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'Most Challenging? To Fit in with People While Remaining Myself.' Social Integration of Second Generation Turks Within the Dutch Higher Education Setting

by Adél Pásztor
Newcastle University

Sociological Research Online, 19 (4), 4
DOI: 10.5153/sro.3459

Received: 27 May 2013 | Accepted: 8 Aug 2014 | Published: 30 Nov 2014


By focusing on second generation Turks in the Netherlands the paper aims to study the role of friends and peers in terms of 'fitting in' to a higher education setting. In-depth interviews with Turkish higher education students and recent graduates confirm the existence of certain 'coping strategies' which ethnic minority students employ in order to integrate into the social fabric of their university or college. Social integration is usually achieved through joining existing networks of ethnic minority students, creating new networks, or simply, keeping 'old' high school friends throughout university. However, in some cases students are willing to change their course, institution or type of study in order to improve their experience, all pointing to the high importance of social integration for many.

Keywords: Non-Traditional Students, Social Integration, Friends, Higher Education Experience, Second Generation Turks, Netherlands


1.1 The focus of this study is on one of the most disadvantaged ethnic minority groups, the descendants of Turkish guest workers[1], the so called 'second generation', who continue to be underrepresented in the Dutch higher education (HE) sector. Turkish labour migration dates back to the 1960s when Turkey entered into labour migration agreements to fill the demand of European industries needing non- and semi-skilled labour. Due to their 'negative selection', the second generation was overwhelmingly growing up in working- class families in socio-economically disadvantaged households. As their parents were part of the guest-worker generation their fathers often occupied the lowest social positions in Dutch society, while their mothers stayed out of work. Hence, a very low level of parental education (often limited to primary schooling), lack of knowledge of the Dutch language and of the Dutch labour market, characterised the first generation. But gradually, education became to be seen as a way of achieving social mobility and providing improved life chances for the next generations who were to make their futures in Dutch society (Heath et al 2008;Pásztor 2010).

1.2 Needless to say, accessing higher education is increasingly difficult within a highly stratified school system, where early tracking steadily channels Turkish pupils towards the vocational tracks, from where university is out of reach. While some of them succeed in getting into HE against all odds, national statistics highlight a significant gap in the HE enrolment of 18-20 year olds. According to the data, the enrolment of Turkish students is around 29% (compared to 54% of Dutch), with university enrolment accounting for only 16% of overall HE enrolment (Jennissen 2007). On top of this, Turkish students face further disadvantages upon entry, since only about 40% of them graduate within six years (Wolff 2013).

1.3 Assuming that researching those successful in reaching HE might become a basis for an understanding that could assist in reversing the circumstances of those less successful (Modood 2004), the current paper intends to tease out the strategies successful Turkish students apply in order to succeed in HE in the Netherlands. Relying on interviews with current students and recent graduates the paper demonstrates the vital importance of social integration, even at the cost of academic integration, for Turkish students within the Dutch HE sector, who tend to use particular 'coping strategies' in order to survive until graduation. The paper specifically focuses on the role of friends and peers in fitting in to the social fabric of university or professional college, while identifying linkages between the social and the academic side of student life.

1.4 The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows. First, it provides an overview of the Dutch educational system, followed by a description of the research study, after which the research findings are discussed in relation to the literature. The findings section is split into three main parts reflecting the different dimensions in terms of the friends' role in the HE choice process, the university experience, and the challenges of social integration. Finally, the paper finishes with a brief conclusion.

Access to higher education in the Netherlands

2.1 The Netherlands has seen a major increase in ethnic minority enrolments in higher education in the last decade as a result of which ethnic minority participation rates have almost doubled reaching 13% in 2006 (CBS 2007). Despite this rapid increase in intake, many ethnic minority groups remain underrepresented in HE and their pattern of participation is known to be different from that of the Dutch population: ethnic minority students generally enter HE at a later age, enroll into professional colleges rather than universities, take longer to graduate and are more likely to drop out without getting a degree (Wolff 2007;Jennissen 2007; Van den Berg and Hofman 2005). This is particularly true for Moroccan and Turkish students who are the two most disadvantaged groups faring much worse than other ethnic groups (e.g. Surinamese, Antilleans) or their Dutch peers (CBS 2007).In the following, I will explain this in more detail.

