Every year, roughly 2,500 international students get to know the city of Groningen during one of two introduction weeks organised by Erasmus Student Network (ESN). Around 800 students from all over the world who will be studying or living in Groningen for either a short period or long term have already signed up for the upcoming intro week in February. “An introduction week like this helps to make sure that the students feel at least a little bit more at home, and that is tremendously important for internationals”, explains ESN Groningen president Tjitske Schokker in an in-depth interview.
Interview: Matthijs van Houten
Translation: Traci White
The Northern Times paid a visit to the ESN offices on the Pelsterstraat a couple of weeks before the introduction week. We were greeted at the door by one of the board members who led the way down a narrow hallway and into a cosy, buzzing space that would not feel out of place in a student house. The grilled sandwich maker sizzled away in the background as we searched for a spot at one of the cluttered desks to sit down for an interview. “You guys could try the front office – we cleaned up there”, one of the students suggests helpfully. Everyone around us is busy taking and making phone calls. “Yeah, it’s pretty hectic right now”, Tjitske Schokker explains. “The introduction week is coming up and at least 800 students will be taking part, and there’s a lot that still needs to be sorted out.”
The ESN offices are piled full of 800 goodie bags as the finishing touches are put on a magazine and other members work to finalise the activities and events that will be organised during the week.
We settle into the “living room” of the offices for our interview. “This is just the way it has to be right now. And we are a student organisation, after all”, Schokker says. True as that may be, ESN is also an organisation that is run very professionally. The Groningen branch has six board members, all of whom are working for ESN full time. “Our studies are on the back burner. One of our board members is still following a few courses, but you really don’t have much time to study at all. But we’re all getting so much practical experience through managing an organisation”, says Schokker, who, like many other ESN board members, is studying International Relations at the University of Groningen. The board is supported by around 60 members of various committees, about half of whom are Dutch.
The Erasmus Student Network, ESN in short, is a student organisation that is primarily focused on international students. The European network is active in 40 countries. In the Netherlands, there are 17 branches, and there are more than 500 across the entire network. The organisation has existed in Groningen for 31 years, and for the past 20 years, they have been an official part of ESN. “There were around 50 students at the first introduction week, and nowadays it’s closer to 2,000. Groningen is the biggest branch in the Netherlands and actually the second largest in all of Europe, which is why we have a full time board. You have to have that level of commitment if you want to be able to organise cool stuff”, Schokker says.
Best time of your life
ESN’s goal is to help students feel at home in a different country. “We want them to look back on their time here as the best time of their lives. We really hope that we can help create lifelong friendships and memories. We also help them to figure out how to live in another culture and to cope with a different educational approach”, Schokker explains. ESN Groningen does all of that by offering a wide range of activities. “There’s something for everyone. We organise weekly drinks, pub quizzes, sports activities and cultural field trips and excursions both within and outside of the Netherlands. We went to Hamburg for a weekend last year, and this year, we’ve set up different clubs for members who have similar interests. They can have a meal together, play football together or anything else they want. It’s all about people meeting each other”, Schokker says.
ESN welcomes more than 2,500 new students during the introduction weeks in September and February. “In September of last year, we had 1,850 students and 150 guides. In February, we’ll have 800 participants representing around 40 different nationalities”, Schokker says. During the introduction week, the students will take part in a pub crawl, a culture day, a comedy night, sports activities, Dutch lessons and a blow out final party at MartiniPlaza (September) or Kokomo (February).
How to avoid homesickness
The introduction week is meant to serve as a way to get to know the city quickly. “We hope that helping students start to form a bond with Groningen will equip them with the tools they’ll need for the entirety of their time here. We really want to try and help them avoid becoming homesick. It’s a way of becoming familiar with other people and finding someone who you can talk about cultural differences with. It also puts you in touch with Dutch people, so that brings you out of the international bubble at least a little bit. And yes, the bubble is absolutely a real thing that exists. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can get in the way if someone is trying to integrate but doesn’t really have the opportunity to do so. You shouldn’t just stay in the bubble the whole time because then you can’t integrate.”
Integration for internationals
The number of international students in Groningen is steadily increasing with each passing year. “We hear from other ESN branches that they are seeing the same thing in their cities. Will that create problems? Well, in Groningen, I think that people are increasingly seeing it as perfectly normal to be surrounded by so many internationals. I am seeing a shift when it comes to integration between internationals and Dutch people, but it is really important that it comes from both sides and that people are proactive about trying to get to know one another.”
ESN Groningen works with various student associations and organisations in order to further facilitate integration. “We collaborate with Albertus Magnus, for example, and you can also join the association as an international student. Cleopatra is another student association that we partner with, and the Gladiators lacrosse association actively seeks out international students. But a lot of other associations are not particularly interested. They may already have plenty of members. That’s not really a good thing or a bad thing, just as long as it’s possible for internationals, especially those who are trying to learn Dutch, to eventually become a member and join them.”
Issues surrounding integration do end up creating housing problems for many international students. “A lot of Dutch students would prefer not to have an international house mate. The language barrier may be a bit awkward at first, but that discomfort typically fades away pretty quickly, and you can get so much back in return.”
Many students in Groningen had a very hard time finding housing at the beginning of the academic year. “Internationals are hit harder”, Schokker says. “They may think that a hospiteeravond is the same thing as a property viewing, but it’s really more about presenting yourself and standing out from a group of other applicants. Some Dutch students go to ten hospiteeravonden before they find a room. That is something that international students need to have explained to them to help them understand.”
Since November, the housing issues have more or less quieted down, but the cause of the issues has not been addressed. ESN also sees themselves as playing an important role when it comes to finding a more structural solution to the problem. “We’re not a landlord or a housing organisation for internationals, but we do want to safeguard their interests. We can explain how the Dutch system works and where they can search for rooms. In November, we signed a covenant along with the academic institutions, housing corporations and the municipality that formalised commitments about the number of houses that need to be built. We are also working on a campaign to raise awareness about how there is really no difference between living with an international student or a Dutch student. And like I said earlier, there is just so much added value!”
There is clearly plenty to keep the board members busy, especially since they will can only serve for one year. “We’re definitely not bored. There are more and more international students, but that is also the challenge. The capacity of our committees and the organisation is limited, and if we want to scale up, then we will have to organise certain events somewhere else. But we can only realistically do that once we have another 500 additional students signing up.”
Internationalisation brings so much to the city
Schokker says that she is all in favour of the city becoming even more international. “The RUG wants to focus more on diversification of the student community, so their international ambitions are clearly not being scaled back. And internationalisation brings so much to the city. Together with the municipality and the International Welcome Center North, we’re currently looking into more ways to keep talented people in the region by focusing on career opportunities. Internationals need to have access to all the knowledge and resources they can get so that they can eventually choose to start their career in Groningen.”
That particular ambition will likely have to be carried out by Schokker’s successor: “Our successors will start shadowing us in early May. Our current board will formally remain in place until 8 September, and then we will pass the torch to the new board. We have plenty of time to handle transferring everything. Our organisation is also becoming more and more professional, so that really helps, too. The new board members can start making their plans and then really hit the ground running with their own policies in September.”
And what will Schokker and her fellow board members do then? Hit the books. “But I will still remain committed to helping international students in Groningen however I can.”