Students Meet Locals

by Alexander Holst

Maastricht boasts a picturesque city scape, culinary diversity, and international flair. All perfect ingredients for a “Taste of Joie de Vivre”, as the New York Times put it. But for non-tourists, joyful life can be spoiled if one doesn’t get along with one’s neighboors. In Maastricht, there is a local culture and there is a student culture, and those two rarely overlapp. What can be done to change that?

Last week, the Student & Society Initiative organized a community event to bring Maastricht’s citizens and students together and facilitate dialogue between them. In a relaxed atmosphere, students and citizens were seated at mixed tables to exchange views on what they think the biggest challenges are, and to suggest ways to address them. The open format of the evening allowed each discussion group to tackle whatever issue they wanted: from neighboorhood peace, foreign students’ unwillingness to learn Dutch to a lack of local jobs for graduates. The roundtables, angular in truth, sparked some insightful talks, especially for identifying main issues from different points of view.

Take student parties as an example: bass-heavy music at 2am, noisy discussion at 3, roaring laughter at 4. On paper, just another night in one of many bars in Maastricht’s inner city. But high beverage prices and limited opening hours on weekdays drive students out of the city center and into their cozy apartments. Different venue, same schedule. Only that now one’s lively party becomes another one’s nightime disturbance. In a close-knit neighboorhood, a knock on the door and request to keep it down should be enough to solve the situation. But prejudice and the language barrier between locals and foreign students can stand in the way.

The problem is intensified by the rising number of students in recent years. In some neighboorhoods and housing-blocks students make up three quarters of all residents. As a result, there will always be a party somewhere nearby. And one noisy get-together is all it takes to spoil a calm evening for families, senior citizens, and other quiet-loving people.

Identifying the problem is only one step, though. Finding solutions is harder. One suggestion made  to solve the tension in mixed student-citizens neighboorhoods is to simply separate the two groups. If all party-lovers lived in student houses secluded from the rest of the townspeople, the noise-pollution would not be a problem anymore. As a side-effect, it might take pressure off rental rates, another citizen’s qualm. But such a measure would only address a symptom of the broken student-society relations. Separating students and citizens would, arguably, even widen the gap between them.

A main obstacle for integration into local culture is many foreign students’ unwillingess to learn Dutch, this author’s included. Tellingly, the whole evening was conducted in English. Maybe as a result of that, students outnumbered citizens.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that students and citizens engaged in focused discussion, and suggested potential solutions is a step in the right direction.

Many of the issues cannot be solved with good-will and engagement alone: housing, local jobs for graduates, and the language barrier. But community events like this can help to debunk false preconceptions and foster empathy. Participant’s high motivation for discussion was greatly enabled by the well organized event: during breaks, local bands performed their  gem songs. The programme also featured speeches by the president of Maastricht University, and organizers of the upcoming Pro-Equality Demonstration. Overall, the bar-like venue at the Muziekgieterij, with drinks, open buffet, and music served well to facilitate much needed discussion.

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