International students get lost in translation

The student unions are supposed to represent all students at Uppsala University, but to what extent is that possible when language barriers prevent many international students from attending board meetings and reading up on their rights as students? Ergo met master student Katarina Budrik, who wants to make unequal treatment of international students a thing of the past.

International master student Katarina Budrik has taken an active part in student democracy since she was in high school, so it was a given for her to inquire about how she could become actively involved in Uppsala Student Union at the welcome reception for international students in the beginning of the semester. But when she started researching what possible positions she might apply for, she discovered that becoming an active part of the union might be more difficult than she had initially thought.
– According to the student union all students are equal and should be represented equally, but international students cannot attend the higher board meetings since the meetings are held in Swedish. So international, English speaking students – primarily freemovers for whom Uppsala university is the home university – cannot be equally represented. And even if they would be elected as representatives, it would be very hard for them to take up the post because of the language barrier, she says.
Though it is not on all levels and in all faculties, Katarina means that the fact that not all students understand and speak Swedish often seems to be forgotten. For example, when an event is organised and students from English-speaking programs are invited, but most of the event is held in Swedish.
– It creates a weird situation, where the event is targeted at you and made for you, but you cannot attend it since you won’t understand what is being said. Or, if you attend it, you will need someone at your side that can translate for you. Swedish-speaking students who study  at an English-speaking program can of course attend such an event and get a lot of helpful information, whereas international students might feel like “oh, we’re apparently not really welcome here.”

The President of Uppsala Student Union, Daniel Simmons, agrees that the unions’ and some of the subsidiary student associations’ work has fallen a bit behind in regards to their representation of international students. He says that the union previously had an International Officer responsible for providing international students with information and helping them with their inquiries, but that this position now is vacant due to budget cuts.
– I studied an international program myself, so I recognise these issues international students might encounter. And certainly, it’s partly the union’s responsibility to make sure international students get the help and information they need, but the university needs to improve in that respect as well and has more resources to do so. In the comments we make to their referrals regarding, for example, the documents for Student Working Conditions, we always note that the documents need to be translated to and be available in English as well as Swedish, he says.
Uppsala Student Union also has a “Buddy Program”, in which “newbies” (new international students) are matched with “buddies” (students who have been at Uppsala University for some time that can show the newcomers around and help them settling in). The position of “buddy coordinator” has been vacant for a few months, but has now been filled and the program will be up and running when the new students arrive to Uppsala in January next year.
– We would love to set up an international committee that can translate our documents and statutes, but that is dependent on finding someone who is willing to do it on a volunteer basis. It’s difficult to find the resources to get these kind of things running, but we want the international students to know we have not forgotten about them, Daniel Simmons says.

Since she encountered these issues at the beginning of the semester Katarina Budrik has had a continual dialogue with her programme association, UPS (Uppsala Politicesstuderande), about what can be done to enable and encourage international students to become more active in upholding and preserving their own rights at the university. And together they recently reached a solution.
– It proposes that meetings should be held in Swedish and English if necessary. During a meeting an English-speaking student will be able to require a translation from the chairman if the meeting is held in Swedish and vice versa. This is done so that Swedish speaking students who are not that comfortable speaking English are not forced to do that. At the same time, international students will have a wider access to the student unions and associations, being able to take an active part in them. It’s a balanced solution, she says, and adds that she hopes this type of solution might be adopted by other student associations and unions in the future.