By Adesholla Bishop and Franciszek Dziduch
When Science major Philip Ngare arrived in the Netherlands in August 2020, he was forced to settle into a new chapter of his life on his own, as travel restrictions at the time had made it impossible for his family to accompany him from his home country of Kenya. Now in his second year at AUC, it has been nearly a year and a half since Ngare last saw his family – a result of ever-changing travel restrictions – and though he misses them dearly and “it’s been tough” to be apart from them, he has found a place for himself within AUC’s informal person of color (POC) community, a group that has helped him deal with moments of culture shock and homesickness.
Many students find themselves in similar circumstances. Although AUC is considered to be an hermetic environment, which is reinforced by the infamous expression “the bubble”, it is sometimes hard to leave family and friends behind in one’s hometown. Nevertheless, for many, a remedy to such a situation is finding people who share similar traditions or experiences. Creating micro-communities in the AUC bubble often helps to overcome and deal with possible homesickness or, as in Ngare’s case, culture shock.
As with any group of friends, AUC’s POC community serves to enhance the AUC experience of its members by providing a comfortable and welcoming environment. For Ange Asare, a third-year Social Science major, having this community was especially important given that when she first arrived at AUC, she felt like one of the only non-white students. “It was kind of disappointing, especially when the school presents itself as excellent and diverse,” she says. “I think AUC is very diverse in the sense of nationality, but race, not so much.” The POC group allows her to witness the racial diversity that was not visible during her first year at AUC.
The POC community formed naturally as different students gravitated towards each other based on their common interests and experiences. Ngare emphasizes that the purpose of the group is not to exclude non-POC students, but rather to “have this one time when you celebrate your differences and know that it’s okay to be different.” Similarly, Asare explains that “sometimes it’s just fun to listen to African music or to cook together and make a stew, or talk about how Eastern jollof rice is better than Western jollof rice. I’m not saying that you cannot do that with non-POC, but POC people will relate to you.”
In addition to being a relaxed social group, second-year Humanities major Lionel Deul explains that the POC community provides a comfortable setting for its students to talk about their racial experiences amongst others who have had comparable experiences. “It’s very nice to have the opportunity to vent every once in a while and to talk to people who intrinsically understand what it’s like to be an academic in a predominantly-white environment when you’re not white,” he says. Ngare describes a similar sentiment: “I already have that feeling of understanding the things they go through; we’re connected on a level that transcends most of the things we understand,” he says. “It’s kind of like love,” he adds with a chuckle.
The POC group is not the only micro-community to form in AUC as a result of shared experiences. Marianna Klimczak, a first-year Science major, emphasises that this year especially, there has been a boom of Polish students in Amsterdam and in AUC specifically. “The initial plan of many of my friends was to study in the UK. But with Brexit occuring, it suddenly became financially impossible.” From Warsaw, her hometown, she knows a lot of people who eventually decided to enrol in AUC – a phenomenon that she believes is due to AUC’s academic structure, as the university provides a lot of freedom and is similar to IB and A-levels that are popular high school programs in Poland’s capital.
Klimczak confesses that upon her arrival, she was not keen on the idea that there would be many Polish people studying at AUC and in the Netherlands on the whole. She was afraid that she would not feel pressured to meet new people if there would be a strong base of people from her hometown. Looking back, she realises how silly that was. In difficult moments, when she feels lonely or homesick, her Warsaw friends provide a safety net. “In the beginning, when I didn’t know many people, I had friends with whom I could go buy a bike or enjoy a Friday night,” she recollects.
What she did not expect was that her Polish network would expand to the country’s neighbors, the Slovakians. “I met Slovakian people in early September in Maslow. We bonded over similar expressions for certain things,” she says. Even now, they sometimes speak to each other in their own languages, constantly finding new similarities, such as the same proverbs. They sometimes meet to cook traditional cultural dishes, for example sour cabbage.
The POC and Polish/Slovakian groups are two among many other micro-communities within the AUC bubble. They exemplify the importance of having a strong support network based on shared experiences. Such a system enriches the university experience, whether through exposing oneself to shared transnational values or unexpected similarities between cultures. As Ngare remarks, although he misses his family immensely and is hoping to be reunited with them over the winter break, “the community does provide me with backing and I feel like I do have a home.”