2.2 The Netherlands has a binary system of higher education consisting of universities and professional colleges (referred to as HBOs[2]) with enrolment strictly dependent upon prior qualifications. Due to the highly stratified system of compulsory education pupils are transferred into qualitatively differing school tracks early on (age 12) based on their CITO (standardised test) score and the advice of their teacher. Such tracking has detrimental implications on students' future as it strictly specifies which type of tertiary institution they can apply to, if they can access HE at all.

2.3 Subsequently, students enrolled into the pre-university track (VWO) are the most privileged, having the opportunity to continue their education at university directly, while their peers in senior secondary schools (HAVO & MBO) can only access professional colleges (HBO). Still, students in the vocational tracks (MAVO/VMBO) are the least fortunate, as they have to complete higher levels of education (HAVO or MBO) before being able to apply even to the HBO[3]. This is often referred to as taking the 'long route' to higher education in the Dutch educational system (Crul et al 2009), as opposed to the short, direct route through the VWO[4].

2.4 Since ethnic minority students are generally channelled to the least selective secondary school tracks (Pásztor 2010) such 'indirect access' is often the only way they can access HE at all. As a result, professional colleges tend to have a relatively high proportion of ethnic minority student population while universities only a very small. As statistics indicate, about 70% of ethnic minority freshmen are enrolled in HBOs, while the proportion is even higher for Turkish and Moroccan students, around 75 and 80% (CBS 2008). Due to the drawbacks of early tracking very few Turkish students make it to university at all, since professional colleges swallow up the lion share of 'widening participation' in the Dutch HE sector.

The increase in entrants with MBO and HAVO qualifications shows that the educational reforms may have had a positive impact on access to higher education. The public discussion, however, made clear that students from weaker socio-economic backgrounds […] were the 'victims' of the reforms that led to fewer contact hours and more reliance on self-study. [As a result] [m]any students are disappointed or unsatisfied with their programme, its level or the expectations raised, [and] too many [of them] drop out of HE or switch to other programmes after one or two years (Vossensteyn 2013:37; 49).

2.5 Although access to higher education institutions (HEIs) is strongly mediated by prior schooling, once students have the necessary qualifications they are free to choose any field of study[5] and are admitted into any HEI of their choice (bearing in mind their prior track), as the early selection replaces any further sorting at the doors of the HE institutions. But once enrolled into a HE institution, ethnic minority students face significant risks in terms of dropping out. This is because indirect access not only adds extra years of schooling to their educational trajectories but also leads to a higher risk of non-completion due to the less demanding curriculum they were taught in (less selective, vocationally oriented) secondary school tracks prior to applying to any HEI, resulting in a linear relationship between preparatory schooling and the likelihood of graduation. But for Turkish students the graduation rates are significantly lower (up to 20%), even if preparatory schooling is taken into account.


3.1 Methodologically, the study relies on in-depth interviewing. The target group of this research are Turkish students belonging to the "second generation", i.e. who were born in Holland, to Turkish parents, aged 18 to 35 years old, residing in Amsterdam, and were enrolled into a HE institution (or recently graduated from one). Respondents were drawn from a representative survey[6]of the Turkish second generation allowing the researcher to access a wider range of the student population compared to a convenience or an institutional sample. In the course of the research, all survey respondents who were HE students or graduates at the time of the survey (in line with the definition of the target group) were (re)visited at their supplied home address, and all who were successfully reached (after several attempts), and agreed to participate, were interviewed.

3.2 The interviewees varied according to their gender (56% male); age (mean age: 25 years); prior schooling (vocational track: 42%; general secondary: 21%; pre-university: 36%) and the type of HEI attended (29% university, 71% professional college) assuring a good distribution across different dimensions. As for the parental generation, their fathers mostly worked in factories or in construction, while mothers were home-makers or done cleaning jobs (mostly part-time). In terms of parental education, the average education was around six years for both parents (the maximum was ten), while three sets of parents never went to school (illiterate). In terms of students' family status, most interviewed students were single. All but one single student lived with their parents in the family home (they had three siblings on average), while those married lived with their spouses. In terms of educational trajectories it might be worth noting that around 28% of interviewed students changed their field of study or HE institution during their undergraduate studies, and about a third of the interviewees were pursuing (or recently completed) a postgraduate degree.

3.3 The 16 in-depth interviews ranging between one and two and half hours were conducted in English, mostly at the homes of the respondents. Later, the interviews were fully transcribed and thematic analysis had been carried out using the Atlas.ti software. The names of all respondents were replaced with pseudonyms in order to safeguard their anonymity. While the interviews discussed individual educational trajectories at great detail, most of the emphasis was on the areas of HE choice and subsequent experiences of HE. While friends or peers were not the initial focus of research, issues of peer support and friendship continuously emerged in the student narratives as they intertwined with both their choices and experiences of higher education.


