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Dutch and foreign students: working together, socialising separately
Published on:Monday, February 6, 2012 - 12:36
"We work well together, but they are different." So say Dutch students about their foreign peers. And they're talking about a sizable group: there are over 30,000 foreign students enrolled at universities and colleges in the Netherlands.
It is lunchtime at Wageningen University. Students from all over the world gather in the restaurant. Apart from Dutch, a visitor might hear Chinese, Spanish, German, Indonesian, lots of English, and even African languages.
Wageningen University has an international reputation in the field of Life Sciences: studies in the field of food and agriculture, plant diseases, clean energy, biology and nature and landscape. So it's no surprise that the school attracts students from all over the world - especially at the Master's and PhD level - and that the higher-level courses are taught primarily in English.
Ten percent of the students at Dutch universities come from abroad.
At the polytechnic level, non-Dutch students account for about 6.5 percent.
After Germans, the Chinese form the largest non-Dutch group.
After graduation, most foreign students leave the Netherlands; the government wants to encourage them to stay.
The students often work together in groups, often including people from many different backgrounds and cultures. Sometimes that take a little getting used to - not only because of the language barrier, but also because of cultural differences.
"There are several foreign students on the student council, and there's always at least one chinese student,"says student Willemijn Sneller. "All our meetings are in English, because we want transparency."
Dutch students are quite fast and direct, Sneller notes. "The Dutch prefer to take a direct approach. But international students are often much more polite. They come up with very formal plans of action, even though you can also arrange something casually. Sometimes this shocks them; hopefully they can learn from it."
Different cultures seem struck by different things about the Dutch students. For example, Depi Susilawati from Indonesia says the Dutch are helpful but too direct, too confrontational. "And some are so arrogant," she says.
On the other hand, Surinamese-Dutch student Noushka Poerschka noticed that Dutch people are quicker to speak up if things aren't going the way they want. "In other countries it is the culture to think longer before you speak."
Meanwhile, Wu Ronghao from China says the Dutch often switch to their own language when the topic gets too complicated. "Then I have to say: 'Can we do this in English, please?'"
Teachers and professors have to take special care to ensure that the nationalities in groups are mixed. Statistics professor Gerrit Gort sees no problems between Dutch and foreign students. But he notes that foreign students are often better motivated and ask more questions.
"They come to the Netherlands specifically to get their education. They really want to succeed. Dutch students are sometimes less motivated... I like to work with foreign students."
Foreign students from Wageningen University can participate in a special 'buddy project' where Dutch students take groups of 15 foreign students and go on outings together or cook for each other.
"In my group there were people from France, Poland, Brazil, and China," says Mirthe Groothuis who has only just started as a buddy. "They become a kind of 'buddy family' - brothers and sisters that they hang out with."
The buddy approach comes from the Erasmus Exchange Network, a club which organises social activities for international students in 36 European countries. Board member Jan Huskens: "It is absolutely enriching to have experience with and an understanding of people from different cultures. The Netherlands is very small, so at some point you often end up working with foreigners. It is also useful to have contacts abroad."
That enthusiasm is shared by the graduate students at Wageningen University. Yet, it's clear to everyone that Dutch stick together, especially during leisure time. Much like the other main group at Wageningen, the Chinese students.
And Lina Lasithiotaki, from Greece, knows every other Greek student at the school, just like all the other Mediterranean students. She knows some Dutch students too, but they don't often hang out or socialise together.
It seems that working together might be fine, but when it comes to making real friends, students from around the world prefer people from their own culture.