Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Conference on the role of buddies in the integration of foreign students
MAASTRICHT. How to get Dutch students interested in buddy programs? How to promote the interaction between Dutch and foreign students? What’s the optimal duration of a buddy programme? During the Buddy Co-ordinator Day in Eindhoven last Monday, universities and schools of higher education asked many questions. But few answers were given: for many institutes the buddy programme is still in its infancy.
"A buddy is a friend and mentor who will help you to get a smooth start in Maastricht, give you advice on both academic and social matters and ensure that your experience will be an unforgettable one,” states the website of study association Scope of the Maastricht School of Business and Economics. Since 2013, Scope has used MyBuddy to connect a hundred regular foreign student volunteers to a hundred exchange students for a semester. At the moment, this is the only large-scale buddy project at the UM, but it certainly won’t be the last. The Maastricht International Classroom project and the expected policy plan from the Student Service Centre about service to foreign students – both plans are expected in spring – will include a focus on buddies.
Breaking the bubble
Buddies are hot; certainly since the Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, together with Nuffic, the organisation for international cooperation in higher education, made it a spearhead in the Make it in the Netherlands plan, last autumn. “Breaking the bubble” is what it is called there. Or, how to get foreign students out of their isolated position, help them integrate in Dutch society with the aid of buddies, and organise an annual buddy day. The Buddy Co-ordinator Day, which was jointly organised this week by student union LSVb, the UM, the Erasmus Student Network, Nuffic and Technical University Eindhoven, fits in seamlessly with this.
What is remarkable is the fact that most of the educational institutes have little experience with the long-term deployment of buddies. Many faculties make use of them for one or two weeks during the introduction, but it usually stops after that. Especially when it comes to integrating, LSVb argued during the opening, you need long-term projects. The International Hotel Management programme of the Stenden School of Higher Education (Leeuwarden) appears to be one of the few positive exceptions. Stenden has a so-called ‘Host Programme’, which links a group of twelve first-year students (both Dutch and foreign) to two buddies, for a whole year. “Why do we do this? We want newcomers to mix effectively, to have easy access to information, and we want to create a pleasant atmosphere.”
These hosts are trained beforehand, which - as appeared later on in the working groups - is a must for buddies who do more than just go to the pub and the gym. Besides, the audience felt, you can’t just leave these programmes to students. The support of a university or school of higher education is necessary for training, for example in cultural awareness, but also for policies.
One of the tough questions to which many sought an answer: How to get Dutch students involved? How can you make sure that it is worth their while to become buddies? The answer: approach them when they have just come back from a stay abroad; that’s when they will be more open to the idea. Provide information at the beginning of a lecture, through students who have already become buddies or through ESN. And make good matches, for example based on the language that someone wants to learn, common interests, sports, or study programmes. “There has to be a click between the buddy and the foreign student,” it was generally agreed. Speed dating could be an option.
A reward in the form of ECTS points, money, or free admission to all events, make it easier to convince candidates. And how to follow buddies? The Maastricht approach was appreciated by the representatives from Eindhoven: let them put photographs of activities on a Facebook page. This will give fellow-buddies ideas. Whoever posts the most photographs will get a reward.