The role of friends in HE choice and the process of transition

4.1 Scholarship exploring students' experiences in HE settings generally employs Tinto's (1975) concept of academic and social integration in a way of describing the extent to which students 'gain meaningful membership of the academic and social worlds of the university' (Wilcox, Winn & Fyvie-Gauld 2005: 708). By pointing out the significance of the social side of university life they argue that academically — and socially — engaged students are more likely to remain in higher education. Previous research has confirmed that students who withdrew generally had less success in making friends when compared to those who persisted in higher education (Christie et al 2004). Thus it appears that social fit is — at least — as important as academic integration (Bers and Smith 1991).

4.2 Social integration became increasingly significant in the context of widening participation, as research found fitting into the social fabric of university life imperative for students from non-traditional backgrounds. Research looking into ethnic minority students' choices in the United Kingdom (Ball et al 2002, Reay et al 2005) pointed at the 'ethnic mix' of the student body as a crucial factor overwriting concerns of academic prestige and educational quality. Here, ethnic minority students turned out to be most concerned with the presence of ethnic minority peers at higher education institutions, thus ethnic mix became 'a decisive factor in not considering certain universities, or types of universities, or areas of the country as possible choices' (Ball et al 2002: 348).

4.3 Within the Dutch setting, friends' influence starts as early as the initial contemplation of HE studies and increases in significance during the decision-making period. At the time of HE choice parents are already outsiders, helpless bystanders of the process: 'I only talk with friends — no more with my sisters or parents — that was not their level. They didn't know nothing about [higher education]' [26, male, HBO student]. While generally the advice and support provided by middle-class parents reduces the need for young people to seek guidance and information elsewhere, for Turkish parents of working class background HE is an alien territory which they find difficult to navigate. Therefore, ethnic minority first-time entrants are prone to consult their friends and peers regarding the choice of course as well as the institution, as a way of compensating for the lack of embedded capital at home:

'My friends were a bit like me. They didn't know for sure what they wanted to do. Yeah, we started to look for each other, so I think we were influenced by ourselves'. [20, female, HBO student]

4.4 These youngsters are aware of the importance of choosing the right course but are restricted in terms of resources. They try to rely on 'cold knowledge' (Ball and Vincent 1998) such as the internet, university brochures, or open days, but they lack the cultural capital to interpret the finer differences among the institutions: 'I looked at the website a bit. But the problem is that each university talks about their own qualities, that's really annoying because it was really difficult to compare'. As a result, the decision-making process of Turkish students well resembles that of 'contingent choosers' (Reay at al 2005), representing first time entrants in HE who lack the necessary cultural and social capital to make well-informed choices. Turkish students make decisions based on minimal information, where choices are local and only a few variables are called up. But while the 'ethnic mix' of the student body does not come to mention when discussing their HE choices, in practice, their decisions often reflect their friends' choices. The choices they make can be so intertwined that on occasion whole friendship groups end up choosing the same institution or even course. On one occasion friends even went on to doing the very same internships throughout their studies. 'I think two or three guys went to university to do communication science the year before me. And one of them was a close friend of mine. So I think because he told me about the communication science I went to do that as well'. Or as another student pointed out: 'All my best friends have chosen the same study.'

4.5 Thus while ethnic minority students within the UK simply look out for ethnically diverse peers when making their institutional choices (Reay et al 2005), Turkish students follow their 'actual' friends into HE institutions of their choosing: 'You have to be there for four years at that school, and it's nicer to have people you know' [20, female, college student]. As access to university or college is determined by the previously attended secondary school track and there are no perceived qualitative differences among the higher education institutions, there isn't much importance attributed to the choice of insitution. As one of the interviewees reasoned: 'The study is basically the same at both universities but my friends are important to me so that was the reason why I chose VU and not UVA' [23, male, university student]. But following friends often equals to staying 'local' as Turkish students don't even consider HE institutions outside of their place of living: 'In Rotterdam I don't know anyone. I have no family. I have no friends. So Amsterdam, I wanted to stay here.'

