Multi-Cultural or Culture-Less: How Much Do AUC Students Really Know about Where They Live?

By Anna Micelli and Ronja Boer

Collage by Sara Serrano

“Excellence and Diversity in a Global City” – AUC’s famous motto and the first line on its mission and values page. The college professes its “international and intercultural focus, as well as outreach to the local community,” but how many AUC students truly seek integration in this Global City? We decided to ask them and staff members about their views on “living the Dutch life.”

Integrating or simply getting to know The Netherlands seems somewhat challenging. The consensus among Dutch and non-Dutch students and staff is that Amsterdammers like to flaunt their English skills, leaving little space for using what they might have learned in Dutch A1. To investigate whether this is an issue among AUC students, we asked them some ‘Dutch 101’ questions about life beyond the safe English-speaking bubble of Science Park*. The results reveal that many students are unfamiliar with the most basic traits of Dutch culture and society. Almost one out of three respondents did not recognize the name of the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte; and 21% believe he runs a leftist government. 

Huan Hsu, senior tutor and lecturer at AUC, has lived in Amsterdam for a decade and recognises the advantages of “low threshold integration.” However, Hsu knows that AUC’s demanding academic life might leave little room for outside classroom learning. When asked what a low threshold means, Hsu alluded that knowledge on political leaders and basic phrases should be common knowledge.

However, many AUC students do not seem to pass this threshold test. At the question “Who is Geert Wilders?” the founder of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) and the right-wing populist party’s leader in the House of Representatives, only 50% selected the correct answer. 18.8% selected “A Dutch General from the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.”

When asked “What Does Alstublieft mean?” 81.3% selected “You’re welcome” and 2.1%  “please.” Still, almost one out of five students doesn’t know how to say “please” and “you’re welcome” in Dutch.

AUC lecturer and political sociologist Dr. Hilla Dayan shares Hsu’s sentiment. Even though she understands that Amsterdam is only a “stopover for many students,” she wishes “AUC students to be more anchored locally”, as she believes political participation finds its core in local politics. Our survey shows the opposite: AUC students know less about local politics than national matters: one out of three students did not recognise the name of the Dutch prime minister, but less than 50% selected Femke Halsema as the mayor of Amsterdam. 

AUC students’ lack of knowledge might not stem from a general disinterest in Dutch culture. Dr. Henk Noorland, Dutch Language teacher at AUC and UvA, notices a general enthusiasm towards his course among his students. “They [AUC students] take more and more of an interest in the place they live,” he says. Noorland’s love for the Dutch language and culture is evident, and he thinks language or cultural courses should be promoted. Noorland emphasises the importance of stepping “out of the comfortable English bubble.”

“Living the Dutch life” often starts with finding your own way outside the bubble, as some students can attest. Melike Fenercigil, a third-year Social Science major from Turkey, has experienced the positive sides of building a life outside AUC. Once she knew she would move to Amsterdam, Fernecigil felt responsible to learn Dutch and has taken the AUC Dutch courses since. However, after finding a job in a restaurant, she found herself surrounded by Dutch people and got a chance to train her language skills and meet some Amsterdammers. “I am no longer a tourist; I feel a bit more settled down,” Fernecigil says. Becoming part of a community outside of the AUC bubble and being able to read street signs and emails made her more confident. 

Although Fernecigil encourages AUC students to follow her example, she is sceptical of making the Dutch language or culture mandatory. Third-year Social Science student Franco Del Bono Lonardi from Argentina thinks international students have some duty to engage with Dutch society: “We go to a subsidised university, we have some obligation,” he says.  Del Bono Lonardi is currently at a C1-level of the Dutch and is planning to practise law in the Netherlands. For Del Bono Lonardi, integration goes beyond language skills. He believes that it means to enter the public discourse “consume media, read the newspapers, speak to the people in that language for some time.”

Dr. Johan Koppenol, who teaches A Golden Age? History and Heritage of the Dutch Republic at AUC and is professor at the VU, generally agrees. At AUC’s conception, Koppenol was asked to create a course:  “The title needed to include Amsterdam and the ‘Golden Age’” he says. He notices that students in his class wish to better understand the country they live in and grow enthusiastic as they understand Amsterdam better through a historical lens. According to Koppenol, AUC students can best integrate through their own interest in the Dutch context. For example, if your interests lie in politics, get to know Dutch politics.

