There is a lack of representation of BIPOC individuals studying abroad, as well as a lack of specific advice. I really noticed this whilst browsing the study abroad fairs and brochures both in Amsterdam and back in Manchester, which only seemed to portray the generic white, middle-class study experience. Having spent the last year in Amsterdam, I wanted to share my experience to hopefully serve as a helpful tool for anyone worried about feeling uncomfortable in a different environment.
To help amplify the experiences of other’s which are often not included in the brochures, I have also listed some articles I found helpful at the bottom of this post for specific factors to look out for when doing your research as well as first-hand experiences in different cities and countries.
Do your research
Picking a diverse place to study can make you feel welcome. If you are not thinking of studying in a big city or capital (which are generally more open minded) it might be wise to research the political parties in power in your region. Amsterdam is a very multicultural city and the area of the student accommodation where I lived in particular was very multicultural, meaning that there were many halal or vegetarian eateries in close proximity.
Modules and societies at the Universiteit Van Amsterdam
Although it is slowly changing, opinions in academia are dominated by the white middle-class male. Fortunately, the social sciences department in general are more open to listening to marginalised experiences and actively investigate how their research field oftentimes have had problematic histories that have actively contributed towards structures of racism. I found that the modules I was able to choose at the Universiteit of Amsterdam were much broader in scope and more nuanced than those offered at the University of Manchester.
In one module, “Dutch Problems, Dutch Solutions”, we were asked to review Gloria Wekker’s book, ‘White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race’. The book was invaluable to my outlook on contemporary Dutch society as I have come to know it and brought to light how racism is still a fundamental organising principle in Dutch society, for example through the staunchly defended character ‘Zwarte Piet’.
Another example is when I took the module ‘Geographies of Inequality,’ where one of the assignments was on colonial spatial imaginaries in Dutch museums. This involved exploring whether certain exhibitions reproduced colonialist narratives or opened their doors to postcolonial debate. I am thankful to the University of Amsterdam for opening my eyes to this topic and for their decolonial outlook that I have also encountered in other modules.
There’s been seminars when I have been the only person in the room explaining cultural appropriation. However, I’ve also had professors address the Black Lives Matter movement in class the next day after the killing of George Floyd and actively incorporate it into discussions and topics throughout the following lectures of the semester.
Campaigns within the city
However, if you are unable to engage in anti-racist debates at the university you are studying in, it is important to remember that this isn’t the only way. Seek out the things you want to learn – you may not find a radical education inside the classroom but you might be able to find it in student activist groups, exhibitions and museums. At Manchester I am part of the Decolonise UoM campaign, a similar student campaign at the UvA that critiques curricula is The University of Colour and there are also many organisations around the city that are engaged with anti-racist work, like the ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ campaign and the Afterlives of Slavery exhibition at the Tropenmuseum.
While a reluctance to talking about race seems to be the norm, myself and other study abroad students have found comfort in the many spaces throughout the city and the university that make it a point to understand these issues and to celebrate POC’a and their experiences. It’s been in these spaces where I’ve been re-inspired about what we can accomplish together as members of a diaspora.
On a more personal note…
One thing all POC’s can agree on is feeling uncomfortable by the question of being asked where we are “from” – although it can also depend on intent and the situation. Firstly I really believe this question should be rephrased to “where do you call home?”, however this was a favourite icebreaker during any activity on study abroad. Whilst the question makes me feel uncomfortable in the UK where I consider myself British, navigating the question abroad has proven a different experience. When you’re meeting new people on study abroad your background suddenly becomes relevant so it’s definitely a subject matter that’s going to keep coming up, and one to get used to.
On the other hand, studying abroad also made me form a type of camaraderie with like-minded others with who I could affirm my existence and help me flourish in a new and exciting city. Having to explain my identity on study abroad made me appreciate my cultural heritage even more and made me realise that it gives me a unique perspective on the world.
I think having parents from two different countries and then growing up in a third has allowed me to be more empathetic of cultural differences in general, and how to interact with a wide range of people, so you’re definitely at an advantage if you are a 2nd gen immigrant / third culture kid too on study abroad.
Resources and Services
Your university (both at home and away) are also here to help you and ensure you are well whilst on your study abroad, so do not hesitate to contact them.
- I have made use of the free mindfulness course for HvA and UvA students. This is a course that is free to enrol onto and lasts 6 weeks. I really enjoyed it and met a lot of like minded people I otherwise would never have got to know. If you want to register onto the course or find out more about it: https://student.uva.nl/en/content/az/training-and-workshops/psychological-support/mindfulness/mindfulness.html
- The University of Amsterdam offers its students ‘contemplation rooms’ across its various campuses. These spaces are neutral and inclusive, so students can reflect or meditate in a peaceful and safe environment: https://student.uva.nl/en/content/az/contemplation-rooms/contemplation-rooms.html?origin=KRqlSCJvTWW3Nl%2FRMdykVg
- Within the UvA, there are several departments to which you can turn for help, contact a student counsellor or a psychologist here: https://student.uva.nl/en/content/az/health-and-wellbeing/themes/mental-health.html
- CREA, which is located on Roeterseiland campus is open to both the public and students and runs free mindfulness drop in sessions as well as creative activities to help you de-stress and look after yourself, physically and mentally. Check their timetable here: https://www.crea.nl/cursussen/body-and-mind/?lang=en
As a final note I would like to use an extract from ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University’:
You are never the only person experiencing racism or misogyny or misogynoir or islamophobia – when you find others not only are you validated but through that validation you are able to then collaborate and mobilise, and start working to change the broader situation. Seek out spaces and people who will understand those experiences, because you are never alone.
My experience abroad has been invaluable in understanding myself and my place in the world. And I am thankful to my parents, who met whilst studying abroad, for instilling me with this mindset.
Please do not hesitate to message me if you have any questions or would like to know more about Amsterdam or the UvA – Instagram @hannahrustomjee
Articles I found helpful
To read more about Zwarte Piet, please read Frazer’s article here https://manchesterontheroad.com/tag/universiteit-van-amsterdam/
‘Studying abroad in Australia isn’t always ‘amazing’ when you’re black’ https://gal-dem.com/being-black-in-australia/
‘Conscious blackness: the experiences of US students in the UK’ https://gal-dem.com/blackness-us-students/
‘Deciding to study abroad can be tricky for minority ethnic students’ https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/aug/22/deciding-to-study-abroad-can-be-tricky-for-minority-ethnic-students
‘Advice for Black people and ethnic minorities on a year abroad’ https://globalgraduates.com/articles/advice-for-black-people-and-ethnic-minorities-on-a-year-abroad
Reflecting on Ramadan as the only Muslim of my friends https://gal-dem.com/reflecting-ramadan-muslim-friends/