchi asks. Replace ‘internationals’ with ‘women’, ‘black people’, or ‘homosexuals’ and this would clearly be unacceptable, he says.


In the case of the UKrant, the insult was unintentional. But international students say they do experience unfair treatment at the RUG –often without knowing for certain if prejudice is a factor.

Take the case of Japanese-American Elisa Kephart; when she handed in a draft of her thesis, a supervisor commented: ‘Based on her cultural background, her English is not good enough.’

They maybe acknowledge these issues but aren’t on the students’ side to see what is happening

‘I felt it was really inappropriate for him to comment on the fact that I was Asian’, she says. ‘I feel it was pretty much racism.’ But she doesn’t think the university would take a complaint about something like this very seriously. ‘They always kind of look from the top level. They maybe acknowledge these kinds of issues but aren’t on the students’ side to see what is happening.’

Student Neesha Kanaka received similar criticism from the same professor, who initially failed her final thesis – even though another grader awarded it a 9. ‘The professor wrote: “student obviously isn’t native speaker”, says Kanaka, who is Malaysian.

Continued objections

Kanaka received news of her failing grade the same day she was hired at an English copywriting firm in Amsterdam. ‘He also attacked the aspects of Asian culture which I wrote about, making jokes about it’, she says. ‘I wrote about playwrights sentenced to death according to post-colonial laws against seditious writing. He responded: “Oooh! Those brave heroes of the Malaysian stage!”’

I’m convinced from the comments I read and my interaction with the professor that the situation was racially aggravated

Luckily, the grader who gave Kanaka a 9 strongly protested the failing mark, and a third grader was appointed. Kanaka was finally given an 8 over the continued objections of the professor who had failed her. ‘By the end I felt so defeated. I’m convinced from the comments I read and my interaction with the professor that the situation was racially aggravated. I hope I’m not crazy for thinking so.’

Students also say that international classrooms can be uncomfortable. Brandon Graamskjöld is a history student from the US; he feels that professors sometimes resent having to teach in English. One professor started his class by announcing: ‘We wanted to teach this class in Dutch, but since we have an international student, it will be in English.’

Unwelcome vibes

Graamskjöld says he ‘doesn’t know if professors brought up their displeasure with the people who make these kinds of decisions, but as the only international in the class they certainly took it out on me.’ After several weeks, he says, ‘I was close to lashing out from the overt unwelcome vibes.’

Also, interactions between professors and Dutch-speaking students often happen in Dutch. ‘In my classes if a student wanted to ask a question in Dutch – even though the class language was English – the professor might explain in detail in Dutch’, says Marija Kovacevic, who recently graduated with a degree in physics from the RUG. ‘And I felt that this information should be available to me as well; it could be something relevant. So I would have to interrupt, apologize: “would you explain in English?” They weren’t always willing to do so.’

If there is a problem they would rather postpone it and push it away than do anything to fix it

In one international department, a secretary repeatedly refused to speak to a PhD student in English, making their ongoing professional relationship very difficult. When the student (who prefers not to be named) submitted a complaint, it took five months for the complaint to be resolved. In the meantime, the student says, much of the communication from the university concerning the issue was only in Dutch. ‘During this process I really felt discriminated against at several levels. If there is a problem here, I realised, they would rather postpone it and push it away than do anything to fix it.’


University spokesperson Jorien Bakker urges students to report any instances of institutional discrimination or prejudice. ‘The most important thing is to go to Student Services or the Confidential Adviser’, Bakker says. ‘The confidential adviser is independent and has no obligation to any faculty whatever; you can trust her. I hope students will tell someone, otherwise we can’t do anything about it.’

She sympathises with the international students. ‘This is the Netherlands, and people can be really rude and direct. A lot of things can happen because of miscommunication in an intercultural context’, she says.

However, confidential adviser Marjolein Renker says she can help. ‘Sometimes students don’t feel safe discussing problems with their supervisors, study advisers, or Student Services. But I can help students figure out what to do next: what do you want, and what can we do about it?’

Find contact information for Student Services here and for confidential advisor Marjolein Renker here.


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