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Bridging the gap

More and more students from abroad are finding their way to Hanze UAS and the University of Groningen. Yet there still seems to be some distance between the internationals and the Dutchies. Even though speaking English is not a challenge for most Dutch students, language still seems to play a large role in the divide.

It is an awkward experience for a Dutch student in Groningen: standing in the midst of a group of students all speaking a language you recognize, but do not understand a word of. In this case the language spoken is Portuguese and the students are Brazilians in Groningen. Since the Brazilian government has been encouraging students to study abroad by providing scholarships, many Brazilians are seeking out universities overseas. Flávia Saldanha (20), an international business student, is one of them. She didn’t expect to find so many other Brazilian students in Groningen and sees two sides to this coin. ‘On the one hand, I love having many people to talk Portuguese to, especially when I’m feeling homesick. Yet, on the other hand, I’m here to learn new things and meet people from different cultures and this won’t really happen if I only talk to other Brazilians.’

What are they talking about?
Flávia’s group of friends here mostly consists of international students. She doesn’t feel that the Dutch students in her classes are very interested in getting to know her. ‘They only talk amongst themselves in their own groups and they work together in these same groups. I don’t speak Dutch, so I have no idea what they are talking about and can’t join the conversation. I will only approach them if I have a specific question.’ Alberto Llacua (27), a Peruvian PhD student in medical sciences, thinks the gap between Dutch students and internationals is normal. ‘It’s like that everywhere. In any country, international students are a separate group from the local students. At first most of my friends over here were also internationals, but I hope to change that because I will be in Groningen for at least four years.’

Somehow it’s still difficult for a group of Dutch friends to let an international into their group

Most of Alberto’s colleagues are Dutch. Alberto points out that they often start out a conversation in English, but end up talking Dutch in about five minutes. ‘I think this is quite rude’, he adds. Manon Louboutin (20), a business and marketing student from France, recognizes this pattern. Yet, she admits that at her university in France, similar situations occur with international students. ‘I hope that through my experiences here, I will be more aware of this behaviour and be more considerate when I return to my home university.’

A missed opportunity
The international experience and her encounters with Erasmus Student Network (ESN) Groningen have inspired Manon. ESN is an interdisciplinary student association in Europe that supports student exchange and offers international students help to integrate, be it academic or social. Manon was already familiar with ESN in France, but after her encounters with the student association here, she plans to become more active at the local division of her French hometown. Jannick Brusse (23), the president of ESN Groningen, is very active in the international scene of Groningen. He also believes there is still a gap between internationals and the Dutch students here. Jannick thinks language still plays a big role in the low level of interaction between both groups, even though most Dutch students are reasonably fluent in English. ‘Somehow it’s still difficult for a group of Dutch friends to let an international into their group and speak English for entire evenings. But I really think this is a missed opportunity.’
Jannick often hears international students express the wish to meet and get to know more Dutch students. ESN tries to facilitate this. International as well as Dutch students can participate in any of the ten committees the organization boasts. Of the 60 committee members that are now active at ESN Groningen, 32 are Dutch. Next to working together in committees, both groups of students also interact through ESN programs and events. ‘Though ESN mainly focuses on international students, Dutch students also participate in our activities. They mainly take part in the language exchange activities we organize, like the intercambio project and the language cafés’, Jannick explains.

The language barrier
The ESN president hopes Dutch student associations in Groningen will make an effort to also reach out to international students. These associations, which currently mostly have Dutch members, could be a place for both groups to meet. Three of them, Albertus, Vindicat and Navigators, are open to change. Stijn van Rijn (21) is responsible for the external relations of student association Navigators. He thinks international students aren’t familiar with the Dutch student culture in which student associations play a reasonably big role. ‘This is probably why these Dutch associations don’t really appeal to internationals.’

We have noticed that the international students that do become a member of Albertus learn Dutch very quickly

Wieke Stolwijk (23), vice president of Albertus, thinks that Dutch being the language of communication at most general student associations in Groningen, is the reason that few international students join these associations. ‘Yet we have noticed that the international students that do become a member of Albertus learn Dutch very quickly’, she adds. Quirijn de Geus (22), secretary of Vindicat, agrees that language forms the biggest barrier for the internationals. ‘Yet, we are open to internationals and have addressed our international members in English during the introduction week’, she states. Both the vice president of Albertus and the president of ESN Groningen see chances in working together to enhance the integration between Dutch students and international students. For instance by organising events that are interesting for both groups. ‘In cooperation with Albertus, Dizkartes, Navigators and the other international associations in Groningen, we are planning an event in February at which international students can visit all the participating student associations. It’s a start’, Jannick says, ‘but there certainly must be more to come.’