Chinese, Spanish, English and German are just a few of the languages that you can hear in many Groningen pubs, bars and on the streets. Thousands of young people from all over the world come to Groningen to obtain a master’s degree or a PhD, or to spend a semester abroad. But why do they choose to come to Groningen. Perhaps because it is such a nice student city, or because the quality of education is so good? Whatever the reason, one question remains: how difficult is it to adapt to the cultures and customs of a new city?
A 22-year-old international communications student from China, Yuwei Zhao has been living in Groningen for two years. “I chose to come here because the city is so young, and I wanted to come into contact with different people and cultures, including the Dutch. At first, I was mainly meeting other international students, but eventually you find your place in the city and then you end up in conversation with Groningers. One thing that I have noticed is that people here are extremely direct. That’s less common in Asia, so that really took some getting used to, but I understand now that people aren’t being mean. In the end, it didn’t really take too much effort to build a life for myself here.”
“I was really surprised by all the bikes”, says 20-year-old Alex Stahno from the United States. “I’m from New York, and it would really be deadly to have so many bikes in New York City. What do I miss? My grocery store. I can’t read the labels so I don’t know what kind of butter to buy. It was also tough to make social contacts, but the introduction week helped to make sure that we got off to a good start in Groningen.”
Introduction to Dutch culture
The introduction week is organised by Erasmus Student Network Groningen, a student organisation focused on internationals. “We do it twice a year and there are around 2,250 students in attendance”, former ESN president Joey Richardson says with pride. ESN also organises dozens of activities and provides information about life in the Netherlands. Richardson is from the British city of Manchester and scaled back his course load in order to focus on ESN Groningen full time. “We are financed by the RUG; they also think it’s important to make sure that international students have a good time here.”
“I struggled to adapt and to get my life here in order at first”, says Richardson. “That’s why I’m happy to help other students. It’s important because there are more students signing up for our introduction week every year. Groningen has a really good reputation, and that goes for the quality of education as well. You see that reflected in the rankings and various lists, and for students from Asia in particular, that really matters.”
Limited contact with Dutch people
Richardson himself is happy in Groningen. “I have friends here from all over the world, and that’s really educational in its own way. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to interact with Dutch people. You can’t join a Dutch student association because they only speak Dutch.”
“Let’s be real: for many students, studying isn’t the most important part of their stay in the Netherlands. They come here for the experience and to learn from other cultures. Those people tend to adapt quite easily. As a student, I think it’s easier to feel at ease than as someone who wants to move here permanently. You know that you’ll be returning home. Lots of students have that mind set”, Richardson says.
Richardson was the chairperson of ESN in the 2016/2017 school year, and the position is filled by someone else each year. At the time, he explained his goals for the organisation: “I want to focus more on integration, and we also want to draw more attention to exchange programmes. We see it as our responsibility to get more Dutch students to go abroad in addition to making sure that exchange students have a good time.”
“I could choose among Athens, Cape Town, Dublin and Groningen”
One of those exchange students is Alex Stahno, who studied abroad in Groningen for five months. The international economics student from State University of New York Geneseo had her pick of cities to go on exchange: “I could choose among Athens, Cape Town, Dublin and Groningen, and I chose Groningen. That kind of surprised people, but after I came here for a visit, I thought it was pretty much perfect because it’s not overly touristy and you really feel like you’re a part of city life here.”
“I go out until 5 in the morning on a regular basis here”, Stahno says. “But I also have more free time here than at my university back home. The education system is vastly different.”
Heavier workload in the U.S.
The American student wanted to come to Groningen for her own personal development and to experience a different education system. “Class sizes are much larger than in the U.S., but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the education. In the Netherlands, there’s more of a hands on approach. We do real economic simulations, which is completely different from what I’m used to in America. Back home, we have classes every day and tons of tests and assignments, whereas here we have more free time and are more responsible for ourselves. But that means that there is a lot riding on the final exams here.”
Yuwei Zhao says that exams here are also very different from what she is accustomed to in China. “The main emphasis is on high school in China; the pressure is much lower at university. It’s pretty much impossible to fall behind on your studies there, but here it’s considered perfectly normal”, she explains.
