By Laura Paloma
When you first arrive in the Netherlands as an international student, it feels like you have landed in an international paradise. Everyone speaks perfect English and the dogs and cats are all secretly bilingual. Rumours of Dutch tolerance and openness hang in the air like the pungent smell of marijuana.
International degree students at UCU are kind of on exchange already: they’re studying abroad for the full length of their bachelor’s degree. Our campus is considered a culture within a culture, a community outside of Dutch society where the official language is English. “UCU is a little safe haven for international students, I feel,” says Simona Tomasekova from Slovakia.
40% of UCU students are of a non-Dutch nationality, comprising both degree and exchange students. Aside from the storage reserved for foreign students during summer, no other infrastructures are put in place for international students. Yet, the experience of a foreign student at UCU differs greatly from that of a Dutch student – affecting wellbeing, integration outside of campus and their ability to find a job.
The international degree students who live on campus live there full-time. Campus is a place that is alive during the week but come Friday midday, it is eerie and empty with military ghosts playing Billie Jean on Thursday night’s empty beer bottles. So, international students seem to gravitate towards each other due to their shared experience of living abroad and feel their Dutch counterparts who leave on the weekends don’t seem to really get it. “Once I started spending my time with other internationals, my sense of wellbeing went through the roof. Many of my own Dutch friends have found it difficult to empathize with the isolation one is prone to feel on the weekends,” says Sofia Orellana from Venezuela.
Nevertheless, there is a certain feeling of belonging on campus for foreign students, due to the friends they make, or their familiarity with UCU once in their third year. Yet international students say that after three years, they still feel disconnected from the Netherlands and Dutch culture. “I feel like I can’t really merge with the culture properly and I feel there is always going to be a bit of a barrier with the place, the people and myself. I am trying to learn the language, but since I am pretty sure that my stay in the Netherlands is temporary, I find it hard to stay motivated,” says Simona Tomasekova.
It is harder to integrate into the Netherlands than it seems, making learning the language perhaps necessary after all. Speaking fluent Dutch might be the only way of integrating into associations off-campus as well as into Utrecht life. However, finding the time to learn Dutch, on top of the workload of UCU, can be hard. “I regret not being able to speak Dutch now that I live off-campus. It feels like the lack of speaking the language is the main thing keeping me from integrating and feeling at home in Utrecht,” says Moritz Menzel from Germany.
“Once I started spending my time with other internationals, my sense of wellbeing went through the roof. Many of my own Dutch friends have found it difficult to empathize with the isolation one is prone to feel on the weekends”
Learning Dutch in a country where the waiters switch to English as soon as they hear the slightest foreign accent in your religiously rehearsed café order is frustrating. Their reply “coming right up” with a smile that says gotcha, makes you want to rip your eyes out and throw your copy of Kunt u mij helpen from the Dom Tower. Yet, there are success stories. Serena Russo from Italy has learnt Dutch and speaks it at quite an advanced level. “I have integrated into Dutch life way more than into UCU life. I have had a job, which allowed me to make a lot of connections in the city of Amsterdam. I have quite some friends there. The experience was amazing for me, because it felt more real than UCU.”
Once UCU is done, many international students feel it is easy to leave the country since they feel no attachment to it. “There’s no consistency, no sense of anything permanent. People come and go all the time, I’m going on exchange soon and then a semester later I’m leaving. And so are all the friends I’ve made so I don’t feel attached to this place. I think by the time three years are up, I’ll be ready to leave,” says Camila Ochoa Mendoza from China and Venezuela.
For an institution that prides itself for being international, UCU should keep an eye out for its foreign students. Mandatory Dutch classes, jobs for international students or an international student office might make us feel less stranded. Although international students don’t want to be “babied” as Carolina Silva from Portugal puts it, a little support and acknowledgement for the challenges that come with studying abroad might stop us from fleeing the Netherlands the minute we hand in our thesis because, your diploma, well, you can get that mailed to an address abroad.