Since mid-2020, the Expat Center has been in discussions with the HZ University of Applied Sciences (HZ). At that time, we discussed setting up an International Community as part of the Expat Center Zeeland. HZ has been actively involved in the working group from the beginning and has always prioritized collaboration.
The HZ and the Expat Center Zeeland share an important goal: ''A warm welcome for all internationals in Zeeland.'' Around 700 international students from over 58 countries study at the HZ. There are also international lecturers. Reason for the Expat Center Zeeland to meet with Prof Dr Barbara Oomen the chairman of the Executive Board of HZ University of Applied Sciences (HZ).
What is the HZ doing for international students? The new intake of international students? What are the main reasons why international students and expats choose to study in Zeeland?
Barbara: ‘’ We offer nine very nice international courses covering a wide range of fields, including watermanagement, engineering, global project and change management, international business and tourism, with both technical, business and tourism courses. Actually a very broad Spectrum.Students show great interest in these programmes, they like the fact that they can easily find a room here, and live well. Moreover, they also find Zeeland incredibly beautiful. The HZ is well regarded and among the top colleges in the Netherlands, which is of course an important motivation for students to come and study here. In this regard, HZ is very well respected and one of the top universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, which is of course an important motivation for students to study here. It turns out that word of mouth plays a crucial role in their choice to study here. We even have student ambassadors who share their experiences at their high schools and in their home countries. As a result, we are noticing a growth in the number of students from certain countries. Another attractive aspect of our Bachelor's programs is the opportunity to complete an extensive internship and gain practical experience. Students appreciate the opportunities to undertake internships at companies such as Dow, Your Surprise, and in the hotel industry in Zeeland, amongst others. About 20% stay in Zeeland after their studies to work here.''
What supportservices does HZ offer and what do you do to help international students feel at home?
Barbara: '' What is incredibly important is really the sense of community, especially upon arrival and during the first weeks for new students. There is never a second chance to make a first impression, and I believe this applies to both HZ and Zeeland as a whole. A good example is APV's involvement as a housing partner. They often pick up new students from Schiphol Airport. Imagine arriving with your suitcase to a country you’ve never been to before, to a room you don’t know, and then they are picked up and helped on their way. This is a really good initiative. Moreover, we have a good and active International Office that plays an important role in welcoming international students. At our open days, we even organise an 'International Dinner', so they are welcomed even before they decide to study here. During the introduction week, activities are specifically aimed at international students. We also see that our student associations are becoming more and more international. For example, Marum Bibio has more and more English-speaking members, and we even have a special international student association called Fisa. We also encourage and strive to organise activities that are accessible to international students. Of course, this is not entirely in our hands, but we have a special HZ Community department, which includes The Green Office, SGD-events and HZ Cult, and we strive to ensure that these activities are also accessible as much as possible precisely for international students as well.''
What strategy is HZ actually following to ensure the experience for the international students as well, while also retaining graduates in Zeeland?
Barbara: ‘’Nowadays we call it the 'stay rate.' As students do internships here and are offered jobs, you already see that an estimated more than 20% stay. I believe we need to strengthen this very aspect and that is why I am very much in favour of setting up a ''Staying Opportunity'' project together with the business community and governments. The goal of this would be to attract more international students but more importantly to keep them in Zeeland afterwards. It is clear that the business and political sectors in Zeeland are open to this, although it is sensitive in The Hague. Zeeland welcomes international students with open arms, and it is important that these students come into contact with other aspects of Zeeland, such as companies and organisations, as much as possible from day one. This initiative goes beyond just the HZ, but ensures that international students can really settle in Zeeland. Although a reasonable number already stay, I am convinced that we can and should put even more effort into this."
How does the HZ now collaborate with companies to create career opportunities, opportunities for the international student?
Barbara: "Through regular channels; we work closely with companies. These companies not only offer internships but also practical assignments for students like in the WET week - We Explore Together. We collaborate with these companies for things like graduation projects and first-year internships. I think by putting more emphasis on promoting Zeeland from the very first day, we can achieve that international students not only arrive at HZ, but actually feel welcome in Zeeland. For example, during their introduction week, we could offer all international students some kind of introduction programme to Zeeland. We already have an introduction programme for international students, and some of them, like the International Business students, then visit companies like Dow, which is education-related. However, we could introduce them much more to different aspects of Zeeland, such as the Watersnoodmuseum, and make them feel that they are welcome not only at the college, but also in the province. We can also give them a sneak peek at Flanders. Although we already have job fairs, I think there are many more possibilities."
Of course, there are some challenges and obstacles in attracting and retaining international students. What do you run into?
Barbara: ‘’What has really been a challenge for us in the past year is the national discussion about recruiting international students. We have been very troubled by that because there was political talk in Politics The Hague that knowledge institutions should stop recruiting foreign students. As a direct result, we had to immediately stop participating in fairs, which are essential for recruiting international students. This was frustrating because the problem with international students manifests mainly at universities and in the Randstad region but not here. In cities like Amsterdam, for example, it is very problematic to find suitable housing. We have no problem at all with international students. They are very welcome here. In cooperation with all government departments in Zeeland, the Economic Board and all educational institutions, we jointly drafted a letter and shared information through newspapers and radio stations to make it clear that the ‘’Randstad’’ is not the region. We would like to highlight that international students are most welcome here. We have many international companies, wonderful international studies and available housing. However, we notice that this year the number of international students is stable, whereas before it was constantly growing. We suspect that the national discussion has had an impact on this. You hear foreign deans telling students that the Netherlands is no longer so host-friendly. Fortunately, our lobbying is bearing fruit, and there will probably be an exception for regional shortage sectors and regional interest. We aim for students to actively engage with companies, which is already integrated into our study programmes and research. Students participate in research groups and often find jobs in the research field. We also need to raise the profile of Zeeland and make it more attractive. This can be done, for example, through improvements in cultural offer and public transport, as these aspects are of great importance to both our national and international students. We continue to urge politicians to ensure good public transport and an attractive cultural offer, as this also influences people's choice of Zeeland.’’
Is Zeeland exciting enough for the international student?
Barbara: Yes, students are ofter very happy here. There is quite a lot happening that students are nota ware of. For example, the ‘’Late Summer Festival’’ offers great performances, and the advantage is that everything is in English. So there is room for more community building among both students and staff, including international lecturers from diverse backgrounds. I think that especially for international staff, encouraging more mutual contact is also a valuable idea. I recently spoke to someone who works at Damen, and he had set up a dining club for international staff. In no time, 50 people had signed up, which he had not expected. This shows that there is demand for such initiatives, especially among the 25-35-year-old generation coming here to work on their own. For those with families, it is a different story. It seems that relatively little is organised in this area, apart from what individual companies do, such as the Friday afternoon drinks at our place and other events at Damen. Therefore, I think there is definitely a need for something like a 'Young International Meet and Greet'. ''