After attending the symposium The Making of an Inclusive Leiden University: The Do’s and Don’ts on Thursday, 1 December 2016, at Leiden University, I got inspired to share my own experience with diversity at Leiden University (being the only foreign trainee here). In the name of diversity, this blog is therefore also written in English, although I have luckily mastered a professional level of Dutch by now.
During the symposium, it became clear to me that inclusiveness and diversity don’t just happen overnight – they are part of a journey in which everyone needs to take responsibility. Even asking the smallest question can make a world of difference to another person. Why do we have gender-specific toilets? Why do we have doorsteps in our buildings, when they actually prevent disabled students and employees from getting around? Is the LDE-traineeship only open for Dutch citizens?
What I learned from the symposium is that things are often the way they are, because no one challenges them. If you do, you sometimes realize that there is no underlying agenda. Once this is established, you can push for a change in the right direction. If you realize that there is an underlying agenda, you probably have to take a closer look at the traditions, norms and culture before you can bring forth a change – but it is still worth trying.
When I saw the vacancy for the LDE-traineeship in the spring of 2016, I was intrigued. It seemed like the perfect match for me – except for the fact that I wasn’t sure if my Dutch skills were proficient enough for me to be able to work in Dutch. I grew up in Denmark and moved to the Netherlands four years ago to pursue a research master at the University of Amsterdam. My knowledge of Dutch after my graduation was limited because people had always told me “You don’t need to speak Dutch to live in the Netherlands.” This might be true, but if you want to build a career here, it is ‘andere koek’.
Diversity and inclusion must go hand in hand
Sitting down and complaining that I have “ended up” in a country where I only have access to a small percentage of the vacancies on the job market, because the national language is not English, doesn’t solve anything. Inclusion is not a one-way street. It also means celebrating diversity rather than unity. Making English the official language of the whole world would not be a solution to motivate diversity. Dutch being the official language of the administration of a Dutch University makes perfect sense for diversity – as long as there is also room for inclusion of people without Dutch as their first language, who make an effort. Not an effort to “fit in” and forget about your own culture, but an effort to learn the local culture and language, and to want to contribute to the society.
Having been working for 5 months as a trainee at Leiden University, I can say with confidence that there is room for inclusion. You do have to take responsibility and make an effort. It is tough and challenging; on top of the stress of trying to prove yourself in a new job, you are extra vulnerable because you are bound to make mistakes in the language ALL THE TIME. However, if you make the effort, you will see that your colleagues are willing to do the same for you. If I write a business case in Dutch and make the effort to do all the footwork – and if I then ask a colleague to read it through for feedback – then my experience is that they actually enjoy correcting the Dutch mistakes.
Make an effort and embrace your diversity
When I came across the LDE-traineeship vacancy, I had lived in the Netherlands for three years and had reached a high level of “passive” Dutch. I understood almost everything, but I could only communicate in basic sentences. Accepting that I had to make a bigger personal effort to be able to open up more doors in the Netherlands, I signed myself up for an intensive Dutch course and studied Dutch fulltime for four months. After taking the official ‘Staatsexamen NT2 Programma 2,’ I was ready to put myself out there and send my application for the LDE-traineeship – even though my Dutch was far from perfect.
Still today, my Dutch is not perfect and I think I will never master the rules of “de” and “het,” but making an effort has given me the privilege of working on the inside of some of the most important universities of the Netherlands. Today, I couldn’t imagine a better way to truly get to know the culture of the Netherlands than to work inside the administration of one of its biggest cultural organizations. Being allowed to contribute to the administration of an educational institute, where the foundation of a culture is being reshaped through its students every day, is a great honor. I hope that more international students will have the courage to embrace their imperfect Dutch skills and send an application for the traineeship. Only by daring to bring forward your own diversity and asking the critical questions, the university can prove and challenge how inclusive it actually is. After all, the traineeship is meant as a breath of fresh air in an old and traditional system – and what can be more refreshing than a group of trainees with different backgrounds and cultures?