4.6 These results resonate with Reay's (Reay et al 2005) findings that students - in the FE college — were more likely to see the HE decision-making process as a collective endeavour. Such collective decision-making is often attributed to the different social composition of students in this type of institutions who cannot rely on their parents' capital when making such important educational decisions. Within the Dutch setting, however, such discussions were not reduced to the least selective institutions. Students in the pre-university track were equally involved in such discussions as were their peers in less selective institutions. This somewhat contradicts Brooks' (2005) findings who argued that students — other than mentionining where they were applying and for what subject — did not engage in deep conversations fearing that such discussions would undermine (the perceived equality of) their friendships. The difference may be explained by the stratified nature of the Dutch educational system producing more 'homogeonous' student groups, which successfully channel their students towards specific educational institutions.

4.7 Linking choice with HE experience it is unclear whether the high dropout rates of Turkish students and the frequent changing of their course is due to the poor initial choices resulting in an incompatibility between the student and their chosen institution (Ozga and Sukhnandan 1998). Conversely, it is also possible that other factors are at work, such as subtle and overt racism preventing "non-traditional" students from succeeding in a setting where they lack any sense of entitlement and feel like not fitting in (Thomas and Quinn 2007).

The HE experience: Individual strategies for improving social integration

4.8 Prior research on 1st year university students indicated that friendships undergo significant changes during the transition period, with the majority of students making new close friends by the end of the first semester (Shaver et al 1985). The quality of new friendships formed in the first year was a significant predictor of social adjustment, but also showed a significant relationship with students' feelings of attachment to university, and even their academic adjustment (Buote et al 2007). In line with this, research pointed out that the single most important predictor of a good social life was to be living in halls, as students made most friends through university accommodation, more than through their course, clubs or societies (Braxton et al 2004; Holdsworth 2006).

4.9 However, since most Turkish students attend university at their place of residence and continue living at home during their studies, extending their social networks might prove problematic. Comparing the friendship patterns of commuter and residence students, researchers argued (Buote et al 2007) that residence students, as opposed to commuter students, are more reliant on new friendships being developed as they are experiencing a dramatic break in their friendship networks with moving away from home. Facing the often unexpected reality of university life new friends serve an important function in terms of normalising the HE experience. Seeing others going through the same difficulties improves the student transition and eases the adjustment to the new environment (Buote et al 2007).

4.10 While it was suggested that making new friends is less significant for the adjustment of commuter students, the current paper argues the contrary: it demonstrates that having friends for Turkish students is in fact paramount for staying on, and they are willing to go a great length to achieve social integration. In the following, I will describe the individual strategies Turkish students developed during the time of adjustment to the HE environment, which include keeping old friends, changing friendship groups, but even changing the course or the institution.

Keeping old friends: 'I have many friends, a lot. But not in the [college]'

4.11 Zeynep is the first child of a factory worker father and homemaker mother. She is a bright and diligent girl who continues in a professional college after high school. Having graduated in economics she enrols into the university to get a masters degree in business administration. Although she cannot complain about the lack of contact with fellow students — having worked regularly with peers on group projects — her otherwise good relationship with her peers fails to translate into real friendships: 'we were never so close as with my three girlfriends [from secondary school]'. Thus instead of acquiring new friends, she retains her high school friends who provide her with the all-important emotional support.

4.12 A very similar situation is described by other girls, such as Ela, who relies on a large network of friends from outside the college to provide her with encouragement and support. Old schoolmates studying at the same institution are another way of social integration: 'A couple of my friends are studying there as well, and sometimes in the breaks we used to hang out together, and we just talk about what we did and what the study is like. Basically I was glad that I had them, it helped a lot'.

4.13 As Pahl (1998: 103) suggests: 'Those friends whom people have known since school […] serve as anchor points in their lives and can help to provide emotional integration and stability'. But keeping long established friendship networks is often a gender-specific strategy used especially by Turkish girls who increasingly find themselves 'sticking out' due to visible signs of ethnicity, such as wearing a headscarf. For them the only way to overcome the difficulty of building new relationships is by relying on existing ones. The experiences of Turkish (female) students resonate well with Bhopal's (2011:525) research on Indian women in the British HE system who 'identified closely with other women who were like them, who were able to understand and empathise with their cultural experiences'.

Changing friends: 'The most challenging? To fit in with people while remaining myself'

4.14 Ibrahim is the third child of a factory worker father. His mother sets the standards high by wishing to see her son working 'in suit' like the men in the bank where she used to clean. Unfortunately, his father stops working due to serious illnesses when he is small, so he grows up without having toys, mostly watching cartoons on TV. He enjoys school and ends up in the pre-university track leading him onto university where at the current age of 23 is doing a masters in biochemistry. His course choice has been greatly influenced by his friend's who liked the prospect of working in a laboratory environment. While being successful academically, Ibrahim is very vocal on the topic of friendship and (the lack of) peer support.

