Opinion: Pitfalls

POSTED: 12/11/13 6:28 PM

The university was last Thursday morning the stage where students from Milton Peters College and St. Dominic High School received a dose of inspiration for starting their higher education right at home, at the University of St. Martin on Pond Island.

There was an interesting talk by Alston Lourens about the pitfalls students may encounter when they venture abroad for their studies. While his audience thought that drugs would be the major stumbling block for successful studying, Lourens said that culture shock was the most important issue.

Remarkably, that same culture shock also applies when successful students come back home. It is like with kids from a village who all speak some sort of dialect they feel at home with. If one of them treks to the big city for whatever reason and comes back later for a vacation, or even to settle down again, he no longer belongs to the group. He speaks funny, probably dresses differently, and the general idea among those that stayed behind is that he also looks down on his old friends.

If that is the culture shock Lourens was referring to, he is right on the money – and it works indeed both ways. But there is something else, and Lourens did not mention this issue. In October of last year the Soualiga foundation published the results of a survey that found that language barriers put St. Maarten’s students in the Netherlands at a distinct disadvantage.

For the current crop of students it may be helpful to look again at the results of this study, as this newspaper reported them last year.

Apart from language there were some other factors too that hamper studies: poor preparation before departure to the Netherlands, a lack of discipline, and problems with integration, discrimination, and peer pressure.

The survey – taken during a student forum in April 2012 – showed that students have “an inherent desire to contribute to the building of country St. Maarten” and to return to the island after the completion of their studies. “A majority of the participants (in the survey – ed.) had a healthy sense of responsibility with regard to returning to St. Maarten to share their knowledge and develop the country.”

At the same time, the students came up with a long list of conditions and suggestions. The promises made in the incentive package proposed by the government should be upheld was the remark that topped the list. Posting vacancies in the civil service and the private sector on a web site and increasing the minimum wage to “a suitable level” were two other suggestions.

Students also said that they want to be able to function in the areas they studied for.

They also called for a control on the housing market and to provide affordable housing so that returning students are not forced to go and live with their parents again.

The students furthermore demand “increased transparency with regards to laws and activities within government controlled companies.”

Students also expressed concerns about the crime situation on the island. One student suggested sending down 100 unemployed police officers from the Netherlands to St. Maarten for a year on a rotation basis.

The survey also showed that students are aware of the country’s poor ICT infrastructure (“needs to be drastically improved”). They also call for policies that promote diversification of the economy and for combining foreign investment with social infrastructure improvement. “Foreign companies must contribute to the maintenance or improvement of roads, schools and hospitals.” Incentives and support for small businesses, entrepreneurs and start-up companies are also important to students.

And while many of them feel discriminated in the Netherlands, they also called for updated legislation “to offer protection against discrimination to all St. Maarteners, regardless of race, creed, physical ability, sexual orientation and gender.”

Students were also asked for reasons why they would not return home. In a nutshell: “Corruption, nepotism, deficiencies in the infrastructure, the downturn in the economy and the small-mindedness of the government and the St. Maarten society.”

The main reason why students from St. Maarten struggle with their studies in the Netherlands is poor mastery of the Dutch language, the survey showed. “The majority of St. Maarteners face the same problem: the inability to adequately express themselves in Dutch This problem, particularly in a society where assertiveness is encouraged and supported from a young age is a great disadvantage. The level of Dutch (upon leaving the island) is therefore a major factor influencing the academic performance of St. Maarteners in the Netherlands.”

Language is not the only issue. Many students find the preparation sessions they undergo before their departure “inadequate, vague, and eleventh-hour.” The sessions do not provide information that reflects the reality of living in the Netherlands, students said.
Students also admitted that procrastinating and lacking discipline contributed to failure. “For some students who leave St. Maarten to study in the Netherlands is their first taste of freedom. Some will cope better with that than others.”

Students pointed out that the Dutch “make sure to remind them at every opportunity that they are different.” Integration and discrimination are therefore also factors that negatively impact study results. “Not accustomed to being on the receiving end of discrimination, some students find it hard to cope with situations of prejudice,” the report states. This applies especially to “being ostracized by colleagues and teachers because of insufficient Dutch language skills. This can break confidence and motivation.”

Money is yet another issue that gets students in trouble. Especially MBO students indicated that their study financing was not or just enough to cover their expenses. Poor financial administration skills are not helping either.

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