Maastricht through other eyes: International students speak
June 20, 2007 4 Comments
They are everywhere. You might have seen them on the bus, biking around or having a beer on the Vrijthof. In fact they might live next door, in a rented room. Sometimes they seem like a swarming plague taking over the town. They are the international students at the University of Maastricht.
For a week I followed six of these specimens, learning more about them, their habits and their personal histories. Becoming one of them wasn’t too difficult… and here comes my secret: I’m an international student too. Keep on reading to know what these peculiar people think and do in Maastricht and find out about their dreams, their regrets and some of their advice for the city.
It’s 12.45 and I park my bike in front of the Faculty of Economics. I’m waiting for Tra Ho, 20, a Vietnamese student who is finishing her exchange semester in Maastricht. Tra grew up in Hanoi but she goes to college in Colorado, USA. There she is!
Tra is slightly shorter than me, which means she’s not very tall. She dresses well and walks confidently. “What class did you just get out of?” I ask her. “That was economics. Let’s go for a bite. I have a philosophy class in an hour,” she says.
We cross the street and go into Something Good, a great take away restaurant with cheap sandwiches. “They have great baguettes here,” says Tra, who is a regular, “it’s so much better than Subway!” After waiting in line for a few minutes it’s our turn to order. She asks for a Panini Caprese and I get a bagel with brie, honey and walnuts. Delicious.
While we eat, Tra tells me about her last trip to Greece. “I love the central location of Maastricht and how close it is to Eindhoven airport.” Tra has certainly taken advantage of this. In the past four months she has travelled to Belgium, France, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria. “My goal in life is to visit every continent. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to study abroad and I thought that Europe would be perfect.”
Since we are on the topic of goals in life I ask her about her plans for the future. “I’ll go to grad school to do a degree in Math,” she says. “I’d like to become an actuary…” A what? “You know, the person who calculates the risk for insurance companies and banks.” I nod, still slightly nonplussed.
We meet up again after her class so that Tra can show me her favourite place in town. When I go to pick her up and I ask her where her bike is, she says: “You know, my biggest regret is not having a bike. But when I arrived I looked at the cobblestones and thought: how am I supposed to bike here?”
Tra takes me for a walk on the promenade by the Maas full of lively cafés. “I like taking random walks around the city, because it’s so unique and beautiful. But I also enjoy going out at night to bars.” The Shamrock and the Meta are some of the hotspots in town for students, and Tra knows it. “Dancing at the Meta is a big part of my life here.” She laughs. “I like partying. That’s why Carnival was so much fun. I really think the Dutch know how to party. It’s great!”
We head now to the Guesthouse, where we both live. “Do you have many Dutch friends?” I ask her. “A few Dutch acquaintances… It’s hard to make Dutch friends. However the one thing I think is true for Europeans in general is that it takes a while to make friends but once you are friends it’s a true friendship, it’s not superficial like in America.”
We enter the guesthouse, the former university hospital which now hosts a dorm for international students. Located on the Browersweg, the guesthouse provides around 350 single and double rooms to almost as many students from all over the world.
“It thought it was very international, obviously,” Tra says about the guesthouse. “I felt like there would be a lot for me to learn from people from different cultures. My first impression however, wasn’t very good. There was this Swedish guy who instead of saying “hello” to me, said “ni hao.” I’ve encountered this soooo many times. And often, when I tell them I’m not Chinese they switch to “kon’nichi wa”. Honestly, I think it’s a bit ignorant.”
Talking about languages, I ask Tra, who now seems a bit annoyed, if she has learned some Dutch. “Yes, I took a course last block, Dutch Language and Culture, but after trying to speak with broken sentences and having the locals respond back in English I just gave up!” she says.
I leave Tra in her room where she’s MSNing with some of her friends back home in Hanoi. As I walk up to my room I remember her words: “Western Europe is one of the best places in the world. But Europeans should visit Asia and widen their cultural horizons.” Ditto!
