How the lockdown pushes international students deeper into isolation. ‘I know one Dutch person: my teacher’
Dutch students might face psychological difficulties caused by the lockdown, but internationals are having an even harder time. The covid pandemic has made existing problems more visible. ‘I came here to discover the country and its people, but I haven’t met anyone.’
Pepijn Boumans
Wednesday 14 April 2021

Filled with anticipation Laura Panisello Valldepérez moved to Leiden from Barcelona last February. Covid or not, she planned to discover the city and country and wanted to make Dutch friends. And study, of course.
The results so far: ‘I know one Dutch person: my teacher.’ Laura hasn’t spoken to any Dutch students. ‘There are only international students in my house.’ Even though she gets along well with her housemates, it bothers her. ‘I came here to discover Dutch culture and people, but I haven’t met anyone.’
The corona virus and lockdown are hugely detrimental to student wellbeing. National student organisation ISO recently published a study that shows that three quarters of university students find their contact with fellow students is poor.

Loneliness, worries and boredom

For internationals, it’s even worse. Their friends and family are hundreds, if not thousands of kilometres away. Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalisation in education, describes them as a ‘vulnerable group’ and published an alarming message, saying that 40 percent is showing signs of depression.

'We don’t even reach half the students we’d normally speak to. Lots of people are lonely’

These worrying figures mask a problem that goes back longer than the current pandemic. Now that having a local support network is more important than ever, it is becoming more and more apparent that Dutch students and internationals hardly mix. In the summer of 2019, well before covid, an ISO-survey showed that 75% of international students have very little contact with their Dutch fellow students.

‘International students are actively recruited’, said Carline van Breugel, then chair of the Dutch student union in Trouw. ‘But once they’ve arrived in the Netherlands, they often can’t find an affordable residence, don’t receive Dutch lessons and find it hard to connect with Dutch students. That has to change.’

Difficult contact

Now that international students have a hard time to even get to know each other, let alone Dutch students, the situation has worsened still. Barbara Medenica from Sarajevo is a board member at ESN, the largest society for internationals. Together with the other members of the board, she does her best to take in new students and help them integrate. Normally, ESN activities draw hundreds of participants. Now that everything is done online, they’re happy when twenty show up.

‘The problem most new members contact us about is how hard they find it to make new friends. There are possibilities to meet new people online, through ESN for example, but that doesn’t really help.’ Medenica is afraid they’ve lost sight of most internationals. ‘We don’t even reach half the students we’d normally speak to. Lots of people are lonely.’

It’s difficult to make friends with Dutch students. Almost all advertisements for rooms have the same threatening disclaimer: ‘NO INTERNATIONALS’, usually without any further explanation. Student societies also don’t make them feel welcome. Most are theoretically open to international members, but not a single website of the ‘big five’ societies is available in English. Only Minerva has some information on how to join, but in practice only Belgians and Dutch speaking Germans become members.
The Italian Arianne Zarfati is also hard hit by the crisis. First her internship at Heineken was cancelled, and during the second lockdown she was promptly fired from her job in a restaurant. She had a zero-hours contract and no right to any benefits. ‘Of course I can’t pay rent or afford food when I don’t have an income. It was very psychologically draining. I felt useless.’

Bumpy start

On top of all that she is alone in an unfamiliar city. ‘Your parents aren’t here, it’s not your first language. You don’t really know what’s going on around you or what you should do when you encounter a problem.’ She had the good fortune of having made Dutch friends before the lockdown started. ‘Otherwise, I’d have been all alone.’

‘Dutch people are like stroopwafels: sweet on the inside, but you have to warm them up first’

But those friendships don’t come easily, that is something Portuguese Miguel Mira knows after living in Leiden for four years. The first year was rough, but after he kept inviting Dutch people again and again, he managed to build a circle of friends. ‘Dutch people are like stroopwafels: sweet on the inside but you have to warm them up first’


Miguel hopes more Dutch students would be open to having internationals as housemates. ‘It’s scary to let people into your home when they speak another language and have another culture, but it allows you to learn so much more about the world than you would ever learn from a book.’
‘Due to the large number of native Dutch students, it is something people don’t want to do and don’t have to do, Romanian Alexandra Sima admits. But according to her, it’s not such a big hurdle as people make it out to be. ‘The differences aren’t that big. Eventually, students realise their experiences are more or less similar.’

‘Small talk, but no invitation’

Why is it so difficult to make Dutch friends?
‘Dutch people are reserved’, says Rosalinde Spitters, anthropologist at the Faculty of Social Sciences. She sets up think tanks and teams who try to encourage community building, also for internationals. 

According to her, Dutch social structure is difficult to penetrate from the outside. ‘People are open to small talk, but won’t delve into personal subjects very easily. People aren’t quick to invite you over.’
It would help if people are more aware, she thinks. ‘Dutch students could do a better job of involving internationals into their personal lives, not just for a one off activity. On the other hand, it is important that internationals make an effort to invest in this society, even if they run into things. People tend to make a lot of generalisations, on both sides.’