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Enhancing the Intercultural Exchange between Dutch and International Students

Simge Genc
Sophie Scheele
Julia Grgic


In recent years, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) strongly emphasizes the diversity of nationalities and cultures that can be found on campus, and has thus welcomed many international students.

What we would like to change is the interaction between Dutch students and International students. It should be enhanced, and encouraged, and we believe that the VU should provide students with opportunities for exchange from the beginning on. The introduction week lays the foundation for your academic and social life at the University, so we chose to redesign a day during this week.


Explanation of the educational flaw

With increasing numbers of international students in the Netherlands, there is an issue with socially integrating these students with the local Dutch students. We, as international students of the Psychology Bachelor program, have personally experienced that there is quite little interaction between Dutch and international students. Many students in our Bachelor’s, our friends and ourselves are very much aware of this and sense this distance between the English track and Dutch track students of our study. This is a loss of opportunities, as knowledge about culture is education in itself, but also making use of different cultural worldviews in the university can enhance and diversify education.

We assume that this is not a problem exclusively to Psychology at the VU. It is an issue that exists in other universities in the Netherlands, and it is probably even a universal matter. As we know the situation in the Psychology track well, we want to focus on the implementation in the Psychology track as a pilot study, and if this works, we think that the idea can be implemented into the structures of all studies.

An interview was conducted with one of the mentors of the introduction week 2018. Karlo R. Welch said “In my experience of participating in the introduction week as a first-year student, as well as being a mentor for the first-year students, I’ve come to notice that there was not much chance of hanging out with the other track students,” and “fully mixing the groups could work out pretty well, giving a lot more possibilities and varieties of how the day could go”. This interview clearly showed us that simply mixing the groups and creating opportunities to get to know each other would be beneficial to everyone around.

Furthermore, an interview was conducted with Eric-Jan Hartstra, one of the main organizers of the yearly introduction week at the VU. Hartstra was very enthusiastic about enhancing the contacts between Dutch and International students. He emphasized that this was not a problem a few years ago, but with more international students coming every year, this issue is becoming more and more important and should be actively worked on as soon as possible.

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The VU has over 100 nationalities combined among its students, professors and teachers. There is an increasing amount of incoming international students, which is for instance reflected in the fact that the number of international English-taught bachelor programs increased from 2 to 23 in the past 5 years. We believe that this increase also brings with it an increased opportunity for cultural exchange between students, and that there is much more potential for enhancing cultural interactions among VU’s students.

The Students

Our target group involves both the Dutch and the international students.
The typical Dutch student is in his/her home country, can speak Dutch everyday and is in his/her comfort zone. We have talked to a Dutch student who is studying with us in the international Psychology tract and she believes that many Dutch students might feel uncomfortable speaking in English, which may be a reason why they do not interact that much with English-speaking fellow students.

However, Dutch students might still like to travel and experience new cultures. Thus, being in touch with students from other countries can have many benefits and offer an enrichment of daily life for him/her.

The typical international student chose to study in another country, which is very exciting, but it makes it also more difficult to feel at home every day. The international student is interested in getting to know more about the new culture and to make friends that are at home in the Netherlands. We have observed that most of the students in our program are friends with only other international students, and most do not have any Dutch friends.

The Introduction Week

Every student’s studies at the VU begin with the Introduction week, which is a week full of activities providing the new students with opportunities to get to know the city, the university, and their fellow students. We came to notice that this week is where most of the group formation already begins. And very often, the groups formed during that week stay the same for the rest of your studies. The introduction week lays the foundation for your whole academic and social life at the VU. Hence, we believe that mingling Dutch and international students at this point will increase the chances of more diverse groups being formed.

Therefore, our aim is to enhance communication between international students and Dutch students at University and thus enhance intercultural knowledge and exchange. It is important for international students in the Netherlands to understand, appreciate, and integrate into Dutch society; their home for the next few years via active participation from both sides. It is also important for the locals to at least have the opportunity to culturally broaden their social circles.


Before: The Word of Welcome

The first step is to implement a short passage about this issue into the Word of Welcome speech for the incoming Psychology students. The speech is held on the first day of Introduction Week. It should be mentioned that there is a variety of nationalities on campus, and that this variety poses big possibilities. Getting to know other cultures and learning from other people can be interesting for everyone. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that the second day of the Introduction week is designed for facilitating the interaction between Dutch track and English track students. We think that a few sentences about this topic is enough to make them aware of what a cultural hotspot this university can be and hopefully get them excited about this.

During: The Schedule

Click here to access the schedule.

On this day, Dutch and international students truly get to know each other. In the morning, the day and its purpose is explained. Furthermore, groups are formed, where an equal number of Dutch and international students would be desirable. An idea would be to divide one Dutch and one international mentor group and to have these four subgroups mixed so that two mentors get groups of half international and half Dutch students.

Then, different activities are planned. Some activities are related to the study, such as the question sheets about Psychology, while some activities solely aim at the mixing of groups and getting to know each other.