If Kwesi Fromson had been born on Tuesday he would have been called Kwabena. But he was born on a Sunday 27 years ago so he’s called Kwesi and not Kwabena, which would have been perfect for the title of this second portrait. The tradition of naming children according to their day of birth is predominant among the Akan people of Ghana.
Now, to say that Kwesi is from Ghana would be simplistic and inaccurate. In fact, figuring out where Kwesi is “from” seems harder than making a list of all the dialects in Limburg! His parents are originally from Nigeria but Kwesi holds a passport from Ghana, where he has spent a total of two weeks in his entire life. Kwesi is more like a global nomad, having lived in Zambia, South Africa, Guyana, Saint Lucia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and now the Netherlands. I know that deep down he enjoys being a mystery man.
“What brought you, of all places, to Maastricht?” I ask Kwesi after we meet at the Mensa, the student cafeteria at the Economics Faculty. “I came to do a Masters in finance. The university is quite prestigious.” But university is keeping Kwesi really busy. “The workload here is the most intense, hectic workload I’ve ever had to deal with and this includes five years working as the manager of a construction company while playing professional rugby with the Botswana national team.”
As a result of his rugby training Kwesi looks very athletic and handsome, and this attracts the eyes of several girls in the cafeteria. His long dreadlocks are another point of interest. “Every Friday evening I get stopped by foreigners who see my dreadlocks and come to ask me where are the best coffeeshops in town. Every Friday, no kidding!”
Kwesi is really friendly and has always a smile for everyone. I ask him whether he has any Dutch friends. “This is pretty much a German faculty,” he says laughing. “It’s difficult to find Dutch people.” For that reason he moved out of the Guesthouse into a house with three Dutch students. His living situation is allowing him to “learn Dutch passively,” by picking up phrases from his housemates.
When Kwesi is done with his class on Fixed Income Management we meet again to go to the library. I ask him about his impressions of Maastricht. “I like the fact that it is very oriented towards student life. There’s a little something for everyone and everything is on time, which I love!” However, Kwesi misses rugby and complains about the lack of opportunities to watch games on TV. Also, Kwesi has unsuccessfully been trying to find a job, due to problems opening a bank account and getting a SOFI number.
At 20.00, after a strenuous study session in which Kwesi muses over his Real Estate Finance textbook and I try to get my act together for my class presentation on Thursday, Kwesi and I go to John Mullins, the Irish pub on the Wycker Brugstraat. It’s Tuesday night and that means it’s Quiz Night! Quiz Night is a favourite activity among international students because it is in English and you always meet interesting people and make new friends.
“This is the only social event I indulge in every week,” says Kwesi. He and his team “3’s a Crowd” fight week after week with other 20 teams for the coveted prize: a bottle of whiskey. So far they’ve never savoured the sweet taste of victory. “We’ve been second in the ranking for two times,” Kwesi exclaims excitedly. “I think tonight IS the night.”
Germans form by far the largest country group among international students. Milena Fey, from Bonn, is one of them. Milena is studying Humanities at the University College of Maastricht (UCM), a liberal arts school which also offers studies in Social and Life Sciences. Her interest in history and literature has led her to pursue a capstone thesis about historiographies of so-called heroines in history.
I meet with Milena in front of the Minerva Cinema, near where she lives. She comes back from her job at the McDonald’s on the Market Square. As an EU student, Milena is entitled to financial support for her studies (“Study Financiering”) from the Dutch government as long as she works 32 hours every month. Given the scarcity of jobs for internationals in Maastricht, the MacJob was the only real alternative for her. But this has also brought good things.
“I’m still working there after three years. It can’t be that bad,” she says. Of all places, Milena learned her perfect Dutch working in the kitchen of McDonalds. She took some Dutch lessons at the Language Centre but the real learning was done among French fries and Big Macs. “When I became fluent I moved to the cashier. I was so proud when my former Dutch teacher came to order and didn’t recognize me because my Dutch was so good!”
