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University of Copenhagen
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Student life

Three international students: Copenhagen is a cool — but challenging — student city

International students — As a part of the Danish reform of master’s degrees, the government wants more international students at Danish universities. But what is it like to be an international student in Copenhagen? We turned up at the Studenterhuset café and met up with students from India, Jerusalem and Brussels. They all want to get more Danish friends.

When you walk through the revolving door to the Studenterhuset on Købmagergade, you are immediately struck by a few things.

The smell of coffee, the laughter from either the volunteers at the bar or the guests at the tables, the eager tapping on the laptops, and — of course — the buzz from ongoing conversations. And there many other languages than Danish here.

The Studenterhuset is an independent association, linked to the University of Copenhagen, and run by a volunteer board that consists of students. All students are welcome. But there is one group in particular that is dominant at the Studenterhuset.

It is the city’s international students, who find a sense of community with other students like them at the different meet-up events or as volunteers in the Studenterhuset bar.

Ranked lowest in hospitality

»The international students have different needs. But the most important thing is that they don’t feel lonely while they’re here. Many of them tend to congregate at the Studenterhuset, where we have a particular focus on them meeting others in the same situation,« says Jacob Ørum, who is director of the Studenterhuset and who helps to keep 300 volunteers engaged each semester.

On one year, there were 40 different nationalities represented among the volunteer staff, says the director. But he emphasizes that students need to be able to speak English if they want to volunteer at the Studenterhuset.

I love the vibe and diversity you find here

Amalya Cohavi

»Everyone is welcome at the Studenterhuset. We try to create a space where Danish and international students can meet up and mingle. It can be difficult for international students to get to know the Danes,« says Jacob Ørum, who reckons that there is a 50/50 distribution of Danish and international students at the Studenterhuset.

He refers to a survey from the network organization InterNations, which is carried out every year among expats across more than 50 countries. Denmark scores high on parameters like sustainability, infrastructure and security. But scores way down in terms of hospitality.

»We are at the very bottom in the category ‘finding friends’. This is a problem. Because we really want to make some of the international students stay on the Danish labour market afterwards,« says Jacob Ørum.

Studenterhuset babies

He says the international students are ‘super cool’, and full of innovative thoughts and entrepreneurship. And so he is frustrated by how Danish society and, not least the University of Copenhagen, takes care of them.

»We should all be better at opening up our communities of interest to people who are non-Danes. This applies to both the wine club, sporting activities, and our volunteer associations,« he says and continues:

»In terms of the University of Copenhagen, it is often difficult for international students to find associations where they can also meet Danish students. This is partly due to the fact that many associations only have information in Danish, even though international students are welcome. This is unfortunate.«

Even though the Studenterhuset creates a sense of community for international students in particular, Jacob Ørum emphasizes that the place is just as much for Danish students.

»We do everything we can to create a strong study environment for all students who need it. It could be students who haven’t quite settled in to their study environment yet, and who want to set up new communities,« he says:

»I think we have succeeded quite well. Through the course of time, many many Studenterhuset marriages, babies and strong friendships have come to light.«

»Copenhagen will not come to you. You need to come to Copenhagen«

»Copenhagen won’t come to you. You have to come to Copenhagen«

What was your first day at UCPH like?

»Quite chaotic. I was to have my first lessons on the CSS campus, which is an old hospital building. I got totally lost. Suddenly I was in the basement, and there was not a soul,« says Eshwaraya Bhagwani.

»I’ve been here for more than a year now, and I think that the happiness of the Danes rubs off on me.«

Eshwarya Bhagwani

She volunteers at the Studenterhuset and likes to spend most of her waking hours there, when she is not attending lectures. Eshwaraya Bhagwani was supposed to study at a Canadian university, but chose Denmark when she discovered how cold it can get in Canada.

»But winter can be bad in Copenhagen too. I have noticed that my fellow students’ moods are affected by the time of year. People are much happier and sweeter during the summer,« Eshwaraya Bhagwani laughs.

»I’m used to extreme weather. In Northern India, where I come from, it can get up to 48 degrees in the summer.«

How have you experienced the Copenhagen study environment?

»I had been told beforehand that Danes can seem a little cold. And I can feel that some people have a harder time opening up than others. It is no problem, on the other hand, when alcohol is served,« Eswaraya Bhagwani laughs. She has made both Danish and international friends in Denmark. Not least because she lives in a dorm.

For the first few months, she had difficulty understanding the Danish alcohol culture. Some of her fellow students would start drinking at nine in the morning, and this is not something Eshwarya Bhagwani is used to.

»In India, alcohol is rarely served. But I don’t think it’s a problem that it’s part of the culture here,« she says.
Eshwarya Bhagwani dreams of a future in Denmark. Especially because she has read that Denmark ranks high in happiness studies.

»I’ve been here for more than a year now, and I think that the happiness of the Danes rubs off on me,« says Eswaraya Bhagwani. She hopes that the anthropology programme will help her learn more about Scandinavian culture.