“Getting home at 5 a.m. is common”
Most students have loads of free time, which is easy to see when you look at Groningen’s night life. “I’m able to drink here, which is obviously a big difference”, says Stahno. “And getting home at 5 a.m. is common. Partying here is really different from America; we mainly have house parties back home. Here, there are tons of bars and you end up meetings lots of different people. But I also spend a lot of time in the Noorderplantsoen. That’s a really nice spot. I’m definitely going to miss Groningen. It’s almost time for me to go back to America to finish my degree programme there, and it’s a real shame that my five months are already up.”
“I wanted to get out of Iran”
Arezoo Shajiej, an Iranian PhD candidate at the RUG, will be in Groningen for a longer period. “I’ve been here since March, but it’s going well. Groningen isn’t very big, but it’s very safe and tolerant. That’s really important to me – I didn’t leave Iran for nothing.” Shajiej is originally from the city of Mashhad, which has 2.8 million residents and is the second largest city in Iran behind Tehran. “After the Islamic Revolution, everything changed in my home country. I didn’t want to live there any longer. I’m glad that I got a Marie Curie Scholarship and was able to come here to do my PhD research. The quality of life here is much higher than in Iran.”
Friendly, or extremely candid?
Shajiej has encountered serious cultural differences compared to Iran. “I want to learn the language as quickly as I can because that helps you better understand the culture”, she says. “The fact that there are so many international students and cultures represented here makes things easier. The people here are also very friendly.”
Arezoo Shajiej does not want to live in a culture where she has to conform to Islam-informed standards. She came to the Netherlands because she was seeking greater freedom. She will be working on her PhD for the next four years, but she sees Groningen as her future.
“I miss a lot of things, but there are also a lot of things that I don’t miss. I can stay in touch with my family through WhatsApp. But I’m here working toward my own future, and that comes at a price. So far, I don’t have any regrets with my decision to come to Groningen. I have a four-year contract at the RUG, and I would be happy to be able to continue living here once I’m done. I don’t feel the need to go back to Iran. But that all depends on being able to get a job here.”
“Language is a big issue”
That is the challenge facing Française Priscilla Cailleau. The media and entertainment management student moved to the Netherlands seven years ago with her family after her father got a job at Philips. “I want to work here, but it’s hard to find anything either part time or full time. There are really only a couple of places that are realistic options.”
Cailleau thinks that Groningen is a nice city, and her fiancée is a Dutch guy, named Joey. “It’s a great place for students, but it’s very hard to really build a life for yourself here. Groningers are friendly, but it doesn’t really go any deeper than a basic level of service. They help you where they can, but developing deep relationships takes a very long time. That’s a shame, but I have noticed that Groningers are becoming more open toward internationals in the city. Now it’s up to local businesses to make more room for foreign students and employees.”
She has been living in the Netherlands for seven years, but Cailleau still feels like Dutch people keep their distance, even though she met her Dutch fiancée Joey here. She still misses her home country of France and French culture.
The vast majority of international students leave Groningen after getting their diploma. “I might do my master’s in the Netherlands”, says Stahno. “But I would probably go somewhere else in the country. I’ve heard that Rotterdam has a good university.” For Cailleau, she is hopeful that her future lies in Groningen. “It all depends on where I can find work. Most of the jobs in my field are in Hilversum. But it’s possible that Joey and I may stay here and start our lives together here. If I end up living somewhere else, I would miss Groningen.” “There is life beyond the student bubble for some people”, says Richardson of ESN Groningen. “We’re working together with the schools, the municipality and the International Welcome Center North to show students what everyday life is like here and what kind of job opportunities there are out there. There’s plenty that we can do, but it’s unrealistic to think that you can really influence people’s decisions. International students typically know exactly what their next step will be, but I will say that many of them are very happy in Groningen and would love to have the option to stay here.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said that Arezoo Shajiej had received a Madame Curie Scholarship. Shajiej received a Marie Curie Scholarship.