As an icebreaker, we thought of a counting game where one Dutch student is paired with an international student, and they have to teach each other how to count in the other person’s language. To make it competitive, the pair wins that gets to the highest count. Question sheets can be distributed that make the other person familiar with the other’s culture. On the sheets are questions such as ‘What is the biggest festivity in your country?’, or ‘What is a typical meal of your country?’. Also, there are going to be question sheets distributed that emphasize academic topics in each other’s cultures, which could be questions such as ‘What influence has psychoanalysis in your country?’, or ‘Is going to the psychotherapist considered a difficult topic in your country?’ (in this case for Psychology). Thus, one can mix up interests and cultural information. Furthermore, sports games are done in order to evoke a team spirit and to create memories together. Then, there is a lunch break which enables the students to have a chat with each other. During the day, and especially during the lunch break, students are encouraged to speak English at all times. This will help everyone to feel included. After the lunch break, a fun treasure hunt takes place, which can be done in Amsterdam so that students get to see the city a bit more. This activity also enhances the feeling of a team spirit. Then, there is a break so everyone can get ready for the Borrel. In the evening, the Borrel will be prepared by the groups and mixed groups will have a pub quiz in order to have fun together. The Borrel can help people get to know each other better in a nice atmosphere, and is also a typical Dutch get-together.

After: The Facebook Community Page

A possible outlook for the time after this specific day of the Introduction week would be to create a grassroots community page through Facebook, which would be a platform to discuss and post about regular activities happening. These activities would be focused on cultural diversity. Depending on the interests of individuals, we could host “Culture Nights” where the cultural diversity of art, film, food, literature, music, and so on would be appreciated, celebrated, and taught to one another. This would be a long-term way of helping create a university identity within the students, and help in breaking down cultural barriers.


Aim and importance for education

Education does not only happen in the classroom setting. Many believe that education is mostly or even only about bringing the curriculum closer to students. Of course, education involves acquiring knowledge and skills. It involves studying the given material, receiving instructions and gaining practical and theoretical understandings.

But besides that, education is also learning for life. It involves the process of acquiring the body of knowledge and skills that are viewed as the norm and are expected by the society you live in. Moreover, for us, education is about broadening your horizon, to gain new perspectives on matters, to look at things from a different point of view, and to learn from experience. This also involves to become open-minded to new and other ideas and to different opinions, but also to develop as a critical thinker yourself. Education should aim to prepare you for what comes after leaving the educational setting in form of a classroom or lecture hall. Hence, university should aim at educating their students to become a full member of society. This is why university should provide a framework in which cultural exchange can take place. Our aim is to enhance communication between international students and Dutch students at university and thus enhance the intercultural knowledge and exchange.


There are several benefits following from the implementation of our idea. Firstly, the VU would benefit from this because the interaction between its students would be improved, and its students would gain even more experiences during their studies. Furthermore, drop-out rates might even be reduced, because the international students would feel more “at home” because they would feel more connected to the Dutch and their culture. Then, they might be less inclined to leave and go back to their home-country. Thus, the international students would have more opportunities to get to know the locals, and feel more comfortable here.

Also, the Dutch students would benefit from this because their English would be improved through the contact with English-speaking internationals, and they would have friends all over the world whom they could visit.

Overall, all parties would profit, and especially the students, because their horizon would be broadened.


1. Social and Organizational Perspective
Nowadays, the consequences of globalization and migration are present everywhere. For instance, much cultural diversity can be found at the workplace. Companies become more and more international and globally connected. They open new headquarters in different countries, relocate departments, or send their employees to work in other countries. Employees need to become more flexible, adaptive to several new circumstances, and more open-minded, in order to deal with the demands of today’s work circumstances. Furthermore, more nations, cultures, and different ethnic backgrounds come together at the workplace. Thus, it is from increasing importance to educate people about these different cultures and backgrounds, in order to facilitate smooth interactions and reciprocal understanding, tolerance and respect.

A way to look at how cultures differ is for instance by means of the five dimensions by which Geert Hofstede (1984, 2001) identifies and distinguishes cultures. These dimensions include Individualism/Collectivism dimension, the Masculinity dimension, the Power distance dimension, the Uncertainty avoidance dimension and the Long-term versus Short term orientation dimension. Cultures differ in all of those dimensions, and these differences can be found at the workplace too.

Hence, in organizations, team members may differ in these values, which affects team interaction and performance (Gelfand, Erez, & Aycan, 2007). When different cultures with all these different ideas regarding values or expectancies from others come together, there is an enormous opportunity for growth and learning from each other. However, cultural differences might also create difficulties or misunderstandings at work, since ideas about for example team-spirit, reward distribution, or goal setting vary (Unsworth & West, 2000). Hence, cultures differ, and thus employees, managers and supervisors need to be sensitive to these differences.

We believe that Universities should prepare their students more for the workplace, by encouraging, emphasizing and offering more opportunities for intercultural exchange, in order to prepare them for the cultural diversity they are likely to encounter at their future work.

