Student and lonely (5): ‘The fact that there are foreigners is simply ignored’

02 Jul 2019 ,

One of the biggest problems in modern student life is loneliness, also for internationals. It is much talked about by university officials and student representatives, but what is it like for students? Vox interviewed some of them about being lonely. This time: Evita Palma, from Latvia.

Evita Palma (27) started off her time at Radboud as an Artificial Intelligence student. ‘I was living in Arnhem at the time, I love to travel, so I went looking for nearby universities.’ In the beginning, she found it hard to connect to others in her programme. ‘I was the only international student in my introduction group,’ she says. ‘And even though the programme is in English, a lot of the orientation activities were in Dutch. Even though we went on an international weekend, the host said “there are not many internationals here, you can just translate for them”. I understand why they mix internationals in with the Dutch students, but there’s just way more Dutch people. So in practice, the fact that there are foreigners is simply ignored.’

This is different from her experience in Latvia, she says. ‘People here are less considerate of the fact that you might not be local,’ she says. ‘In Latvia, even if there were ten of us and one foreigner, we would still speak English and take into account that this one person is there.’ According to Palma, students here are nice and helpful, but they lack consideration of their surroundings. ‘I’ve had a few days during the intro week for this study where there were hours and hours without a single word of English. There were moments when somebody turns to me and says “So you’re coming?” And I am like “Where?”.’

Evita Palma, own archive

She managed to make a Dutch friend and a German friend, and formed a little group. ‘But later it started falling apart. And then I got hit with depression so I didn’t go out as much. Although I like meeting new people, it drains me a lot,’ she says about that time.

Quit

The depression caused her to not meet her BSA. She got an extension, but quit her studies in spite of it. ‘The study advisor was really helpful and was really pushing me to get help. I was really grateful. The university psychologist was the worst experience I’ve ever had. I was just told to go home. Eventually I got to a different psychologist through a friend and the improvement started, although he also advised me to quit my studies,’ she says.

‘The worst thing is when you start hanging out with people just because you don’t want to be lonely.’

She switched to Business Administration and is doing a lot better now. However, she does not have many friends yet. ‘I still basically have that one friend from the first year,’ she discloses. ‘The worst thing is when you start hanging out with people just because you don’t want to be lonely. After orientation, cliques are formed and it’s hard to make new friends. And in my current programme, there’s also the age difference. There are a lot of 17-year-olds, whose hobbies are playing golf. And I don’t really fit in.’

Six languages

Palma understands Dutch now, but does not speak it very well yet. She would want to learn, if she decides to stay. ‘In every country international students go, they might be there for three or four years. If you like the country and want to stay, then you should learn the language. Dutch students that go abroad also don’t learn the local language.’ Learning a language is great, according to her, but it’s a lot of work. ‘So if you don’t want to build your life here, there is no use for that language. I already speak five languages, so why would I learn a sixth that does not have much use outside the Netherlands?’

If she decides to stay, this will change, she says. ‘I want to be a part of society and I have respect for the place I live in. But university environment is not the same as outside, so there shouldn’t be a need for the language quite yet.’

5 comments

  1. Pieter wrote on 2 juli 2019 at 11:51

    I hope she realizes that “Dutch students that go abroad also don’t learn the local language” is a logical fallacy. “why would I learn a sixth that does not have much use outside the Netherlands?” is interesting, because in the earlier section she says that it was hard for her to get along and befriend people during her first year in AI, and it basically provides the reason for learning the language. That English always works in Latvia doesn’t mean that it does in the Netherlands. You could try change the country, but it’s often better to try and change yourself; to try and blend in. There’s definitely a task here for the departments who attract international students, to improve expectation management, and really tell them that it’s the international student who has to do the effort, there’s no reason for the average Dutch student to do it for them.

  2. Eva wrote on 3 juli 2019 at 15:28

    I am sorry for how you felt during the introduction and your studies. The question is: is it fair to expect 18 year old freshman students to speak English 24-7 during the introduction, when they are in a new environment, don’t really know their peer group yet and are among new people who all speak Dutch except one? As much as I understand your point of view, maybe it would have been better to bring up the topic to your mentor or simply to ask the group to help you in understanding what is said. Or start a conversation one on one, in English. It is really hard to express yourself well in a second language, and the group probably did not mean to exclude you intentionally. In your story, you also mention that you are shy and don’t get energy from large group meetings, and this may also have played a role in the feeling of exclusion, not just the language barrier. Don’t give up on the Dutch people just yet, they often don’t mean to be rude when they are. 🙂

  3. S wrote on 4 juli 2019 at 16:48

    Imo this is really a Nijmegen issue, not a “Netherlands at large” issue. I’ve lived in both Maastricht and Nijmegen, and while I was in Maastricht I have never once felt the need to learn Dutch. Everyone around me spoke English (yes, even if I was the only non-Dutch in the group). Here, things are very different. Maybe it’s simply because it’s smack in the middle of the country rather than very close to international borders like Maastricht is, but many students here don’t actually speak English that well and are uncomfortable using it.
    Still, not using English during orientation activities in an English-taught programme is just inexcusable. The University has these programmes specifically to attract internationals: it should be its responsibility to create a welcoming environment for them.

  4. Amy wrote on 5 juli 2019 at 11:42

    I think they don’t realise how rude it can be to keep speaking in Dutch while international people are present. It’s terrible to feel so lonely while surrounded by people that don’t seem to care. I’ve seen this happening quite frequently and every time I feel so uncomfortable and disappointed and I try to switch the conversation to English. Its really not that hard..
    I’m Dutch and I’ve lived in Japan for a couple of years and it was a very isolating experience at work. However the difference was that they did try to make an effort to speak to me, even in their broken English. I was also studying Japanese while working full time, but it takes a while (perhaps years) to become proficient and it would have been really demotivating if nobody in my direct Japanese environment would be aware of my presence and put some effort in communicating with me. I’ve heard similar stories of international people in Spain that went there and even tough the English that the locals speak is quite poor, they will try to speak it anyway when they notice a non-Spanish speaker is present.
    I agree that the international student could also engage with them in English and try to grab the attention and make friends. But the English spoken by Dutch people is relatively on a high level and the fact that many still keep speaking in Dutch no matter if international people are present indicates to me, and to many with me, that they’re completely oblivious in noticing non-Dutch, they’re not putting themselves in the shoes of the international person, or they simply do not care. In any case, its very rude and its time for some common decency

  5. Anna wrote on 12 juli 2019 at 08:17

    I am sorry for you to hear about your feeling of loneliness. Although I think it would be a better experience when the introductiongroup spoke more Dutch, I agree with Eva in this case.
    I would like mention something in this case. Besides a study and the studyactivities, there are a lot of other activities you can join to improve your (social)life, whether or not also aimed at international students. Such as a sports club, art club or other classes to learn new skills ánd have a place to fit in. The university is not only here to supply a study, but tries to make it possible for a student to make the best of their free time. So even it is unfortunate that the study dit not provide enough opportunities to make you feel comfortable, there exists way more other options to make it a wonderful time of your life here in Nijmegen. You may have to put some effort into searching for that comfortable spot. I hope you will find the welcoming environment-experience also here in Nijmegen, because no one deserves it to feel lonely.

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