The gap between Dutch & internationals

You’re not like us

International students struggle to integrate socially at the University of Groningen. Why can’t they bridge the friend gap with Dutch students?
By Megan Embry / Photo by ESN
This article is the first of a two-part series.
Read part 2: This is how you do it!

Two people huddle in the canteen, speaking English in hushed tones. They are discussing the public push-back by a History professor against university internationalisation policies. A table over, three female students are in their own world as they carry on a conversation in German over cold sandwiches. Everywhere else in the canteen, people laugh and chatter and shout greetings in Dutch. They don’t seem to see the others.

This scene isn’t what international students picture when they move to the Netherlands. Almost universally the Dutch have a reputation for tolerance and openness. Internationals imagine it will be easy to find Dutch friends to study with, party with, and grab lunch with between classes. But year after year, the International Student Barometer reveals that social integration is a problem at the university of Groningen. Despite ongoing efforts by the university and many of the student associations, the RUG seems to be making little progress, according to the survey.

Xhorxhia Peno moved from Albania to Groningen this year to study International and European law. She was disappointed by how difficult it is to make friends with Dutch students. ‘It seems that they are focused only on their Dutch society. It’s really hard to break in.’

Why is this the case?

Social bubble

One answer is psychological, says RUG professor Greetje Timmerman, who specialises in youth sociology. People select social groups based on preferences, and they prefer similarity. Student associations are central to social life in Groningen, but many international students don’t feel welcome to join. And though associations are open to diversity, Timmerman says their members will still have a sense of ‘we are the same and you are not’. This creates a social bubble.

Similarity selection is especially powerful in groups with history. It won’t work to join a Dutch association and hope for acceptance, Timmerman warns. ‘They are just so Dutch’, she says. ‘It is undoable for individual students to break these socialization patterns.’

Worse, internationals often don’t even know what a student association is. The concept of an association is uniquely Dutch. Konstanze Strohm is Commissioner of Internationalisation for the psychology student association VIP. She says that most members of her association are Dutch, even though the psychology program boasts a large number of international students. The VIP approached Konstanze, an international, to serve on the board – hoping she could bring more internationals into the fold. ‘I have the feeling that for internationals’, Konstanze says, ‘it’s very hard to figure out where… or how they can integrate.’

Opt out

When international students opt out of joining associations – either because they don’t feel welcome or they don’t know anything about them – Dutch students assume they just don’t care about integrating. And without Dutch friends to speak to, internationals lose motivation to stick with the language or engage with the culture. It’s much easier to pursue friendship with other internationals.

RUG administrators are aware of the problem, and they take student input seriously. The university works hard to welcome internationals and introduce them to Dutch students, says Senior Policy Advisor for International Cooperation Jodien Houwers. The Welcoming Ceremony, Introduction, KEI week, and the Erasmus Student Network introductions are engineered to encourage integration. The university also raises awareness among Dutch student and study associations through the Groningen Together training seminars.

Quite easy

But no single activity or initiative will solve the problem. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’, Houwers says. ‘What we can do as a university is create circumstances or events where internationals have the opportunity to meet others.’ It’s important to realize too, that it’s not necessarily a problem that students prefer their own countrymen when they want to relax over a coffee. ‘This is simply how people behave’, Houwers says, ‘On the one hand, they have roots – and on the other hand, they have wings. We have to cater for both.’

Houwers also says things may not be as bad as the International Student Barometer suggests: ‘Those who are very negative will write in and say, “everything is rubbish!” But those who think that things are okay don’t comment.’

Saina Abeshzadeh, student assessor of the Board of the University of Groningen, agrees. Most associations are trying to recruit internationals. Association leaders often express a sincere interest in integrating, and seek her help to do so. Students report that life is richer and more interesting when it includes friendships from outside their typical social bubbles. Things are changing at the RUG, and rapidly: ‘The Groningen of today? I think it’s quite easy to make Dutch and international friends’, Saina says.

This article is the first of a two-part series.
Read part 2: This is how you do it!



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