Look because I'm Muslim I found it sometimes difficult to accept certain jokes which [fellow Dutch students] made. I mean you can make jokes about being Turkish, like for instance they said: in your neighbourhood if we get in trouble we can call you and you and your gang can come and knock that guy out — and I was like okay, okay. Or I need a Playstation 2 can you get it for me on cheap prices? Like jokes on theft and other things molesting but jokes on religion that I really did not like. So I started to think should I break total contact with them? Or should I not become a Muslim anymore? I was really doubting my religion at a time — it was a difficult phase to overcome, so difficult, one of the most difficult things at university.

4.15 For Ibrahim, the most challenging experience of university life has been to fit in with his peers. The insensitive 'jokes' he is bound to listen on regular basis could have easily put one at the risk of dropping out: 'I am good at adapting myself — adapting, but not being taken over.' Still, instead of giving up, he rather looked out for people who would respect him, and replaced his — Dutch — study mates with an ethnically mixed social group: 'I had Iranian. I had Pakistanian. I had Syrian. I had one [friend] from Morocco. It was different, very mixed. Just formed a new group, you know.'

4.16 Since working class students are usually the first in their families to attend university their family members are unable to provide tangible advice or support. Friends at university or college can help to cover this gap in experience thus mixing with other students is beneficial for academic outcomes. Relationships with other students provide access to information: course mates can explain assignments, remind each other of impeding due dates, act as study buddies, support each other in team work, but also act 'as sources of social support during stressful periods as well as sources of inspiration and motivation during moments of self-doubt. Moreover, having friends at university can instil a sense of community and social identification with the institution' (Rubin 2012: 432)

Changing the course: 'The first day was hell for me […] it was only only only Dutch people'

4.17 With parents having no schooling experience (illiterate mother working as a cleaner in a library, father now inactive, previously a construction worker) Osman is the only son and the youngest of five children. He goes to a Christian school in the neighbourhood, but attends a weekend school to read the Koran. He slowly works himself up the educational ladder, taking one step at a time. Dreaming of opening his own restaurant he enrols to study small business, a course recommended by his mates from secondary school.

I started with small business but it was nothing for me. The [college] is a multicultural school but the study which I did in the first year was small business and it was only only only Dutch people! […]The first day was hell for me, I didn't like it at all. We started in the class you have to tell something about yourself and about your parents and I was the only one whose parents were not educated, the other ones was doctors and this and that. So I didn't like it anymore because they are looking at you from other level. You're different, I was the only student from other background. Not to give up I tried to do this and that but it didn't work. And then I ask a teacher: This is too boring and I can't get contact with the students. I don't feel great but I want to get my business, can I do something else? He says marketing is not boring, it's very colourful, there are other students from your background… But I say background is not important, it's important to be in contact with students, to be working together and to understand each other.

4.18 Osman feels ethnically and socially isolated, not having anything to share with his fellow students. But instead of dropping out of higher education he takes his future into his own hands and turns the risky situation into success — by changing the course he studies. Replacing small business with marketing proves to be an instant success, providing Osman with the opportunity for social contact which he craved.

[Marketing is] super, I like it very much. It was people like me, students were like me! It was not too difficult to be in contact with them, no - we understand each other and we got friends in the first week. That's what I was looking from the other students, but I didn't get that from the small business.

Changing the institution/type of study: 'It's the impersonal way of teaching and impersonal way of contact with students'

4.19 Cihan's parents have primary school education, father salesman at the market, mother works part-time. The parental wish for studying medicine occupies his childhood aspirations, but he comes to realise that being a doctor is not compatible with the life he wants to lead. Looking for a profession with a better balance of work and family life (Pásztor 2012) — but still related to medicine — he follows his friends' advice and applies for psychology only to discover that university is far from everything he imagined.

When I think psychology I think about helping people with issues you don't normally talk about. But seeing the impersonal way of teaching and being together with the other students I thought the way we are at the moment is not what I thought the study was about. Can you imagine, I was in a classroom with about 200-250 students. I was just sitting there and watching the screen, just looking at the teacher. Sometimes you had to sit all day in the back and the teacher was like this small [indicating with his fingers]. I think because it's such a big class you can't expect the teacher to know everyone and to help everyone at a personal level. After the class they would answer some questions or you could talk to them about stuff on the internet, with the blackboard, but that's not personal either, I mean it's still talking to a computer.

