Although international students choose to study abroad, they often hang out with people from their own country or other foreigners rather than Dutch people.
The University is adopting policies to encourage integration, but they’re tough to enforce.
Tobias Stark is a German student who did his PhD at the RUG on homophily: the tendency to gravitate toward one’s own kind.
His research shows that for different ethnic groups, it’s not so much a choice as a lack of proximity.
Joining international student organisations can provide a sense of familiarity.
Having more opportunities to get to know Dutch people would make integration easier, especially through classrooms and housing.
Reading time: 8 min. (1,297 words)
Sometimes, it seems like the thousands of international students in Groningen are barely in the Netherlands at all. By shopping at grocery stores stocked with foods from home, socializing only with other students from their own country or by joining student organizations representing their nationality, non-Dutch students can lead an entirely separate life from the rest of the city.
One of the biggest international student groups is GISA, the Groningen Indian Student Association. For Ekta Thawani, a 19-year-old psychology student and member of the board, GISA is a way to be in touch with a culture that both is and is not hers. Her parents are Indian, but she was born in St. Maarten.
Among the Indian students, there’s a term for Indian people who did not grow up there: NRI – Non-Resident Indian. ‘They say to me all the time, “you’re such an NRI”,’ Ekta says. ‘Indian culture is not completely unknown to me, but it’s also not something that’s totally with me.’
That’s a conundrum that is fairly common among international students: to what extent do you cling to a familiar culture while you’re living in a foreign one?
Xiangyu Li, a 23-year-old Chinese student doing a Pre-Master in International Financial Management, has found a way. He is the only Chinese student at the Bao Trieu Blijd, a martial arts studio, which is how he remains connected to something from home while he’s abroad. ‘It’s a very important part of my life.’
Like most internationals, he identifies food and language as the simplest but most important ways that students maintain a link to their own culture. Students often share their traditional cuisine with their housemates, and stamppot is rarely on the menu.
As for overcoming the language barrier, international students have gotten a free survival Dutch course since 2013, but it’s not enough to hold an intellectual conversation with native speakers. Even though conversational fluency in English is extremely high among the Dutch, it’s simply more convenient to express yourself in your mother tongue.
Through projects that focus on group work – namely the International Classroom and Learning Communities – the University is in a position to help students find common ground. But it’s not flawless. One prime example is in the Math and Natural Sciences faculty, where ten bachelor programmes are now taught in English but students and lecturers often revert back to their native tongue.
Computer Science Professor Jos Roerdink recognizes that he does it too, even though he is involved in the International Classroom pilot in the faculty. It has been a drastic change to get students, teachers and staff to speak English. ‘If a student asks you a question in your mother tongue, your instinct is to reply in the same language. Now, if a student does that, I just ask them to ask their question again in English.’
Although Roerdink says that the ‘Dutch effect’ is improving, ensuring an even mix of Dutch and non-Dutch students is easier said than done. ‘In computer science and chemistry, we have about 25 percent foreign students, so it’s feasible to create groups with a mix of nationalities. But in other programmes, there may only be a couple of international students. That makes it difficult to achieve.’ Xiangyu can confirm that: in group work, he says that he often finds himself working together with the other internationals rather than with Dutch students.
By focusing on more group work in classrooms, the faculties hope that students will naturally continue the conversation outside the classroom, maybe over a beer in the city centre. Roerdink readily acknowledges that international housing being so far away from most Dutch students makes a post-class borrel tougher, too.
Student organisations within the Math and Science faculty are taking a much more active role in getting international students to take part in their activities, Roerdink says. For students who are just here to study, getting involved doesn’t come naturally, but it seems that joining a club is one of the best ways to bond with each other and, in effect, ‘self-integrate’.
Arts-focused student organisations such as choirs and orchestras are an option for students who can read music, even if they aren’t fluent in Dutch. Improv and theatre troupes often perform in English. Aegee, SIB, Aiesec and Teimun are internationally-oriented student organisations where people from different backgrounds work shoulder to shoulder. Obviously, sports are also a way for all students to literally play on the same team.
Within the university, other efforts to lower the threshold for students and staff to mix include RUG-wide language policy changes. But housing remains the biggest barrier between Dutch and international students.
Roerdink sees the need for housing only becoming more acute as more English-taught bachelor programmes are added. The university seems to be banking on its plans to revamp the Zernike campus to build new housing and provide a place for the beta students to meet after class ends.
It remains tough to achieve, but making sure all students feel welcome is crucial. If international students are left doubting their ability to live and work in Groningen without being perfectly fluent in Dutch, it leaves them feeling discouraged about sticking around to try and find a job here after graduation. Roerdink fully agrees. ‘There need to be more career options for students here, too’, he says. If they feel like there’s something worth staying for, it’s easier to get motivated to find your place.
Above all else, people from different cultures simply have to have the opportunity to get together, German post-doc Tobias Stark says. ‘From my perspective, homophily as a preference should not be mistaken for opportunity’. It’s often not a conscious decision to stick to your own kind, but rather lacking a way to meet others that leads to self-segregation. In the end, it’s not just about the internationals trying to find a way into the culture: there need to be more ways in.
According to Tobias Stark, it’s more than just convenience that influences integration. Stark is German and is now working on post-doctoral research at the University of Utrecht, but he got his PhD in Groningen in 2012. His research focused on homophily – the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others – among high school students of different ethnicities in the Netherlands.
Stark also knows from personal experience that Dutch student houses tend not to choose English-speaking roommates. Since most Dutch students live in private housing, they can choose whom to have as their roommate – they may opt not to invite a person to live in the house who can’t speak Dutch out of utility rather than out of discrimination.
By contrast, Stark says that random roommate assignment in the United States – where universities are responsible for student housing on campus – can play an important role in integration. When students are deliberately assigned interracial roommates, tests have shown that it has a positive influence on interracial friendship formation as well as on the attitudes of the students toward the ‘other’ group.
But Dutch universities don’t do roommate assignments, except for the first year for international students. And while integration through housing is beneficial, ‘it also has a lot to do with proximity, which is the opportunity to meet ‘, Tobias says. Since friendships among students tend to form between those who live nearby each other and see each other after school, as long as international students are lumped together in housing separate from Dutch students, they will inevitably continue to keep to themselves.