But integrating can be challenging if our surroundings are primarily international and English-dominated. Oscar Bonnefon, a third-year Social Science major who has lived in the Netherlands for nine years, calls this the “parallel society”: there is a Dutch Netherlands, and there is an international one. Bonnefon explains that “it is normal for internationals to gravitate towards other internationals and the same for Dutch people.” How can we get involved in Dutch culture when going to an English-speaking university surrounded mainly by non-Dutch students? 

Dayan remembers that “the mix 50/50 [Dutch/internationals] was perfect because the Dutch students could be the ambassadors of local knowledge. They could pull people in and explain that this urban desert called Science Park is not the cosmos.” In 2020, the population of Dutch students was 47%, but in 2021, the percentage had fallen, making the Dutch to Internationals ratio 39:61. 

This discussion transcends the university college’s doors. Noorland mentioned that “the dominance of English does not always have to be accepted.” After discussing with a non-AUC professor, Bono Lonardi realised that “there is growing resentment towards things like AUC, towards international students’ arrogance when students do not learn Dutch.”

Many interviewees agreed that AUC could play a greater role in introducing international students to the local environment. Noorland suggested giving out some language books to first years during intro week. Dr. Dayan stressed encouraging more class excursions around Amsterdam. Del Bono Lonardi thought of introducing a course about Dutch identity. There might not be a duty for us all to speak Dutch perfectly, but perhaps there is something to gain from travelling beyond Science Park.

Editor’s note: The sample contains 58 students, of which 10 are Dutch. The Dutch respondents answered most questions correctly so we excluded them from the visual representations. Among the international respondents there are 23 third years, 13 second years and 12 first years. Some students refused to fill it in once we told them it was about AUC students’ integration in the Netherlands. 

Editor’s note: Huan Hsu acts as The Herring’s faculty advisor.

Complete Survey Results

Sample

We had 58 respondents, 50% were third-years, 24.1% were second-years and 25.9% were first-years. 17.2% were Dutch.

Dutch Politics

1 out of 4 students does not know that Mark Rutte is the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Excluding the 10 Dutch students, the number rises to almost 1 out of 3. The second question concerned the political orientation of the Dutch Prime Minister: 24.1% of the respondents think the PM runs a leftist government.

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

“Who is Geert Wilders?” The founder of the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), an important populist party. 50% selected the correct answer: The closest thing to Donald Trump Dutch Politics has ever Known. 18.8% selected A Dutch General from the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, 12.1% The man who started Ij-Hallenback in 1876 and 5.2% The last Dutch singer to win the Eurovision song contest in 2019. 

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

The last question on Dutch politics was: “What is the name of the Dutch Queen’s first name?” Excluding the Dutch students, who all answered correctly, 54% selected “Máxima”, the correct answer. 

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

Not having voting rights, national politics could be out of range for most AUC students. Many might feel it does not affect them much or that they anyway do not have a say on it. However, results are even worse when looking at local politics. Excluding the Dutch students (80% answered correctly), less than 50% of students recognised the mayor of Amsterdam’s name. 

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

Geography

At the question: “What Does Holland Refer to?” 50% of students answered correctly “Two Dutch Provinces.” 30% of the respondents confused Holland for the Randstad and, 8%, thought that it is actually another name for the Netherlands.

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

Civil Movements

In light of the recent farmers protests in the Netherlands, we thought of asking why the Dutch farmers are burning hay along highways. Excluding Dutch students (they all answered correctly), 52% selected the correct answer. 35% thought the government does not provide enough subsidies and that Dutch farmers are getting poorer and poorer.

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

Linguistics

“What does “alstublieft” mean?” – again all Dutch respondents answered correctly. Both Please and You’re Welcome are correct. 1 out of 5 students selected the wrong answer. 

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

Traditions

“When do the Dutch People Celebrate Sinterklaas?” Note that the survey was conducted between the end of November and the beginning of December 2022. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is celebrated on 5 December, St. Nicholal’s Eve. While in Belgium and Luxembourg, it is usually on the 6 December. 

All respondentsExcluding Dutch Respondents

History

“Which of the following are former Dutch Colonies?” Except Guinea and Bonaire, which is still a Dutch Municipality, all answers are correct. 

Forms response chart. Question title: Which of the following are former Dutch colonies?. Number of responses: 58 responses.

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