4.20 The impersonality of the university environment is in strong contrast with Cihan's initial expectations of HE as the large lecture halls amplify the distance between him and the teacher as well as his peers.'Just the whole idea of sitting there with a big group … one day you are sitting with somebody and the other day you were sitting with somebody else. So it was possible that you didn't sit with the same person for a whole year'. The lack of personal contact makes him so disillusioned that he is no longer into studying and eventually drops out.

The first year was a bit difficult. I mean, I never had a problem with socializing and meeting new friends. But it was just because you don't see each other every day and because you can only learn something about people in a really 'platonic' way. It's just - hi how are you? What's your name? But I don't call that friends, it's just people you know. Not friends.

4.21 But Cihan is not lost for good. Having worked at a restaurant for a while he becomes inspired to do something totally different and subsequently returns to HE to study business. As the previous experience of the university environment is still haunting him, not only does he change the field and the institution, but also the type of study by enrolling into a work and study programme at a professional college. Thus by replacing full time university education with a part-time study he finally feels integrated and happy.

Now I have the possibility to work four days and go to school one day and I knew it will be more social because you see those people every day and they are your colleagues as well as your study mates, so it's a lot more personal. Basically I took the chance, that's why I am studying at the [college].

4.22 First generation students often presume that they would have the same level of academic support they received in school, and are discouraged by the perceived inaccessibility of tutors and the pressure to become independent learners. As the majority of these students live at home during their studies they experience serious problems breaking into cliques formed by other students. The impersonality of the university environment often contributes to the lack of personal relationships between students who hardly have the occasion to get to know each other. Here, parallels can be drawn with research on international students who refer to their peers as 'hi-bye' friends drawing attention to the limited personal contact between different student groups (Sovic 2009).

4.23 Cihan's experiences of the HE setting are not unique. In a UK based study, Bowl (2003) described the feelings of isolation non-traditional students experience in HE institutions where they are in minority. Similarly to Turkish students, students in the UK were put off by large lecture halls, little contact time and inaccessible staff, all reinforcing the view that university was "not for them".

4.24 All in all, both Osman and Cihan successfully overcome social disintegration by using a strategy usually applied for improving academic integration. While Osman changes his course in order to change his peers, Cihan makes a more radical step by changing his institute and type of study. The findings indicate that it is up to the individual to modify his expectations to suit the situation or rather modify his course or institution.

The challenges of social integration: Racial climate and the student experience

5.1 The findings of this research clearly resonate with critical race theory (see e.g.Dixson and Rousseau 2005) which defines racism as a system of ignorance, exploitation and power used to oppress people on the basis of ethnicity, culture, mannerism and colour. It also recognizes that racism is endemic to life and expresses scepticism towards claims of colour-blindness, neutrality and meritocracy. CRT argues that racism contributes to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage or disadvantage and its goal is to work towards eliminating racial oppression. Critical race theorists utilize personal narratives and stories as forms of 'evidence' believing that 'those who have experienced discrimination speak with a special voice to which we should listen'. In doing so CRT is instrumental in providing a voice for students 'who are otherwise not heard', thus allowing them to present their own perspectives on their educational experiences (cited in Dixson and Rousseau 2005: 10-11).

5.2 In HE settings, being viewed as a (racial) minority or simply "different" from the norm can get easily translated into being ignored or excluded leading onto racial segregation evident in lectures or study-groups. In the Dutch setting, there is a kind of cultural shock which young people of Turkish origin face when entering higher education. As many students arrive to university from ethnically mixed or so called 'black' schools, for most of them it's the first time that they are in a class with an overwhelming majority of Dutch peers: 'My first experience was a different amount of people; I was the only foreigner in my year' [23; male; university student]. The fact that the interviewed students continuingly referred to themselves as 'foreigners'[7] — even though they were born, raised and schooled in that country — is a clear manifestation of their feelings (of exclusion).

