The bottom-up approach for adapting to The Netherlands, and life

| Roberto Cruz Martínez

An opinion article by PhD candidate Roberto Cruz Martínez. With all the reports of international students facing a multitude of problems, he offers some tips and tricks, based on his own experiences.

The alarming challenges young international students are facing in their adaptation to the Netherlands are currently one of the main topics of discussion not just within the UT but also the academic community in general. U-Today has recently reported on some of these cases, where personal factors mix with apparently ‘minor’ events, such as getting sorted into an inactive or indifferent Kick-In group, thus creating a ‘perfect storm’ of alienation. While there are exemplary cases of success such as the ITC faculty, broader solutions are being considered.

As an international myself, I would like to offer an additional narrative for my peers and those interested. My proposal begins by recognizing adaptation as the core of human essence. It’s unavoidably a life-long task, as that is how we ensure our survival. Therefore, let’s turn this alarming situation around and not forget to promote the individual bottom-up approach.

Take the perspective of an international student, or if you are one please directly ask yourself the following: What can I do to improve my life abroad? What are the skills that I must develop? Which courses or trainings can I attend? How many hours can I spend in self-development? My recommendation is that the most answers you find for these questions, the better.

Of course, this cannot all be done in the short term but rather throughout the course of your academic life and beyond, so it’s good to start now. In other words, this means building up your individual self-regulatory skills and to lay down one by one the bricks of a resilient attitude. To name some examples, we know international students commonly face challenges related with the food, the weather, the culture, study-life balance, and making friends or feeling accepted by the Dutch.

I assume these challenges are widely known by now, so let’s move right away onto some strategies that an individual could focus on:

  • Break your mold, become adaptable: Understand that adaptation takes time, requires early investment, and it does normally feel like a ‘crisis’. Most likely, if you are struggling in the Netherlands, you would more or less also struggle in any new environment. Break your mold early and often! Expose yourself to failure, shame, ridicule, especially while you are young. The more often you break out of your comfort zone, the easier it gets as you grow up.
  • Embrace the advantages with the disadvantages: Focus on the things you do like (e.g., the open-mind culture, our lovely campus, the safety). It is also not the worst thing to realize that perhaps you are not very fond of something, as knowing what you don’t want helps you confirm what you do.
  • Inform yourself and learn to identify the sub-cultures: As small as a country can be, there are still many sub-cultures co-existing in it. The Dutch government has one, the UT another, your study program another, and your fellow students have their own. Learning to recognize these differences is a great skill to develop in life.
  • Watch, learn and imitate: If you are afraid to ask, just watch. Most likely you are not the first person to have faced that obstacle. Try to find a positive role model and if there are no ‘real’ ones around you, read a book, watch a movie, just find inspiration somewhere!
  • Take the initiative: Speak up or take action not to be right but simply to be first, you will then realize that others were as eager as you to say or to act, they will naturally follow you.
  • Set a goal and make a plan: Continuously try to set goals and make plans for them. Doesn’t matter if they succeed or not, with time you will learn to calibrate the difficulty of your goals with your skill level. It will also help you feel comfortable with failure, which actually facilitates success!

Now, reading these strategies you might think that they are completely out-of-context, or maybe even too obvious. After all, there are real unavoidable problems out there that will stop you cold no matter who you are or what you do. That is correct, and that’s why it’s important that you don’t get slowed down by your own self!

Overall, always focus on the things that are actually within your control. Your goal shouldn’t be to ‘live happily and comfortable with no problems every day of my life’ but more to ‘prepare myself as best as I can, to do as much as I can, in every situation’.

It is true though, that the items I listed are just generic, overarching strategies, better seen as general plans of action. For these broad strategies you should always be on the lookout for more narrow tactics but also especially for specific ‘techniques’ that can be learned, practiced, and mastered. A technique is the ‘how to’ of a strategy. You can find these in all kinds of multimedia sources (e.g., books).

My last two cents are these: If you are an international student, consider the value of this approach and invest as much effort as you can in it. To the UT, I would say that it is important to provide or facilitate opportunities for the students to engage in this bottom-up approach. In the end, it is not necessarily a recipe for success, but rather a way to build a better attitude and make it easier to stay-in or to regain balance. This is, in my opinion, the bottom-up approach to adaptation in the Netherlands, and life.


Roberto Cruz Martínez is a PhD candidate at Department of Psychology, Health & Technology (faculty BMS)