Since she speaks the language, her insights into Dutch culture are deeper than those of most international and exchange students. “When I’m working in the kitchen I hear some of my workmates talking about the foreign customers: ‘stupid German, stupid French or stupid Belgians’ are comments I hear very often. Sometimes I don’t like to speak German in public.”
Is Maastricht an international city? “Yes and no,” Milena replies. “There are many nationalities around and there’s a lot of tourism but it doesn’t seem to get appreciated by the locals. But the truth is that the McDonald’s on the Market would probably have to close down if it weren’t for the foreign customers. In general I feel that Limburg is not very open to influences from the outside.”
Despite this, Milena likes Maastricht. After she graduates with her BA from UCM she will begin a Masters on Arts and Heritage. She dreams about working for UNESCO in the future, but that’s still a little bit far away. For know she plans to enjoy her summer travelling around Europe.
Rungphet Phatchana (Phet, for short) comes from Buriram Province, in Thailand. Phet is 20 years old but his soft voice, kind expression and gentle presence make him seem somewhat younger. He came to Maastricht last November to learn English through a program with the Centre for European Studies before embarking on a BA program on Public Health at the University of Maastricht this coming October.
Phet lives with four other students from Thailand at Hotel Randwyck. He had invited me for an early breakfast at 7.00 at the hostel. Though it sounded very tempting I told him that I couldn’t remember when was the last time I woke up that early (though I remember the last time I went to bed at 7.00!). Therefore we meet at 13.00 in the Bouillonstraat, after Phet is done with his English courses at the Language Centre.
“How is it going?” I ask him. “Fine. I just have a lot of homework.” Phet is a very bright student and proves it by answering all my questions in almost perfect English, even though he has been learning the language only for five months. Also, Phey is in Maastricht with a prestigious scholarship awarded by the Thai government under the “One District, One Scholarship” program.
As we cross the Hoog Brug – or “Europe” bridge as another friend of mine calls it – towards Plein 1992, I enquire about his Dutch. “Ah! Not so good!” he exclaims. Even though Phet took Dutch courses for three months at the Srinakharinwirot University in Thailand, he still has trouble understanding the locals. He hopes that by the time he graduates in four years he will be fluent in Dutch.
Phet takes me to the municipal library at Centre Céramique, where he usually spends several hours everyday reading English newspapers, listening to their wondrous music collection, surfing the internet and doing his homework.
“I like a quiet city,” he tells me looking at the towers of the Onze Lieve Vrouw Church through the big glass windows on the third floor of the library. “I recently visited the caves inside the mountain,” he tells me. “That was certainly one of my favourite places in Maastricht.”
For the future, Phet plans to return to his community in Thailand and hopes to work at the local hospital, putting into practice the theory he will have learnt here in Maastricht. But he still has four more years to go. Although he sometimes misses home he plans on making the most out of his time here.
Today I’m meeting my compatriot, Sara Mora at 8.30. Sara is 22 and has lived in Maastricht for a year through the Erasmus program. She studies psychology in Salamanca and here she takes courses at the Randwyck campus of the University of Maastricht, on the other side of the river. I’ve never been there so we’ve agreed that we would go together in the morning.
I’m not used to waking up so early so I wait for Sara, half asleep, on the first floor of the Guesthouse. After a few minutes I see her walking lackadaisically down the stairs, her dreamy eyes shining with a cute je ne sais quoi. “Buenos días, reportero,” she greets me.
We go to the bus stop and catch bus number 5. After our “strippenkaarten” (bus ride cards) are properly stamped we sit down at the front. Sara is looking intently at the bus driver. “I’m working on a psychology research project about the mental workload of drivers,” she mutters without taking her eyes off the driver. “I’m comparing physiological and subjective techniques that are used to measure the mental workload.” Impressive.
She knows her stuff and enjoys it too. I remember her once telling me how she built a 2m2 wooden labyrinth to test the intelligence of mice back in Salamanca. “What I like the most about the faculty in Maastricht is the possibility to learn about and experiment with new technologies in the field. In Spain people graduate without knowing what an fMRI machine looks like!”