5.3 By giving voice to Turkish students the interviews not only demonstrated the social exclusion of Turkish students but also have shown how the different levels of racial aggression manifest in their lives. The findings revealed both interpersonal and institutional 'microaggressions' which well resonated with the experiences of African-American, Hispanic or Filipino students in the US (see e.g. Yosso et al 2009). Their findings highlighted issues of lowered expectations, negative stereotypes and channelling students away from college preparatory tracks, all of which apply to the group under study. While low teacher expectations and ethnic stereotypes (specifically affecting Turkish girls) have been documented elsewhere (e.g. Pásztor 2010), the paper draws attention to the role of tracking as a form of 'macroaggression', which disproportionally places Turkish students into the lowest tracks with limited opportunities for entering HE. This works like a self-fulfilling prophecy, since 'students with the 'wrong' type of cultural capital are disadvantaged in getting into HE in the first place, […] and feel out of place once they get to university' (Patiniotis and Holdsworth 2005: 84).

5.4 Racism pervades the HE institutions as institutional structures, discourses and teaching practices often work hand-in-hand in maintaining and reinforcing divisions between different student groups. A good example is the fresher's week which assumes that all social experiences have to be alcohol-based. Visiting the pubs of Amsterdam does not help in easing Muslim students into the social life of their college; instead, it highlights and reinforces their differences from the more 'traditional' student body.

5.5 Institutional racism operates even in the case of Osman, as it shows how elitist practises can end up being institutionally racist in their consequences. Even though these students occupy their rightful position in the educational hierarchy, working themselves up the educational ladder with hard work and commitment, their teachers (and peers) question their legitimacy, as they continually mark them as normatively different and marginalise them. Consequently, many interviewed students fail to consider their higher education institution as a place where they can make friends easily.

Well I did have people with whom I talked but the word friendship is difficult for me. Because friends mean that you do things after school and that you share some kind of secrets with each other to a certain degree. And that you really care for each other, that you really wish the best for each other. But back at the time, no, nobody was my friend there, because for me friendship was different. But I did have 'normal' friends, I mean people with whom you talk. [23; male; university student]

5.6 At inter-personal level, Turkish students regularly become targets of racial jokes and (un)conscious acts of ignorance which are documented forms of 'microaggressions' (Yosso et al 2009). In these contexts, the act of telling a joke is intentional even though the racist beliefs are coded as humour. The implied humour can also leave the student guessing whether the aggressor actually intended harm, hence it is difficult to decide whether to respond, respectively how to defend themselves from further attacks. Such derogatory racialised messages are offensive, unkind and hurtful as they are, but when coming from 'friends' they leave a great personal impact (Yosso et al 2009).

It was friends that did it. Not some other people that I don't know, but friends, and they were like let's make him a bit angry. And each time they did it I was like okay it's a free country, you can say whatever you like, but I will leave now and will come back at a later time. And they were like: why are you so upset? I said: every time you do that I get less and less respect for you, be aware of that. After that they were like oh okay, we can say what we want but in respect to him we don't say it next to him.

5.7 As Allan (1996) suggests, friendship should be viewed as a relationship between equals where there is little sense of social hierarchy or status difference. Thus the emphasis should be placed firmly on equivalence while openness and emotional disclosure are essential parts of the relationship. In line with this, Turkish students understood friendships as strong bonds built on commitment, responsibility and mutual respect (Weeks 1998), where reciprocity is an integral part of the relationship.

You see at secondary school for instance we helped each other so each of us was getting a good grade. But at university it was different. It was mathematics at a time […] and I remember asking a friend of mine — a friend — could I borrow your notes? And he said yes but only for this day, not for next week or next topic. And why not? Well because he would be 'relatively at disadvantage'. That is what he called it. For me that was like a shock because I knew that guy for a year, we went to the cinemas together, we went to the parties together, and I was like no, for me the status of friendship went back to college mate and then I did not want to have anything with them anymore. [23, male, university student]

5.8 Social interactions are vital for these students but for a number of reasons — including outright racism — they are unable to make 'real' friends among their Dutch peers. Hence, they are sticking to their own partly out of tacit rejection by others rather than simply looking for 'people like us' from the outset. Thus similarly to Latino/a students in the US (Dixsons and Rousseau 2009), Turkish students in the Netherlands respond to the 'microaggressions' and the resulting rejection by building their own 'social counterspaces' which represent their values and cultural background.

When you talk with Dutch people you see it is different, you cannot just talk about everything… we are not on the same page, there is missing something, they have other things in their head, they could never be your friend. [22; male; university student]

5.9 These young people are simply looking for friends with whom they can be themselves, who understand them without having to explain, justify or defend themselves. 'Yeah, it is nice to meet people from other cultures, and also foreigners between each other, we have much easier contact than with Dutch people' [19; female; college student]. Similarly: 'Maybe because we have little bit the same culture with Moroccans or something. Yeah, it is easier to talk to them' [20; female; university student].

