'It's not that the Dutch aren't open to foreigners, but...'

Delta nr 15, May 2005

Over the past few months in the pages of Delta, several foreign TU students have expressed their opinions about integration, or lack thereof, at TU Delft. But what exactly is integration, who is involved in it, and what do international students think of social interaction at the TU?

Integration, like feminism and other social issues, is a difficult subject. You either think it's a real and important issue, or you don't see what all the fuss is about. Furthermore, the word integration has a certain negative ring to it, mainly due to all the recent media attention regarding Holland's immigrant communities. In the context of international students at the TU, though, it's better to use a term like 'social interaction', as international students are here only for relatively short periods of time and don't intend to remain here and become Dutch.

Successful social interaction between Dutch and non-Dutch students depends on many factors. Firstly, foreign students must be willing to put some effort into mixing with the locals. Then, of course, Dutch students must be willing to integrate with foreign students and undertake actions that help to speed up the process of interaction. Student organizations, like student societies and faculty student associations, also play significant roles, as does the university itself. Within the university, the central policymakers, Executive Board, International Office and faculty departments must all do their part to help all students interact.

Among foreign students, the need or desire to socially interact with Dutch students varies greatly. Some students learn to speak Dutch and fully integrate into Delft student life, while others - who say they're here only to study and don't feel the need to integrate - merely attend events organized by Aegee.

The same goes for Dutch students, although generally, they don't seem to have a strong desire to hang out with international students. MSc student Samira Kamiri says: "Dutch students are friendly colleagues, but that's pretty much where it stops. Once you step outside the university's doors, you hardly ever see them." Because most Dutch MSc students have already completed their Bachelor's degrees at TU Delft, they already have established social networks. Newly arrived foreign MSc students however do not.

MSc Industrial Design student Juan Carlos Ortiz Nicolas, from Mexico, says: "I've found it quite complex to integrate with Dutch students. Sometimes I feel a little ashamed that when I return to Mexico, I won't know so many Dutch words." The president of PhD organization Promood, Tuba Kocaturk, says it takes time to admitted to Dutch students' social circles: "It's not that the Dutch aren't open to foreigners, but rather it's just part of Dutch culture that they don't immediately invite strangers into their homes, like people in some Eastern countries do."

To stimulate social interaction, Promood recently started organizing regular meetings for PhD students, where integration usually is a much talked about subject. Unfortunately, not many Dutch students attend these meetings.

Real contact

Aegee has been very successful at promoting social interaction, and some student associations have also been able to get national and international students to interact.

Kiki Lauwers of Aerospace Engineering's student association Leonardo da Vinci: "Half of our magazine is in English, as are some of our lectures and excursions." The association's events are usually attended by Dutch and international students, and Lauwers thinks there's definitely some integration taking place: "Our PR department and dean really stimulate us to always take foreign students into account."

All TU faculties have at least one student association, but the extent to which they've incorporated English into their promotional activities varies. Some websites have no English info on them whatsoever, while Tubalkain, the Materials Science association, is almost exclusively in English. Janneke Nienhuis of Tubalkain: "Because Materials Science only has a Master's program, we do have a substantial amount of international students. In everything we do, we're aware of the presence of foreign students. As soon as a non-Dutch student walks into our office, for instance, we start speaking in English. Hence, we stimulate our Dutch members who are present to do the same."

Nienhuis thinks student associations should and could play a bigger part in social interaction. "Make sure all basic information is in English", is her advice to other associations.

But even though many foreign students say they want to have more social contact with the locals, it's proven to be quite difficult for less socially-orientated student organizations to establish real contact with them. Delft's student political parties Aag and Oras have been trying for years to create an International Council, but with little success. Only when there's a pressing issue, like last year's 'Space box' housing controversy, did some foreign students find their way to the councils - but they disappeared as soon as the problem was solved.

Paul Bender, the Central Student Council president: "This year, we're going to try once more to resurrect the International Council." And Kasper Ripken from Aag says: "International students who want to have their say, please come to see us!" Bender however isn't too optimistic: "Last year, two different surveys found that neither Dutch nor foreign students feel much need for integration."


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