Sara finds classes here harder than back home but admits that she likes the system better. “In Spain it’s all lectures. There is no contact between the student and the professor.” I understand what she means.
The bus ride only lasts a few minutes. I’m curious about all these sleek and new buildings which host the different science faculties. Sara rushes to her “Sleep and Sleep Disorders” class. I tell myself that I need to tell her about my insomnia.
I wander around the campus and end up in the library, which looks like the set of a sci-fi movie about extraterrestrial invasions. Before I notice it’s time to meet Sara again. When I see her she’s talking with some friends.
“Were those Dutch?” I ask her as we walk toward the cafeteria. She shakes her head. “It’s hard to make Dutch friends,” she says. “In class I’m in the international group, where the language of instruction is English. Most of my friends are Spanish or German.”
“And how is your Dutch?” “I’ve tried,” she says a bit dejectedly. Sara joined one of the basic level courses offered by the Language Centre in February. “The class started with 12 students but only four of us stayed until the bitter end. I was very happy when they gave us the diploma after the final exam, even though I really only know how to give basic directions and speak using the past tense.” I ask her to tell me something in Dutch. “Ik spreek geen Nederlands.” She smiles.
Luckily, Sara has been more successful at the other end of the teaching line. She has been giving private Spanish lessons to two students all this time and she really enjoys it. It is also a way of making some money, something hard considering “you can’t get a job in Maastricht if you don’t speak Dutch”.
We part for a while now as Sara has to go to her class on “Psychology of Stress and Depression.” I tell myself that I need to tell her about my stress.
We meet a few hours later, after Sara’s siesta. “It’s good to keep the tradition,” I tell her. We go for a walk and I ask Sara about her impressions of Maastricht. “In spring it is such a lovely city, with so many gorgeous parks. But it’s too quiet for me. I miss options to go out. Also the cultural life of the city is too inward looking. There are very few theatres, lectures and events in English.”
In the park behind the city walls Sara takes me to her favourite spot in Maastricht: a sculpture of a sad bear sitting on a bench. Sara is also a little bit sad as her time in Maastricht is coming to an end. However, the future looks bright. She and her friends are planning a trip up north, to Terschelling. After that, she is going back to Spain and next year she hopes to finish her degree.
Joel Roszmann is one of those people you meet and never forget. It might be his eclecticism or it might his plain craziness but this 23 year old Canadian from Nanaimo certainly makes an impression on you. I don’t know why, but I could see him starring in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Joel’s interests include kung-fu, weapons and smoothies.
We meet at his house on Frankenstraat, a sort of post-communist commune where two Germans, one Brit, one Finnish/Iranian, one Nepali and two Dutch live together. Even more international than the Guesthouse! We have brunch in the garden, which has a quaint brick pavilion with a hammock and candles, the perfect spot for meditation.
“What brought you to Maastricht?” I ask Joel as I’m genuinely curious. “Divine Providence!” he exclaims. At least it’s not a total non-sequitur. Next question: “What do you study here?” “Well, when I came four years ago I started in the international economics program but after a year I transferred to UCM where I’m now finishing a Bachelor in Social Sciences.”
With only a few weeks before graduation Joel tells me about his plans for the immediate future. “I’m moving to Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK to work as the sales manager in the film company of a friend. But before that, I’m putting on a theatre show here in the city, during the second week of June.”
“Acryllis” by Alice Wellum tells the story of a “happy” middle-class family whose life radically changes when a car crash brings a stranger into their lives. “The play asks ‘How hard can it be to live in a world where dreams come true?’ And by the way, it’s time to go to rehearsal,” says director Roszmann.
We bike to the Landbouwbelang, a squatted factory building located in the Biesenwal, next to the Maas river. The Landbouwbelang gives Joel and his company a free venue to rehearse and perform the play. “It’s the perfect environment,” Joel says. “There are a lot of art initiatives, NGOs and student groups all under one roof.”