I learned a lot from Dutch people: I learned how to be direct, a lot of things I learned there, because I'm not like that. My culture is very warm, with emotions playing a very important role. And I learned from Dutch people that you have to separate emotion and business — but I didn't like it, I didn't like the way. [26; male; college graduate]

5.10 One has to remember, that these young people are in the age when they strive to go beyond family ties and aim to build a social network which is more in tune with their values, beliefs and sense of self as well as their aspirations regarding university education and further career, so they may be willing to take radical steps in order to reconcile the academic and social worlds of university, including changing a course or even type of study. As a result of this, social integration within higher education institutions exists, but it's separate: while Dutch students comprising the majority of student body keep themselves to themselves, their ethnic minority peers are often bound to look out for each other and develop their own circles of friendships.


6.1 The paper successfully challenges the existing view that there is only one 'authentic' way of being a student. The study of Turkish students proves that HE is not uniformly accessed or experienced among different student groups (cf. Granfield 1991; Reay et al 2009, 2010; Yosso et al 2009). Students from non-traditional backgrounds often become disadvantaged by institutional cultures that place them as 'other' (Archer et al 2003; Read et al 2003). In expecting non-traditional students to 'adapt and change, in order to fit into, and participate in, the (unchanged) higher education institutional culture' (Archer and Leathwood 2003: 176), a 'middle class way of being a student is given prominence, where leaving home to attend university is the norm, and new friendships and networks built within university are crucial to success' (Christie et al 2005: 5).

6.2 Although (most of) these students do not arrive "well-prepared" for HE, neither do the institutions welcome them with open arms. Looking at the experiences of Turkish students through the lens of critical race theory showed how the existing (and unaltered) institutional practices, discourses and structures excluded and marginalised them from the more 'traditional' student body, thus failing to provide them with educational experiences that are personally gratifying and academically successful (Allen et al 1991).

6.3 But non-traditional students need to be integrated into the social life at university in order for them to have a better opportunity to succeed. While previous research showed a significant positive relationship between social class and social integration (Rubin 2012), the same appears to be true for ethnic minority students who are the first in their families to enter HE. By looking at students' conception of 'friendship' and 'exclusion' within the Dutch HE sector, the research proves the vital importance of social integration, even at the cost of academic integration. Here, the findings specifically point at the existence of individual 'strategies' which ethnic minority students employ in order to become integrated into the social fabric of their university or college. Social integration is usually achieved through joining existing networks, creating new networks, or simply, keeping old high school friends throughout university. Still, there are also students who are not afraid to take drastic measures and even change their course, institution, or the type of study, in order to improve their social fit, all pointing to the significance of social integration for non-traditional students in Dutch HE settings.


1 There are about 384,000 Turks living in Holland, including both the first generation and their offspring, while their overall number reaches four million across Europe (CBS 2010).

2 In 1984 the system was transformed into a binary system by upgrading former upper secondary professional schools into non-university professional HE institutions (hogescholen) (Vossensteyn 2013).

3 HBO students — regardless of their prior schooling — who successfully complete their first year of study (the so called 'propedeuse') are allowed to enrol into university education. Similarly, students with a BA from a HBO can apply for masters at university.

4 About 93% of pupils with pre-university education went on to HE. For those with upper secondary general education this is 85% and of those with vocational qualifications about 45% (Vossensteyn 2013:19).

5 With the exception of medicine, dentistry and law which have a numerus fixus (or numerus clausus), i.e. an entry quota is in place for courses where there is excessive demand. A lottery ensures that all applicants have a fair and equal chance of being selected.

6 The Integration of the European Second Generation (TIES) is a cross-national survey of the descendants of immigrants from Turkey, Ex-Yugoslavia and Morocco in eight European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). The main aim of the TIES project is to compare the educational and labour market positions of the same second-generation groups (Turkish, Moroccan and ex-Yugoslavian) across Europe. The Dutch sample consisted of 500 Turkish, Moroccan and Dutch respondents (in total: 1500 cases). The sample of this qualitative research was based on the Turkish Dutch sample. For more detail on the survey see http://www.tiesproject.eu.

7"Foreigner" is how (all) interviewees referred to themselves in English language during the interview. Essentially it is their translation of the Dutch word 'allochtonen' which is widely used to refer to non-natives (of non-western origin) living in the Netherlands, as opposed to the native Dutch (i.e. 'autochtonen').


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