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Looking back at the International Students' Day Celebration 2019

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“You can't make change alone" 

Over 200 scholarship recipients from 60 countries studying at 19 different Dutch institutes gathered at KIT Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam to celebrate International Students' Day. This incredibly diverse group all share similar experiences of the hard work, the challenges and the good times of studying in the Netherlands. The unity, pride and dedication of these change makers, as the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs calls them, was electric. It was a day to remember. 

“The Day of the International Student was one of my happiest days in the Netherlands so far,” said Foyinsola Akinyanmi from Nigeria, a public health MA student at the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT). This positive reaction illustrates how these students were unified at the event in Amsterdam. It also underlined that studying is hard work and studying thousands of kilometres from home is certainly not a picnic.  

No easy road to travel 

We might assume that studying in the Netherlands as an international student is all happiness, joy and just plain fun. But that is not the reality, as many of Foyinsola’s colleagues and alumni will confirm: this is not always an easy road to travel. Not only is the Dutch system based on having to be on time, all the time; the courses and programmes are rigorous and challenging. And that’s only the studying part. Let’s not even mention the cold, wet weather.  

On a personal level, the life of an international student can be lonely. You have to toughen up and learn to get to know yourself and how to deal with the new perspective. “I completed a Master’s degree in water management back home but starting here I felt I didn’t know a thing yet. It’s like starting all over,” said Eke Chima Innocent who left behind his wife and baby son to come and study in the Netherlands. Chima is currently going through the toughest part of his study – he is working on his thesis, which he hopes to finish in April and then return home. Chima featured in this film we filmed at last year’s event, when he had first arrived.  

It’s interesting to understand what motivates people like Foyinsola and Chima to make these difficult sacrifices to study in the Netherlands. The price might seem high, but it’s not all hardship. 

Inspiration from experience 

 “It’s a fantastic opportunity to make a change back home,” says alumnus Mulu Berhanu, underlining her reasons for first studying in the Netherlands, some 10 years ago. She is now a specialist in gender, management and female entrepreneurship from Ethiopia. Mulu attended the event in Amsterdam as a guest in the experience discussion panel. “If you want to contribute to making a change in your country – become a change maker – this is the way to do it.” After graduating, Mulu became the first-ever female college dean at the 67-year-old Haramaya University in Ethiopia, among other achievements. 

She and 3 other Holland alumni: from Indonesia, Colombia and Iraqi Kurdistan respectively, were involved in the panel discussion on stage. These experienced alumni not only brought hope to the students in the audience, but also inspired them with practical tips on how to move forward after their time in the Netherlands comes to an end.  

“When we look out of the window at home, we only see what is available to our position,” explains alumnus Kamaran Palani, a Political Science graduate and International Relations lecturer from Iraq. “But when we move and see different cultures, we can see the view from different positions, which is critical to build a better society, better conditions for all of us.” Kamaran’s inspirational words illustrate why it is important to make the move and study abroad. The whole discussion was recorded as a podcast which you can listen to here.  

Difficult to make a change? 

The enthusiastic reactions of the audience showed that they clearly related to many of the challenges and positive aspects of studying in the Netherlands covered during the discussion. “Some students like me worry that coming here will not really bring something new and that making change will be difficult or not even be possible,” said Nigerian student Foyinsola. “But hearing today’s panellists share their stories of what they came across and what they’ve achieved to move on, was so important.” See what else Foyinsola had to say on video 

During the inspiring and lively panel discussion, it became clear that if you can tough it out, and finalise a study in the Netherlands, it is like reaching the peak of an important mountain. Once you have reached that peak, the next mountain may be waiting, but you have become a much better climber. And you have a network around you of people who have had similar experiences. “Today, I felt very much connected with the others. I recognised myself in a lot of the stories from others”, said one female student from Sudan. While their international classrooms already give many students a feeling of unity, the event made many realise that they are really not alone in their endeavours.  

Keep connected 

The Dutch government is a key supporter of international collaboration on education and sees it as serving a greater goal. “Sustainable development needs freedom of thought, deepening and sharing of knowledge across borders – and international cooperation with an open mind,” said Jeroen Kelderhuis, Head Civil Society and Education Division at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “And it needs people like you!” he told the students. The Netherlands has invested in education programmes like the Orange Knowledge Programme for many years, he added. “We do this in areas and themes in which we think we have added value to offer,” he added.  

The scholarships, tailor-made trainings and institutional collaborations between universities and knowledge institutes around the world link education to areas which the Dutch give priority, such as food security and water management, but also youth employment and equal rights for women and girls, Kelderhuis explained.  

Alumni from these programmes also play an important role to achieving the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “Learning about the world is key,” he said. “And getting to know people from different countries and difference cultures. That’s how we build bridges for understanding and collaborationWe believe that that is the way we can make sustainable change. Freddy Weima, Head of Nuffic, added: “You are all here to acquire the knowledge and skills you were looking for,” he said. “To take back home and make that changebut do stay connected and look for ways to collaborate - with each other, with the Netherlands.” Panellist Delphine from Indonesia knows from experience and nailed it when she said: “you can’t make change alone”.  

Cocreating for the SDGs 

KIT Royal Tropical Institute, the location of the event, has a lot of experience in global health, and as ‘SDG House’ it facilitates workshops and creates opportunities for collaboration. Lindy van Vliet, KIT’s head of Global Health and SDG coordinator for the government, gave the students a whistle-stop overview of the SDGs. “We know what to do,” she said. “And we are ambitious to do even more. By working together, we can accelerate progress.” 

In order to create even more common ground between the students, a breakout session aimed at working together on the SDGs was moderated by a team of people from the various education institutes involved. In small groups per SDG, the students discussed how they could personally collaborate to reach their chosen SDG. They wrote down ideas on big puzzle pieces, and formed SDG towers. Each tower represented one of the 17 SDGs.  


The most out-of-the-box ideas came from the people who picked less popular SDGs. Some students were unable to form groups to discuss the same SDG, so they had to mix with people who had chosen other SDGs. This sparked highly interesting discussions as the students asked: “how can I link my SDG to yours and enable us to collaborate to meet both our dreams?” This was new for the workshop leaders and illustrated that mixing it up is perhaps part of the way to accelerate progress. A less surprising but important takeaway from many groups was that SDG 4 quality education is the engine for achieving many of the other SDGs. 

So even though the Dutch study experience comes at a price, the positive energy and uplifting atmosphere during the event showed that it is a price worth paying. These students are justifiably proud to have made this important step, and the shared experience and chance to meet one another allowed them to feel part of something much more than just a provided opportunity: they are Holland Alumni, the change makers. And that is something to be very proud of! 

Holland Alumni posing in front of the Holland Alumni network banner picturing the canals of Amsterdam

Check out the complete photo album of the event here.

Source: Nuffic 

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