What advice would you give to others who come to Denmark to study?

»Don’t let yourself be put out by the way Danes are. Most of them are actually friendly. It is almost only senior citizens that do not have the energy to speak in English. Still, as a foreign student, you need to be prepared to be proactive,« says Eswaraya Bhagwani. She adds:

»Copenhagen won’t come to you. You need to come to Copenhagen.«

»I like the Danes’ balance between work and leisure«

What was your first day at UCPH like?

»I have been an exchange student at Aarhus University, and I absolutely loved it. That’s what hooked me on taking my entire master’s degree in Denmark, and my instructor recommended that I do my master’s in Copenhagen. I didn’t think it could get any better than Aarhus, but I fell in love with Copenhagen in three days. And UCPH is wonderful. I love the vibe and diversity you find here,« says Amalya Cohavi.

What is your impression of Danish students?

»I’m very outgoing, and if I want to have friends, it’s not hard for me,« says Amalya Cohavi. She generally finds that Danes show an interest in her, and her background. She still sometimes feels a barrier.

»People make friends and acquaintances during the first several years of their lives. They will meet me relatively late. So I have to make more of an effort to become their friend. But this doesn’t bother me too much, and it’s completely understandable,« she says and continues:

»Academic collaboration, on the other hand, is very social. We have many group assignments that can let us get to know people.«

Although the Danish alcohol culture may come as a shock to some international students, this does not concern Amalya Cohavi. There is room for everyone — according to her — even those who do not drink. And, as she herself points out, she has quickly been assimilated.

»I’ve just been to an exam. We celebrated this with a beer at the Studenterhuset,« she laughs.

Amalya Cohavi says that she will »do anything« to stay in Copenhagen.

»I like life here. I have also started learning Danish, because I believe that it will help me become more included. I like the Danes’ work-life balance. This appeals to me. And I have also become quite crazy about the Danes’ way of dealing with problems,« says Amalya Cohavi and offers an example:

»In the teaching, we often have to solve tasks that are based on real life, for example climate change. In Denmark, there is the space to discuss things in a way that I have not experienced before. You can be critical and honest at the same time.«

What advice would you give to others who come to Denmark to study?

»I have many pieces of advice. When the university has posted its phone hours at a certain period of time, there is no point in trooping up to the office thinking that there must be someone who can help you,« says Amalya Cohavi, who has sometimes felt a little lost at the university.

She likes it that students at UCPH have to take on responsibility for themselves and their own learning. But it can be a bit too much, she reckons.

»It’s overwhelming that the teachers are so helpful«

What was your first day at UCPH like?

»It was really good. I immediately liked the relaxed atmosphere. I was looking for a master’s in Global Health abroad, and when it turned out that the University of Copenhagen had one, it piqued my curiosity,« says Augustin Lambert.

He did his bachelor’s degree in the Netherlands and spent his summer holiday in Copenhagen. He found it to be a cool city, but rather expensive.

»When I started at UCPH, I was overwhelmed by how helpful the teaching staff are. There is a considerable difference in the teaching culture in Denmark compared to Belgium and the Netherlands,« he says.

There is self-service at the coffee stands on campus, where nobody checks if you are stealing. I love it.

Augustin Lambert

He has found that the professors at UCPH are very supportive – not least because you »actually get to talk to them.«

»At the University of Copenhagen, professors are not an authority. Or, at least it doesn’t feel that way,« says Augustin Lambert.
He sometimes, on the other hand, finds the administration »disoriented«, and this can be confusing for a new student. But Copenhagen is a cool student city, emphasizes Augustin Lambert, and it is in many ways reminiscent of Brussels.

»Of course I miss the Belgian fries,« he laughs.

He is not a big fan of Danish food culture. But the two nations share their love of beer, he says.

»We like the beer in Belgium too. So you could say I’m trained from home.«

What is your impression of Danish students?

»It can be difficult if you – like me – don’t speak Danish. Many of my fellow students are good at speaking English, but if we are a mixed group, for example, then people switch to Danish very quickly,« he says.

He adds that he »has a lot of cool Danish friends,« but can feel left out when they speak a language he doesn’t understand.

What is the biggest cultural difference between Belgians and Danes?

»The Danish culture of trust. I don’t know how to explain it, but taking cutlery and plates from the canteen and promising to hand them back. This would never happen in Belgium,« he says and continues:

»Just the fact that there is self-service at the coffee stands on campus, where nobody checks if you are stealing. I love it.«
Augustin Lambert does not know whether he wants to stay in Denmark forever. But he is not completely averse to the idea.

»It probably depends on whether I can get a job in Copenhagen,« he says.

What advice would you give to others who come to Denmark to study?

»Be open to trying everything. Go to another town in Denmark, do a bit of travelling. Taste the food, even if it’s not for you. Spend time with your fellow students, and take an active part in the games at the start of the semester, even if they seem silly.«