World students in Maastricht
March 23, 2011 7 Comments
“I am a citizen of the world,” the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope said more than 2000 years ago. I suppose many of my fellow students at Maastricht University would subscribe to this statement.
In the past few years a new generation of students has emerged that has grown increasingly international. They consider the world as their home, travel abroad for their studies, even to different continents.
Attracted by Maastricht’s convenient geographic location at the heart of Europe, and its university’s outspoken ambition to be an international academic institute, Dutch, German and Belgian students, as well as a large number of other foreign students arrive each year to study in Maastricht.
Maastricht, a popular stopover for students from all over the world
Many of them take advantage of the university’s exchange programs with other universities, study grants and scholarships.
In 2010, almost 6,000 international students – about 43 percent of the student body – were enrolled at Maastricht University.
Often, these immediately split into separate, primarily nationality-based groups. Yet, a distinct group exists besides those national clusters: it is a group of ‘cosmopolitans’ who are oblivious to national origins – a group of ‘world citizens’.
In many respects, these cosmopolitans are just like other students. They study, party, take classes and make friends. Of course, they also mingle with other students, be they Dutch, German, or of any other nationality. But whereas the majority of Dutch students settle for a life within a student association, and large parts of the German student population return to their hometown every weekend, these cosmopolitans build their own experience of their stay in Maastricht.
First and foremost, they are students who are ‘on the move’. Instead of becoming a home Maastricht represents a temporary stopover on their global journey.
Welcome to Maastricht
As a matter of fact, most students leave Maastricht after graduation. But whereas many of them return to their home countries and hometowns, the group of cosmopolitan students continue their journey and move on to other places. Their conversations about future plans include names of cities from all over the world. Maastricht is seldom mentioned.
Having lived in more than one country before coming to Maastricht and eager to add more to the list, many of them already have a globalised biography. Attracted by the international outlook offered by many UM study programmes, these students see Maastricht as a diving board. They value the international atmosphere of the city and its connections to the rest of the world, which they can use in their search for the next stop.
Living in the international bubble
The German Peter Ulrich calls this “the life in the international bubble.” Peter is the archetypal cosmopolitan student. Having studied European Studies in Maastricht for two and a half years, he appreciates the city, its atmosphere and the university; yet, he is sure that he won’t stay in Maastricht after graduation.
Originally from a small town in Southern Germany, he lived in the United States before coming to the Netherlands, and spent a semester abroad in Lithuania as part of his studies. Living in four different countries has made him curious to continue exploring the world. Yet, while never having been overtly attached to his hometown, living in different countries has, in some ways, made him lose his sense of place. “It’s like being constantly on the road,” he says. “You move to a place, fulfil your task there, and move on. Most of the time, you don’t stay for long. You don’t settle down.”
Paradoxically, this cosmopolitan outlook seems to result in a shallower relationship to the local surroundings. “I sometimes find it difficult to connect to the places I live in,” Peter says, “especially if the period of stay is short.”
Where to go next?
The “local” – the dialect, the local customs and habits – often remains distant and, to some extent, unknown. While interactions with other students are frequent, connections with neighbours and non-university-related residents remain seldom and limited. Cosmopolitans often keep to their international bubble; present, yet somehow detached from the places they live in.
“I suppose that the laziness on our side prevents a ‘real’ connection with the local,” Peter says with an almost guilty tone. “It is more comfortable to surround ourselves with people who are in the same position, with whom we can communicate in English.”
Maastricht life? – A student life!
The group of cosmopolitan students connects with the city mainly through the university. They have come to Maastricht to study and mingle almost exclusively with other students. Their extra-curricular activities are mainly university-related. Peter is a member of the European Studies association Concordantia, which consists of mainly international students. The association organises events, lectures, and other activities for students at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – in English. “Most of my friends are internationals, and I speak English all the time,” he says. “We’re not a homogeneous group, but we definitely share some common attributes when it comes to ideas and outlooks, where we want to go and what we want to do with our lives.” Many of these students aspire an international career.
Most of Peter’s fellow cosmopolitan students have also joined similar work-related student organisations. All of these, be it the United Nations Student Association, Aiesec or NovUM, emphasise their internationality and prepare their members for international careers in business and politics and for a life of stopovers and temporary residences.
The cosmopolitan attitude is a mindset, engendered by mobility and contact with other cosmopolitans.
“I don’t know where I’ll go next,” Peter says smiling. “But I know that wherever I go, I will find like-minded people, people whom I will be able to relate to.”
“No matter where I go,” he adds, “I will probably live in the international bubble again.”
Sometimes, however, Peter misses the regular life led by his friends back home. “I have these almost romantic ideas about my hometown, where everything is normal, settled, and in order. At times, I feel like a tourist in my own hometown.”
“But, who knows,” he laughs, “maybe I will find order and normality some day.” Probably not in Maastricht, though,” he adds. Before settling somewhere though, he wants to explore more countries and go wherever his academic career (or work) will take him.
Creating a new local
‘Mestreechtenere,’ or native Maastricht inhabitants, tend to regard these students with skepticism. “Why should I become close friends with these students and try to get to know them?” some of them say. “They come here to study, and when they’re done, they leave again for good.”
Rick Hoen, a Dutch European Studies student, thinks differently. “I think it is a good thing that Maastricht University attracts international students. The inflow of many foreign students is beneficial for the university and for the city as well. It makes them more international.” He also believes these students have given him a more international outlook on the world.
After graduation, many students wave their goodbyes to Maastricht
This shows that with their different ideas and outlooks, these cosmopolitan students influence Maastricht. Consciously or not, they have made their imprint on the city and its inhabitants. Numerous international study associations, lectures and cultural events in English, international student bars have been developed, and more are in the making, turning Maastricht into a melting pot of ideas.
These do not try to undermine or substitute or the native culture. Rather they are creating a new local, one that consists in a combination of typically Dutch traditions and international influences from all over the world.
These world citizens have brought a little bit of cosmopolitanism to this small city in South Limburg. And, no matter how subtle, Maastricht probably will have an impact on every single cosmopolitan as well.
By Katalina Präkelt
Katalina Präkelt is a German student at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Her initially ambitious attempts to learn Dutch were met with little success. After two-and-a-half years in Maastricht, she persistently orders her coffee in Dutch, and it still fulfils her with indescribable pleasure if the baristas don’t answer in English. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t happen very often.