While Joel rehearses with his four actors I walk around the building. According to Joel the future of the building might be in jeopardy since it is rumoured that Dutch impresario Joop van de Ende is planning on building a Holland Casino at the location.
This is one of the things about Maastricht that get to Joel. “Maastricht is a very groovy town. However, there’s a definite culture in Maastricht which is elitist, which is anti-youth culture and anti-squatters and it’s ready to call up the police to break up parties not because they are loud or illegal but because it is a part of youth culture they don’t like. There’s a very subtle discrimination happening sometimes.”
Joel tells me how some time ago he and a Dutch friend needed the exact same thing done at the tax office (“Belastingdienst”). While the friend dealt with the red tape in a matter of minutes Joel had to spend hours getting the procedure done. “And very often people insist on speaking Dutch to you, even when they know you don’t speak it,” he adds as a way of concluding his story.
I ask Joel if he thinks that Maastricht is an international city. “Maastricht is not an international city,” he declares bluntly. “There’s a desire among the city council to project that image, which is on the verge of obsessive. But the truth is that the city is not open to foreign cultures and people. And on top of that it has systems that oppose its own internationalist goals, like the complications of getting work here”.
But those inconveniences do not stop Joel’s involvement in the community. Even though “the vast majority of student associations are exclusively Dutch speaking,” Joel joined the board of Rag Week during his first year. Rag Week consists of a series of activities organized by student associations to raise money for charity. Joel is also actively involved with a local NGO called Demotech which designs self-reliant technologies that promote sustainable lifestyles. One of the projects in which Joel has worked is a rope pump, a water pump for use in developing areas made with car tires and nylon.
It is obvious that Joel has made the most out of his time here and his imprint will be left behind. “Maastricht has become a home I’m going to miss,” he tells me as we say goodbye.
Today is Sunday, so I stay in bed until late. Then I proceed to transcribe all the interviews I did during the week and reflect on the stories of these six remarkable young men and women. It’s interesting to see that even though I asked them pretty much the same questions I heard such diverse experiences.
However, there are some recurrent thoughts or impressions, such as the difficulties of finding a job, making Dutch friends or learning the language.
It’s a bit tragic that the city does not better tap into the incredible talent and energy that these young individuals bring along with them. Many international students arrive here with a lot to offer, culturally and professionally, and with an incredible eagerness to become part of the community. However, more often than not, they are met with some degree of disappointment.
It is as if Maastricht overlooks the fact that international students are, in many ways, all potential ambassadors. Back in their home countries the students will share their experiences and impressions about the city and its inhabitants with their families, friends and acquaintances. They might help someone decide whether to come here for study, a vacation or to open a business. Obviously, the more positive things they say about Maastricht, the better it will be for the city.
At the moment, it looks like most international students feel welcome here but Maastricht still has a lot to do. Personally, if people asked me I would definitely recommend Maastricht for a holiday or a semester of study. However, I would be less enthusiastic if someone wanted to come for an extended study period and I would definitely advise against coming here to settle down and try to work if the person does not speak Dutch.
Host family program in Maastricht?
One way to make this group of expatriates feel more welcome and integrated in the community – and which would also allow Maastricht to benefit from their many assets – could be to set up a host family program, similar to the one at my American college. Through this type of programs, international students are paired up with local families who want to learn more about people from other countries and backgrounds and are willing to show them more about Dutch culture.
Activities usually include meeting up for coffee, going together to the cinema, celebrating family birthdays, dinners, etc. These simple things really shape the way that young students experience the country. For me it has been a great growing experience over the past three years, and I look forward to going back to the US to see my “family” again.. Perhaps this idea could work in Maastricht too!
By Hector P. Alvarez
Hector Pascual Alvarez, 21, is a Spanish student enrolled at Macalester College in Minnesota (US) where he is majoring in International Studies and Theatre Arts. He spent the first semester of 2007 at Maastricht University as part of a study abroad programme.