International Education: Establishing Intellectual Nest Eggs
- By Finn Cohen
- Mar. 16 2010 00:00
Sitting in his bright orange office on a recent morning, Charles Hoedt, the director of Nuffic Neso Russia, explained the finer points of international education — namely, the growing rate of student exchange between Russia and Holland; the scholarship opportunities available for international students; and how his organization even assists Russian students in locating certain comforts of home in the Netherlands.
"We prepare the students with all kinds of practical tips and advice on how to find your apartment, where can you do cheap shopping for students, how do you buy your train ticket," said Hoedt, surrounded by the fiery hue of the Dutch royal house. "We even explain where they can buy, for example, pelmeni in Amsterdam or The Hague."
Nuffic Neso Russia is an organization funded by the Dutch Ministry of Education that helps foster cooperation between universities in the two countries. Neso, an acronym for Netherlands Education Support Office, operates 10 such offices around the world and represents more than 70 universities in Holland. "Nuffic" stands for an even bigger mouthful of a phrase: Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education.
The Russian office was opened in February of this year and is located in the All-State Russian Library for Foreign Literature, a massive complex whose tree-lined courtyard is flanked by statues of unlikely historical colleagues — James Joyce, Simon Bolivar and Niccolo Machiavelli, among others. No classes are held in the building, but there are several conference rooms that Nuffic Neso uses to host seminars for Russian students interested in traveling to Holland, including sessions on the application process, the details of available scholarships and the practicalities of living in a new country.
"The center very much deserves the name of 'one-stop' consultancy for those interested in getting higher education on the Netherlands," said Aygul Avtakhova, a Russian student who is currently completing an LLM program in International and European Law at Tilburg University in southern Holland. "They did an amazing training for those departing to the Netherlands in order to study. It involved interactive lectures, Russian guests residing in the Netherlands and very detailed advice on settling and adjusting to life here."
As one of Europe's largest financial investors in Russia, it makes sense for Holland to establish intellectual nest eggs for the two countries. To attract Russian students to its educational institutions, the center pushes what is, strangely enough, a major asset of Dutch university programs: classes in English. The Netherlands was the first non-English-speaking country in the world to offer courses in the language, a natural addition given English's status as the international language of business and practically the country's nonofficial second language, with most Dutch children beginning to learn it in elementary school.
The Netherlands now has 1,402 international study programs, 1,388 of which are given entirely in English. With 70,000 international students active in the country, roughly 10 percent of the student population, and 11 Dutch universities listed in the top 200 in the world by the Times Higher Education Supplement, the appeal is substantial for Russian students who want to gain better English skills without the costs of travel to and education in the United States or Britain.
According to Hoedt, there are about 500 Russian students in the Netherlands, where the most popular areas of study are business, economics, art and design. Avtakhova, whose positive experience at Tilburg has prompted her to consider getting a Ph.D. in the Netherlands, claims that besides the top-notch facilities and instruction that she has received, the more subtle benefits of embracing a new culture have been rewarding, if also a little wobbly.
"When I think about my first months of staying in the Netherlands, episodes of me learning how to bike properly come to my mind," recalled Avtakhova. "Life in Moscow is set quite differently, and biking in the center of the city is not a customary thing to do. This is quite the opposite case in the Netherlands, with thousands of bikers in the streets. This is something that I definitely did not practice prior to my stay, and I had to experience some 'dramatic' falls before I could feel comfortable on my 'iron horse.'"
For the nearly 200 Dutch students in Russia, the situation is slightly different, because there are not as many programs in the country that offer bachelor's or master's degrees in English. The most popular field of study in Russia for Dutch students is Russian language and culture, and placement in areas other than large cities provides an opportunity for these students to really dig in — if not to the complex system of noun declensions then at least to some homemade borshch.
Nils van der Vegte studied business management at Pskov Polytechnical University after Russian language courses in the Netherlands piqued his interest in provincial Russian life.
"I found out that Russia is actually quite different than what one often hears in the Dutch media," said van der Vegte. "In rural towns, foreigners get special treatment; at our university, it was not any different. The young people took us everywhere, and I got a good look at the life of young people in Russia. I guess people in the big city are used to foreigners."
While his time in Russia (he also studied briefly at Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg) has left him with many fond memories of the country, van der Vegte was not able to escape the bizarre incidents of random chaos that occur so often in Russia.
"I remember one time [at the student dormitory in Pskov] that the fire alarm went off," he said. "There was a very loud voice screaming that we should leave the building fast. I walked into the corridor and there was no movement at all—the students were apparently used to the alarm going off. At the same moment, I saw the handyman running to every floor. There was a short-circuit, but he did not know on which floor, and the building had 9 floors, so he was checking every floor whilst calling people with his cell phone — imagine the fire alarm, which was very loud."
But part of Nuffic Neso's task is preparing students both from Holland and Russia for these types of cross-cultural experiences, the acquiring of which can be a priceless career investment — in part because of the quirky challenges involved.
"Studying in Russia is an experience for life," Hoedt said. "I always say to Dutch students, 'If you can survive here, you can make it anywhere!' Also for Russian students — yesterday at a wedding here in St. Petersburg, I met a Russian who did a master's in Amsterdam in 2006; after her return, she found a good job in Moscow. Companies, she said, take you more seriously when you have studied abroad — it is better for your career.