All students are looking for social contacts as soon as they arrive in a new city that has to become their home. But what is ‘home’? That definition will be a bit different for everyone, but the common denominator is found in social contact, in connection. And this applies to more and more international students in Eindhoven. A whopping 13,4 percent of TU/e students have an international background. Over the past five years the number of international students has increased by over one hundred percent.
Where students sometimes experience difficulties to make friends at the university or at work, this appears to be a lot easier at the SSC (Student Sports Center). Socializing while playing sports is an effective way of community building. This has everything to do with the mindset of people when they are at the SSC. Wim Koch, director of the SSC, mentions: “Sport is a low-threshold way to facilitate contact and the SSC has an important role here.”
The power of sports associations
Some associations still have the image to mainly have Dutch members, which could be a barrier for internationals. On the other hand, it could also be an opportunity. Fontys student in Electrical Engineering Ayuta Nandiska and recently graduated Msc student in Computer Science and Engineering Konstantinos Triantos (from Indonesia and Greece respectively) both had a lot to do with the associations.
Because Dutch was the main language spoken, it was the place for Nandiska to quickly learn Dutch: "When I first came, I was a member of an Indonesian student association. This helped to discover all the facilities because the members had already been living in Eindhoven for a longer time and could help me on my way. And at the same time they made me feel at home. In addition, I became a member of the outdoor association All Terrain through the SSC and therefore came into contact with Dutch students. I always heard Dutch around me and that motivated me to learn the language. At the SSC I had more contact with Dutch people than at the university."
Triantos also noticed the positive influence of the sports center on his integration: "The SSC has helped a lot in this process. And especially the chance to become a member of Pusphaira, the soccer association, via the SSC. Pusphaira helped me get new friends, find an internship and even a job. It felt like home to me."
Integration from two sides
For Wim Koch, director of the SSC, internationalization means integration from two sides: "For successful integration, both international and Dutch students will have to adjust a bit: meet each other halfway. Language is important for contact, as well as paying attention to the cultural background to reach mutual understanding. Sport is a low-threshold way to facilitate contact and the SSC has an important role here.”
We certainly notice the increase in the number of international students at the sports center. Many internationals have a sports card. “We see the differences between the students, for example in communication. The Dutch are quite direct. The internationals are not always used to this and that can sometimes cause misunderstandings."
Due to the large increase of international students coming to the Netherlands over the past years, more attention is being paid to community building within the SSC. Lara Hofstra (group instructor and manager internationalization and community building) and Susan Lambriks (group instructor and program manager of the spouse & ace program) are working on this. Because they also give group lessons, they quickly pick up on signals about what is going on with (international) students. They try to respond to this in their policy.
Lambriks: "Community building is interwoven with internationalization for us. This trend has made connecting much more important. All these people who are building a new life here, temporarily or permanently, have to rebuild a community. As SSC we like to contribute to this process. We have a sense of responsibility for the large community that spends so much time with us and gives a lot of meaning to the SSC."
Koch adds: "A sports center is no longer just a place for sports. It is also a place to meet, to develop, to feel at home. We use a holistic approach here: working on vitality is more than working on physical health through sports. It is also about the mental, social and intellectual aspects that fit the caring university that we want to be."
The students also use this way of looking at sports. They do not just come to move or work on their physical health. PhD student in the department of the Built Environment Eleni Charoniti confirms this: "I got my sports card the first month I arrived in Eindhoven because my colleagues strongly recommended me to do so. The group lessons were one of the first hangout opportunities for me to spend time with my colleagues and meet new people. Sports are good for my health and the many activities that are offered at the SSC ensure that I remain motivated to come. My stress goes away when I exercise there. I also like to do the workouts that require working together with other participants - this happens in some group lessons. That way I also casually meet new people."
(Continue reading after the video)
Triantos adds: "In the first instance, I bought a SSC sportscard to become a member of the soccer association Pusphaira. But once I was a member, I started to also discover the other facilities such as group lessons and fitness. For me, the SSC is a place in the middle of the campus where I can 'escape' the hard work for a while. Just socialize, clear my head and stay fit. Socializing through sports is ideal and much easier at the SSC than at the university. The atmosphere is more relaxed: at the university people are under pressure, at the SSC they are in 'chill mode'. I met both Dutch and international students through the SSC. I feel that there really is mutual respect from Dutch and international students: we are all just students who play sports. Everyone is equal."
The desire to expand
The SSC is ready for expansion. With the current number of members (more than twelve thousand in total among whom are 6,049 TU/e student members) the facilities no longer suffice. There is a need for more space that is better tailored to the needs of this time. Student, instructors and the management of the SSC all acknowledge the need for a more modern sports facility.
The growth in the number of (international) students at TU/e has also resulted in substantial growth in members of the sports center. This is especially reflected in the group lessons, which are frequently visited by international students. Student Nandiska notices that especially in group classes: "Some classes are fun but really too busy, like yoga. There are too many people in a too small room and then you do not feel free. The expansion is just necessary."
Lara Hofstra: "In the ten years that Susan and I have been working here, we have seen a huge growth. From fifteen group lessons ten years ago to seventy group lessons now. Although it is estimated that about thirty percent of our members have an international background, it feels very different in group classes. We also notice that, because of the increase of the amount of international students, the 'taboo' on men in group classes is disappearing. In the past, you rarely saw men in group classes. Now they cheerfully dance in the zumba classes. All international guys who do not feel that taboo and simply participate, attract other (Dutch) men, making it a much more diverse group."
Group lessons connect
Lambriks also notes the important role an instructor has in connecting people: "Group lessons offer an opportunity to connect. As an instructor you have a lot of influence here, through exercise and material selection. I regularly choose exercises for my classes where students have to work together in duos or groups. I see laughter and joy during the class and people keep chatting after the lesson. That really makes me smile."
A conclusion that all interviewed students and SSC staff dare to draw: the SSC is surely the opportunity to connect and a way to feel at home quickly while you are exercising. They recommend the SSC to new students to make friends and build a new community. Koch: "We want people to feel at home and try to contribute to that with the SSC. How does someone feel at home? If he/she can meet, relax, develop and have a social circle. Your community is your home, anywhere in the world."