Wijnhaven, with its thousands of students, can sometimes feel like an anonymous sea of faces. We encounter many people briefly—in line for a bathroom, across from us in the library, passing each other in the halls— but these connections usually fade as quickly as they occur. With the academic year drawing to a close, I want to move past this barrier of unfamiliarity: I spoke to five familiar-unfamiliar faces, as they reflect on the year behind them.
‘’I saw The Girl With The Pearl Earring on my first day in the Netherlands,’’ says Giras, aged 18, from Indonesia. He remembers how his feelings of disorientation and homesickness faded for a moment as he stood in the Mauritshuis and looked at the familiar painting: ‘’The Hague was this completely unknown place to me, and suddenly there was something I recognized.’’
The girl in the painting looks over her shoulder, seemingly captured mid-movement. Art historians have long debated whether her gaze is about to move towards or away from the spectator, Giras tells me. He sees a parallel with his own mindset over the past year: ‘’I have slowly settled down. Now, I feel at home here, I am directing myself towards new things. At first everything was different.’’
When he was living in Indonesia, he saw Europeans as somehow inherently different, intimidating even. The mindset is common, and he sees it as a relic of Dutch colonisation of his home country. It is another interesting part of his life that he sees reflected in the painting, in which a white European woman is depicted in ‘oriental’ attire. Giras has appreciated being in the Netherlands over the past year.
‘’I always idealized European culture, but now I am learning to find a healthy balance between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ influences. I have found that in the most fundamental ways, people are the same everywhere you go.’’
Moving to the Hague was 19-year-old Mario’s first time living anywhere other than his place of birth, the Spanish island of Illa de Arousa. Describing how growing up where he did influenced him, two things come to his mind. Noting that his island’s community consists of just 5000 people, he says, ‘’it made me aware of the importance of connecting with people on deeper levels. When you’re in the ‘city rhythm’ it’s very easy to run out of time, and fall into superficiality.’’
Mario points out: ‘’true connections based on investments, in listening and in time, are crucial for having a good network of people around you.’’ He also ponders his relationship with nature, saying ‘’I learned the importance of nature as a physical and mental medicine, and that’s something I miss a lot from where I live.’’
Still, he is excited to be in the Hague. ‘’There is a constant flow of new people, ideas, places and events to discover.’’ As a part of his Honours programme within the university, Mario is organizing a benefit concert. The profits, he explains, will go to Sundancers, an organization that gives free dance classes to a wide range of groups – disabled people, refugees, people with autism: ‘’They believe in the power of music to heal and connect,’’ he explains, ‘’music can be an instrument of expression through which we can have fun, forget about our daily problems, and realize that we can achieve our goals. Even with difficulties and mobility restrictions, we can still dance.’’
After realizing the great diversity that exists on the Wijnhaven campus, Hansoo, who is 19 and from the United States, decided to start My Migration Story: a platform for students to share their experiences with migration in video interviews that Hansoo films and edits herself.
“We often focus so much on statistics, and forget the personal implications of certain issues,” Hansoo says as she explains why she started the project. “We forget that someone sitting next to you in the lecture could have experienced violent discrimination, sexual assault and/or depression.” Through sharing people’s stories, she wants to raise awareness about how migration impacts people’s lives.
Being Korean American and having lived in the United States, South Korea and Switzerland, Hansoo understands how the place where you grow up influences who you become as a person. In the coming year, she wants to use My Migration Story to create awareness about climate refugees. Next year, Hansoo is transferring to the bachelor’s programme Urban Studies. “In a decade most of the world’s population will live in cities. I think it’s important make sure that the cities we create are healthy, safe, and sustainable.”
“I want to learn the art of tattoo,” 19-year-old Diane, who is French and Ghanaian, tells me, “because I love the concept of sharing my art with someone on such a deep level, adding a design on their skin forever.” She feels like there is great value in tattoos, because they can help people heal, or remind them of something important.
‘’I have grown a lot more confident in my art this year’’ Showing me her art account on Instagram, it is clear that the art she makes is deeply personal. One illustration depicts Diane, surrounded by floating objects – a dolphin, a mouse clicking a ‘control’ button, a bottle of aloe vera soda. From her hair, spaghetti-like arms move to drawers with documents in them, one titled ‘subconscious’ and the other ‘consciousness’.
Diane tells me she experiences synesthesia: a cross sensory phenomenon where a person translates one sensory impulse into another, like translating music into colors. Looking at her art, it is clear to see that it is a deeply instinctive portrayal of her thoughts. “I’m inspired by the art of others, or by recurrent elements in my life,” Diane explains, “usually I just let my mind wander and draw without a concrete idea.”
Sitting under shade trees in a grassy area next to Malieveld, Aileen, who is 22 and from Italy, tells me that she has used the past year to reflect and grow, ‘’I’ve learned so much about myself this year.’’
Some of her favourite moments have been spending quiet time reading a book or watching a movie with friends. Asking her how she recharges, she points out “You need to make time for the things that make you happy, even if it’s simply going for a walk in the park.” She likes to be in nature, and mentions that although it could be warmer, she loves how vividly green the trees and the grass are in the Netherlands.
Aileen looks back positively at the past year – she has enjoyed her studies and feels happy with the decision to come to Leiden University. She is not too concerned about having a ten-year plan, emphasizing the importance of realizing the agency you have in setting personal goals: “You just need to put in the work and be patient.” She illustrates what she means: she could drop everything now and become a doctor if she wanted to. Just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it’s impossible: “This might sounds cliche, but it’s true: you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”