Sidelined and exhausted: how internationals are striving for legitimacy in the university council
For international students’ accessibility to the University Council remains a battle. The Democratic Student Party (DSP) has encountered language and representation issues ever since joining the Council and now wishes to see things change, reports Adriana Cerdeira. “We’re not guests here, we’re here to stay.”
Wednesday 14 July 2021

Katherine Willey (20, BSc International Relations and Organisations) is the 2020-2021 DSP member of the Universiteitsraad or University Council. She is not fluent in Dutch but now has several months of experience within the Council. She knows the time needed for preparation, for translation and what she can expect of other members. With a lot of resilience and dedication, Willey has been able to master her status of “English-speaking member”, but it remains far from ideal.

The administrative language of the University is Dutch, something made very clear by the Council when the first English-speaking student was elected to the Council, in 2019. In an internal document, the Board announced solutions to this new multi-linguistic setting, offering one-on-one appointments with these members before each meeting and providing a “language buddy”. Both measures still hold today.

“The language buddy isn’t someone who is trained in translation, it’s someone who speaks both English and Dutch and who types fast”, said Willey. The method seems questionable, one that should have been temporary.

Everything is a fight

Willey and her translator use an online document where she receives a live translation of what’s being said in the meeting. For other parties’ documents, advice or policy proposals, which are always in Dutch, she copies them into Google translate before all meetings. The translation isn’t flawless, sometimes even inaccurate.

“I always felt very welcomed here but this showed me a very different side of Leiden”

How does this system impact her ability to deliver the work she was elected for? “One word, exhausting”, she admits.

“Everything is a fight, everything is difficult and takes a lot of time. When we receive ‘need to get back tomorrow’-type of requests, it takes me an hour, not five minutes.” The confession sinks in, the job doesn’t sound easy. “This year was so interesting, but I wouldn't want to run another term.”

“What have I done?”

Entering the Council as an English-speaking member was not easy either. “They are good days and bad days in the council, my first day is a good example because I realized the task I was taking on. And after the meeting, I felt sidelined because the conversations were entirely in Dutch. I always felt very welcomed and this showed me a very different side of Leiden. I thought: ‘What have I done? I don’t belong here, I can’t deal with a whole year of being ignored.”

Things have definitely improved, she says. “The majority of my colleagues are very supportive and cooperative.”

She clarifies: “The situation has improved, for a minority, and only a minority of the people, it seems that I am not a considered an important or relevant voice in the debates we have in the Council”.

Yet, the minority is powerful and plays a significant role in shaping Willey’s experience. “The University prides itself for how international it is yet the executive board won’t answer my questions in English knowing well I can’t understand Dutch. I’ve made efforts to learn Dutch but never enough to discuss a budget.”

On the next meeting of the University Counsil however, on July 5th, the Board did answer serveral questions posed by international members during a consultation in English.

Cartoon by Schot

Willey is a positive person and the mere presence of the DSP in the Council is a victory. She insists: “The Chair has been very helpful and accommodating, sometimes spending hours for my questions. I’ve built good relationships now.”


But during the online meeting of the University Council on Monday 28th of June, communication and translation struggles appeared odd, if not absurd. Her interlocutors understood what she said yet answered in Dutch, forcing Willey to wait for translation, a translation that can be slow to come or even partial. This happened repeatedly, and shows the need for trained translators.

The DSP was created in 2018 by a group of students based on Campus The Hague. The objective was to represent international students' concerns and The Hague issues into University politics. Before them, The Hague was absent from the Council and students could only hope Leiden-based Council members would remember the campus when drafting policies.

“We are present in everyone’s mind every time we cover and review policies now”, says Willey. The Strategic Plan, especially, strengthened the value of Campus The Hague for the entire Council. But when it is not the case, when The Hague is dismissed, then Willey represents those interests. “The main thing the DSP accomplished was to bring Internationals at the table. Just the fact that we’re sitting there cannot be understated.”

Not for us

Willey is from Scotland and was attracted by the international outlook of The Hague, where different nationalities and “different outlooks on life” would meet. After helping a friend on a DSP campaign, she worried about internationals’ engagement with University politics. “All I could hear was that it wasn’t about us nor for us.”

She decided to run in March 2020 and was elected in May 2020, her term is ending this August. “I thought it could be a good experience if I decide one day to pursue domestic politics in the UK but mainly, I wanted to let the Council know about The Hague. Mental health was also one of my key concerns.”

“When we said some students hadn’t seen their families in two years the Council was really surprised”

Since its inception, the DSP has moved from international representation to now include sustainability, inclusivity, student well-being and financial fairness as its core agenda points. Its impact has been significant too.

“We pushed for more study places in The Hague, streamlined online information for mental health services on the University website, we’re also committed to gender inclusivity and have been key in opening more all-genders bathrooms. During the pandemic, we were the ones raising concerns over how policies affected international students”, she explained, visibly proud of the DSP’s achievements in less than three years. “You know, when we told the Council that some students hadn’t seen their families in two years they were really surprised, and they wouldn’t have known otherwise.”


The reality is that the divide between Leiden and The Hague manifests itself in the council too. Initially, Willey had been struck to see that “no one in The Hague knew what the Council was”. Once elected, she experienced the underlying dynamics of the divide herself. “It was a difficult realisation because I thought of myself as an equal colleague, because I had been elected in the same way.”

Some time ago, it was suggested to create a translation internship for a Dutch or English language student from Leiden University, an idea the Board has considered but never implemented. The review of the language policy could lead to a new system next year. While the DSP hopes to see its situation improve, it also isn’t asking the University to change its administrative languague. “I don’t think it is realistic to expect the whole Council to be in English and I can see why, this is a Dutch university”, says Willey.

Still, English-speaking members could be supported better in the council, especially when they have shown great adaptability for years now. They seek a sense of legitimacy, of fairness: “We’re not guests here, were permanent members, internationals are here to stay”, states Willey. “The review of the language policy could be a turning point for Leiden, to show us how genuinely international they are willing to be. Will superficial internationalness be continued?”, she asks. It is a rhetorical question and a legitimate one.