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The Perfect Match: Welcoming Foreign Students


For 30 years now Professor Martin Verstegen and his wife Mariet have made foreign PhD students feel at home in the Netherlands. While he watches over their scientific progress, she creates around them an ideal social environment. Now, you might wonder how a professor and his wife can give students such a great time. Sure enough, it's not your typical students' party, but Mariet's coffee mornings seem to have quite a positive effect on the students' foreign experience.

How it all started ...

The Verstegens both know from their own experience that going abroad to work or study can be rather tough. They were already married when in 1971 Verstegen accepted a postdoc position for 1 year at Babraham's Institute of Animal Physiology in the United Kingdom. Mrs Verstegen followed her husband with their two kids and without giving it much thought. Only after their arrival in the UK she realised that a successful and enjoyable expatriation required good preparation, which was something the Verstegens had not thought of beforehand. "Back then we were just happy that my husband was given the opportunity to work at a renowned institute in the UK," elucidates Mrs Verstegen about their rather blind decision to emigrate.

Verstegen was warmly welcomed in Cambridge and very well taken care of, both at a professional and personal level. However he felt his family was being completely neglected, and to make matters more difficult for them, they were left without their luggage for 2 months, a house without heating, and no one ever came to see how they were doing. As a result Mrs Verstegen got more and more homesick during the first 3 months. "If I could have crawled over the Channel with my two kids on my back, I would have," she says to express how she was feeling at the time. Still, they wouldn't have wanted to miss the experience for the world, and it made them realise that foreign students and their families deserved a better treatment. "I will make sure that it will be different for students coming to Wageningen," Mrs Verstegen promised to herself at the time.

Welcoming students to Wageningen

Indeed settling in a new country has been a different experience for the students of Verstegen, now a professor at the Animal Nutrition Group of Wageningen University. Ever since their return in 1974, the Verstegens have been working together with the university's office of international affairs. The office is taking care of all the formalities on behalf of the students, dealing with their visas, diploma approvals, and housing. Meanwhile the Verstegens help the students to find their way in the lab and in the Dutch PhD education system, as well as in their new life. "The student has to be aware of how people exchange contact here," says Mr Verstegen. "That is what often determines whether someone makes it or not."

The couple is also making a point to always try to look through the students' eyes as, "it's not about the students adapting to the Dutch situation; it's about their well-being here," says Mrs Verstegen. "Actually we try to adapt to the students." However explaining cultural differences has become more of a challenge over the years as the students, once predominantly European, now come from all over the world. Most of the time, the couple asks for help from people who come from the same country but have been in Wageningen for a while. "We can explain all about the Netherlands, but we don't know what the essential differences are with their home country," says Verstegen, "it could even be the smell."

Mariet's Coffee Mornings

What is unique about the ?Verstegen approach' doesn't lie solely in the way they welcome and support the students themselves. It's the involvement of their families as well that turns their approach into such a success. The ?Coffee Mornings' are now a well-known social event among international scientific circles in Wageningen. These bring together the families of all the foreign scientists working at the Animal Nutrition Group ? from M.Sc. students to professors--in the Verstegens' house. "On the Coffee Mornings anything that makes you angry, annoys you, or that you're unhappy about comes up for discussion," says Mrs Verstegen.

Her Coffee Mornings are not the only way for Mrs Verstegen to stay close to the students. You'll find her walking up and down the department's corridor just as often as her husband. She visits the students in their lab to see how they're doing, have a quick chat, or make an appointment for a longer discussion.

Students who have just arrived of course need more of her attention, and she starts looking after them from day one. She usually shows them around and introduces them to other students in Wageningen. She puts them in touch with a doctor and a dentist. She used to guide them through other necessary formalities, such as registering at the police station or the municipality office. The latter was taking up quite a lot of her time, as even though the students have all the documents required for their stay in the Netherlands, most of them are sent from pillar to post. This is why the university's office of international affairs decided to take over most of these formalities. Mrs Verstegen thinks that the registration could be done within no more than a day and a half, but at present it takes 4 to 6 weeks at best--time during which these people are practically illegal. "And that," says Mrs Verstegen, "while they've been invited by the university!"

The Verstegens do not only have to deal with bureaucracy once the students have set foot in Wageningen. They feel the impact of slow embassy and university procedures well before the students' arrival. Procedures may also differ considerably between universities, even within the Netherlands. As an example, Mrs Verstegen tells about a Vietnamese student, who wanted to come to Wageningen in the first place. However it took the university so long to give him permission that he decided to go to Utrecht, where he was accepted right away.

Procedures have become more difficult since the recent outbreaks of SARS and Newcastle disease. "The bureaucracy around the regulations to have someone come over has become more intensive, tougher, more complicated, and way too expensive," is the opinion of Mrs Verstegen. She's noticed that fees are much higher in the Netherlands than in other European countries. As for the procedures' complexity, the Verstegens are putting their hope into a new regulation that is yet to be implemented--the creation of a single office where immigrant knowledge workers could deal with all their paperwork at once, instead of going through the traditional procedures for asylum seekers.

Student selection

The university is very careful in the admission of students as it wants to be sure about their capabilities, even when students come with their own funding. To find out about the candidates' qualities, attitude, and expectations, Verstegen asks the students to come over for a short stay or gets to know them a bit better through talking to common acquaintances. It is required that the subject the student wants to work on fits within the Animal Nutrition Group's research. Otherwise Verstegen would still try to find a better suited group or even institute.

Professor Verstegen's day

So far the Verstegens have been the tutors, the mentors, and a listening ear for 72 students, seven of which will finish their PhD by the end of 2004. Even though students who've already graduated are now spread all over the world, the Verstegens are keeping in touch with all of them. They are helped to do so by the most recent graduates who every year organise ?Professor Verstegen Day', where all graduates gather to catch up and talk about old times. It is not a rare event that Professor Verstegen meets some of his ex-students at international congresses and symposia.

A success story

The Verstegens are very pleased to see that their combined approach is bearing fruit; their students are usually highly motivated and so far all of them have obtained their doctorate. So why not extend this approach to all departments and all universities? "You can never formalise things completely," says Verstegen when talking about the support of Wageningen University. In addition, what works for the Verstegens will not necessarily work for other professors and their partners. An important factor in their success has certainly a lot to do with the role Mrs Verstegen has been playing over the past 30 years.