Students break out of their bubbles during the WotIS Walk
Housemates, fellow students, the members of your student association: As a Dutch student, you tend to be surrounded by other people from the Netherlands. By the same token, international students in the Netherlands are likely to be surrounded by other international students. That’s a shame, according to Nuffic and Frisse Gedachtes (Fresh Thoughts): both groups have a lot in common and can potentially enrich each other’s lives. The two organisations decided to organise a walk where both groups could meet up.
Lukas Schubotz, an Innovation Science student at Utrecht University, felt ‘terribly lonely’ during his first year in the city. He had moved to Utrecht from northern Germany and didn’t know anyone here yet except for his girlfriend. Unfortunately, their relationship ended after a few weeks. Although he met some nice people at the international student orientation, those interactions never went beyond casual chit-chat.
That all changed when he joined the local Ultimate Frisbee student association, which welcomes both international and Dutch students. “I’ve made lots of Dutch friends since I started playing Frisbee,” Schubotz explains as he crosses the Oudegracht in Utrecht’s city centre. “Frisbee players tend to be really open and cheerful people. I also learned to speak Dutch pretty well. You don’t have to, because everyone is happy to speak English, but I enjoy it. I live in the Netherlands, not international-land, so I’m happy to make the extra effort. It also makes studying here a lot more fun; you get to experience a lot more of the country and its culture.”
Salam Al-Nukta, an International Business Administration student at Tilburg University, also knows what it’s like to feel lonely in the Netherlands. Like Schubotz, she has been studying here for over two years now. “I’m originally from Syria and I worked there for many years before coming here. My student days were quite a while ago, so I was obviously older than most other students. Some of my fellow students were still on a voyage of discovery in life, and I felt I should just let them do their thing.”
She was so eager to meet people in the beginning that she would often start conversations on the train, she smiles. “I really enjoyed getting to know Dutch people, and I still do. I’m planning to stay in this country for work, so I’d like to get to know the culture, find out about Dutch public holidays and learn about practical things, like internships.” For a long time, the coronavirus pandemic made it hard to expand her network. With restrictions now gradually easing, she’s been trying to break out of her international bubble more often. Today’s walk is a great opportunity to do just that. “I love meeting Dutch people and other international students here.”
That’s exactly what Nuffic and Frisse Gedachtes are aiming for. International students and Dutch students both tend to stay in their own little bubbles, while they actually aren’t that different and could learn a lot from each other. Socialising in and outside of the international classroom helps students develop the kind of international competences and intercultural skills that will serve them well on the national and international labour markets. Finally, studying can also be quite a lonely experience.
Thomas Bijl of Frisse Gedachtes: “That’s been all the more true since the start of the pandemic. We were founded in March 2020, as it was becoming clear that many students were struggling with the situation. Everyone was forced to stay at home, and many students were cooped up in small rooms with very few opportunities to do things. Frisse Gedachtes aims to bring students together in order to improve their well-being. These walks are a great way of doing that. If we can get Dutch and international students to meet and mingle more, that’s an added bonus.”
Lukas, Salam, Annelot, Thomas and Kiki
Annelot Bulten, chair of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), noticed in recent months that many international students were longing for more interaction with each other and their Dutch peers. “At the height of the pandemic, we conducted a survey of international students and asked them to rate their lives at that moment. The average score was a 3. Luckily, things are a lot better these days, but you can tell people are still really eager for more interaction. Something as simple as today’s walk can make a big difference. It really recharges your batteries.”
She firmly believes Dutch students could benefit from more frequent interaction with their international counterparts. “You learn about other cultures, which makes you more open-minded. It’s also a great way to develop your language skills.” ESN organises buddy programmes to bring Dutch and international students together.
Kiki Steenbakkers, a Journalism student at Fontys University of Applied Sciences, also values the opportunity to meet more international students. She travelled to Utrecht from Tilburg to take part in the walk and is enjoying a piece of chocolate cake with Salam and a few other international students. “I only meet Dutch people on my degree programme, and there aren’t any international students in my student house either. I’d love to get to know more international students. I want to explore other cultures – I know my own well enough now. Mixing with Dutch people only is so boring.”