Thus, we believe that creating more opportunity for exchange and more interaction between Dutch and internationals is beneficial, because one’s horizon is broadened and one gets more acquainted with different cultural backgrounds. That can help to integrate better at the workplace, and to profit more from the cultural diversity at work.

2. Bildung / Da Vinci
In the guest lecture “Bildung Academy”, we learned about the “Homo Universalis”, which basically unites all extremes. In order to be most human, productive, and happy, one should meet in the middle. With this image in mind, one can very well justify our idea of bringing Dutch and international people together. Everyone who’s coming from a different culture has a different standpoint in this circle. By bringing people together, everyone is encouraged to move a bit from their standpoint in order to meet in the middle with students from other nationalities and cultures. Thus, knowledge for life can be increased, and “Bildung” gets created: People learn about other cultures and learn new social skills, that are more universal than the ones they had before. A university is of course supposed to teach ‘hard’ knowledge, so the knowledge a student acquires within the chosen major. But a major goal of a university should also be to teach the student a certain mindset, a certain knowledge for life that is helpful outside the study place and that might be even unique for every university.

According to the “De Bildung Academie”, “Bildung” is an education that is personal, broad, conscious, and that one is involved in. Intercultural knowledge is definitely a part of Bildung and everyone can profit from it. How much students want to engage in it can be left to them, but everyone should be encouraged in the first place to invest into their intercultural knowledge and the awareness should be created, so that students know about the importance of this intercultural education.

This education is important for the sake of itself, but it has a high utility for other areas as well: It gives the possibility to switch from one Da Vinci standpoint to a different one and see problems and topics from another angle. This broadens the horizon but it also makes it possible to understand other people which is helpful in social situations but also in work situations, as mentioned in the organizational perspective.

3. Student Engagement
As one of the perspectives offered to us in this course, there is valuable knowledge to gain by looking at our issue through the lens of student engagement.

The three different types of student engagement are behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). Behavioral engagement concerns observable behavior such as being on time or active participation. Emotional engagement is about the enthusiasm and interest of the students. Lastly, cognitive engagement revolves around the students’ understanding of the importance and value of their education, active input of effort and take initiative.

In the context of our theme, each kind of engagement is relevant. Our ideal outcome is observable through behavioral engagement; seeing the two groups show up, put effort into building friendships, and get to know each other. In the context of the introduction week, this means observing the diffusion of the two groups towards each other rather than polarization towards their own ingroups. Emotional engagement is the method; getting students to be enthusiastic about meeting other individuals with different backgrounds. If that is accomplished, then we will be able to observe the ideal outcome. To accomplish emotional engagement, cognitive engagement is important. It is the fundamental core that will be prioritized and focused on. Getting students to understand the importance of cultural education and take initiative towards learning outcomes revolving this topic are key.

Student engagement may be the most crucial factor in educating students due to its role as a precursor; without proper intrinsic engagement of students, there may not be students to teach. When students are engaged in their learning; i.e. when student engagement is fostered, learning outcomes are increased. However, when student engagement is neglected, dropout rates are increased instead. This is a significant detail for universities because students become disengaged when they don’t have a sense of community; when they are not connected. This is how drop out rates may be reduced by focusing on the social integration of international students with the local students.

Universities, including this one, claim the existence of such vast diversity with more than a hundred nationalities on their campus and so on. They increase the number of bachelor’s offered in English, and make it easy to get in with the diplomas we earn abroad. They earn money with each international student that accepts their offer and studies at their faculties. They facilitate the processes of visas, residence permits, housing, and offer an introduction week meant for the social integration side of things. But they forget the importance of the last point.

If your worldview expands as your cultural knowledge grows, and if a richer, multidimensional worldview facilitates the learning process, then seizing the opportunity to diversify our social circles is a very logical thing to do. However, there have to be opportunities in the first place. The ingredients to create these opportunities are present; due to internationalization of higher education, and the only thing left to do is to make it possible for internationals and Dutch to have the appropriate academic setting where our goals can be achieved. This is why we have chosen the specific activities for our redesign.

The competitive number game as an icebreaker has been carefully thought out. Pairing one Dutch and one English track student will ensure that everyone has direct interaction from the beginning. By doing this, we are avoiding the scenario where more extraverted and talkative students unintentionally give less room for the more shy and introverted students to talk. The icebreaker along with the sports games, which are group-centric with a focus on cooperation and teamwork, are designed to emotionally and behaviorally engage the students.

The question sheets allow for more meaningful, sincere and purposeful conversation to foster. This is a great opportunity for opening doors to friendships, and especially for the cognitive engagement of the students.


Anonymous. Human Nature and Sustainability. A Moral Perspective for the Anthropocene.

Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of educational research, 74(1), 59-109.

Gelfand, M., Erez, M., & Aycan, Z. (2007). Cross-Cultural Organizational Behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 479-514.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Unsworth, K., & West, M. (2000). Teams: The challenges of cooperative work. In N. Cmiel (Ed.), Introduction to work and organizational psychology (pp. 137-146). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Website of De Bildung Academie., Information retrieved on 12/11/18