The number of international students at TU/e has been on the rise for years and increasingly on campus people are communicating in English. Good reason for the Executive Board to extend their challenge to the social associations, traditionally the bastion of Dutch student life, to reflect on this theme.
During the recent Mystery Tour, which student representatives take with the Executive Board every other year, the issue was raised. “A debate to exercise minds,” was how TU/e staff officer Joep Huiskamp described it. “We don't want to impose anything top-down, but to challenge the associations themselves: this is going on, how are you addressing it?”
At the Eindhoven Students Corps - which just recently joined forces with international student association Cosmos for the first International Cantus - a couple of senior members are currently investigating how their club could become more accessible to foreign students, explains president Job van Geest. Historically, the E.S.C has been fairly traditional and closed, he says, but that doesn't mean the association isn't keen to see how it can open its doors wider to internationals “while retaining our norms and values”.
Whereas at the university English is increasingly becoming the working language, that is not likely to happen within the E.S.C, he also makes clear. “We like the idea of international students wanting to join our association; we have people here from Suriname, Norway, Japan, Italy and Canada, and elsewhere. But in principle we want to keep using our mother tongue, which after all forms a large part of the culture and atmosphere here. Internationals who speak English are of course welcome - but speaking different languages does make it a bit more difficult for people to click.”
Van Geest's views are supported by colleague Koen Strien of SSRE: “Dutch members who might not be that good at English should also feel at home with us.” Both Strien and Van Geest point to student associations in Maastricht that help internationals learn Dutch. “Often within just a couple of months they understand the language and can even speak it a little,” knows Strien.
At Demos, where according to secretary Tina Dijkhuizen the subject is being addressed by an internal working group on internationalization, at least the tours during Introduction Week are given in English “so that we can reach all students. But, for instance, the introductory camp is in Dutch, and we tell internationals that in advance. Although there are always people present we can ask to act as interpreters.”
Anas Abu Daqa of Cosmos refers to it as “a difficult situation”. He definitely would not like to see associations adapt their traditions or activities too much to suit internationals: “It's precisely that glimpse of Dutch student life that we are so keen to get”.
That associations are not eager to change their working language is something he well understands. “Many of their traditions have close ties with the Dutch language. Some things could perhaps in time be translated quite well into English, but that must come from within. Forcing associations to do that only causes more distance; then you end up becoming ‘that international’ for whom people have to adapt.”
On the other hand, Abu Daqa would like to appeal to the clubs to do is to hold their events, and for example their AGMs, in English - regardless of whether any non-Dutch speakers are present. “At present the way of thinking is this: everything in Dutch, and switch to English if an international is present. Well-intentioned, but in practice in a situation like this you feel guilty as an international, however loudly everyone stresses that it's okay.”
At Demos, nonetheless, they enrolled ten foreign students over this past summer. “We were really pleased, it shows at any rate that the interest is there,” says Tina Dijkhuizen. And two of the ten eventually took the step of being inaugurated as members. “They are now busy learning Dutch, but that was their own idea and it isn't happening through us.” But this is, she says, something Demos would like to facilitate and in the future, say, offer courses in cooperation with TU/e.
Moreover, the language is not the only likely obstacle to the forging of bonds between internationals and the student associations; foreign students are usually in the Netherlands for only a limited period. This fact too makes it harder for a student association to build this group's loyalty, thinks SSRE member Strien and Demos secretary Dijkhuizen.
But behind such differences or obstacles, student associations should not be too ready to take cover, thinks E.S.C president Van Geest. “The important thing is to look at what's possible, together with parties like Cosmos, and to see what the needs of both parties are. We want to create a climate in which everyone can feel at home - Dutch students and internationals alike.”
Besides, this is where all those involved have something to gain, believes Strien. “Many people join a student association in order to meet people doing other studies, to have new social experiences. Getting internationals involved can give an added dimension. And for their part, the internationals get to see Dutch student life close up.”
Demos’ Dijkhuizen goes one step further: “Actually there is no better way to feel at home than by joining a student association. Everyone is extremely interested in internationals. And this gives them a really accessible way to learn Dutch, simply because everyone is keen to help them do so”.
A deadline within which the clubs should present or realize concrete plans is not in place. Van Geest: “We first want to take a close look at what is going on and we don't want to take any half measures that might or might not work.” The earliest he expects any visible results at the E.S.C is midway through 2019, around the next enrollment period.
Nonetheless, TU/e staff officer Huiskamp is already sensing gradual change within both the university and student life. “Increasingly, you can see approaches being attempted between people and associations, which sometimes reinvent the wheel and sometimes pull the cart a little further.” Personally his enthusiasm is sparked by very concrete projects that bring parties together. “A cookery workshop, a contest, the collaboration between Cosmos and study associations in the Language Cafe; these are all nice examples. They are the things to facilitate, as TU/e.”