All University Colleges of the Netherlands have (again) been labelled as excellent educational programs this year. It is therefore no surprise that their alumni should end up in the most interesting places. One of these, UCU alumnus Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, was interviewed for this article.
During high school, Sjoerdsma showed a particular interest in the sciences: he was a writer for computer magazine MacFan, predominantly took natural science subjects and programmed (and sold) software in his spare time. At UCU he graduated cum laude in sociology, political science and history.
Did you maintain your interest in computers throughout university?
“Going to university – not being bound to home anymore – provided me with the possibility to make new friends and to try new things. I continued to write for MacFan, but I also joined the UCU football team, went to the bar and enjoyed social life – it surely wasn’t just about studying and computers. It was energizing to interact with people at university. People are super motivated and have so much knowledge; you continuously meet people that are up for a critical discussion. And especially at University Colleges people have a vast array of interests: some do photography, other people row or write theatre plays. That gave me a lot of energy.”
Were you aware that University Colleges generally house students with vast amount of interests when you chose for UCU?
“UCU was only in its second year when I enrolled. It was generally unknown to people, and the people that did know UCU were wondering whether it would actually give you an university degree and whether you would be able to enrol in master’s programmes after graduation. The campus too was still under construction: students that were enrolled at UCU in its first year of existence sometimes had to deal with academic buildings continuously being renovated. That also attracted a certain type of people. Students that came to UCU were adventurous: they did not really know what journey they were embarking upon, but were bound by the idea that they could create something great together.”
Would you then call yourself adventurous?
“I have always liked to explore the boundaries of what is possible. For example, after graduating from the London Schools of Economics (LSE), I eventually ended up in the Dutch diplomatic service. In diplomacy, I was often assigned tasks that needed to be done, but nobody yet knew how. When I was stationed in Afghanistan, parliament decided that there should be a training mission for Afghan police officers in Kunduz. We subsequently had four months to prepare an entire program in an unknown province before Dutch military and police officials would arrive. I loved doing that.”
Do you think UCU helped you prepare for such things?
“I don’t think there is a direct link between what I have done at UCU and where I am now. I don’t think it’s possible to draw such a linear line for anyone. What I do see is that the admissions process at UCU – which wasn’t that much focussed on grades but rather on intrinsic motivation and dedication – was very successful in picking those that wanted to excel. Looking back on my graduating class and the friends I still have, I still see that same motivation every day. Some of them have become great journalists, others have started their own companies”
Do you think UCU, or University Colleges in general, deviated from that holistic approach?
When I gave the commencement speech at UCU a while back, I heard from someone that University Colleges, or at least UCU, has become more established and that the somewhat more adventurous side has left the UCU life. The person illustrated this by saying that ‘in the old days students wanted to go to UCU and parents were a bit sceptic, but nowadays parents really want students to go to University Colleges and students are a bit more hesitant.’ The students I spoke to myself at the ceremony though, were still as enthusiastic as they were in my times.
Something different, minister Dr. Plasterk stated in the Volkskrant that University Colleges are ‘wannabe universities’ and ‘crèches for rich kids’ …
“Obviously that’s nonsense. It’s something that really bothers me sometimes. It’s exactly the attitude people had when the University Colleges started. The idea that we’re only there for the ‘elite’, in the more traditional sense, is not true. University Colleges are there for people who want to excel and create something more/different/extra/that goes beyond what traditional degrees can offer. Many people, when UCU was founded, went there with a scholarship, not only international people. None of them had troubles meeting others on an intellectual level.”
Nevertheless, many master programmes, especially in the Netherlands, do not immediately recognize the excellence of UC students.
“When I graduated, no Dutch master programme, except for those at Utrecht University, recognized our diploma easily. Many programmes told us to first enrol in a pre-master before we could start the actual masters. That led me to explore options outside the Netherlands and it is the reason I ended up at the LSE. It’s insane though: University College students go to really good universities after their bachelor’s; students often continue to study at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford. The education is truly excellent, and Dutch programmes have been slow to recognize that.”
A more personal question, in your biography on the website of parliament we can read why you went into politics; why did you choose for D66 (Democrats 66)?
“This was influenced by my relatively young age [31, red] when I entered parliament. When I explored which party truly wanted to create better opportunities for young people, combined with radical openness towards the European Union and a progressive attitude towards individual freedoms, the D66 was really the only option. It fits the type of personality I have.”
Do you think your political preference has been influenced by your time at UCU?
“I do believe that the progressive perspective on the world I have is connected to that: my time at UCU allowed me to live, eat and work together with people from many different cultures. It was incredibly enriching to see what results you could create together. I do believe this has given me a more open attitude on certain issues.”
When you started at UCU there was only one University College. The second college, University College Roosevelt, was founded in 2002. Currently there are 8 University Colleges with there being plans for another few. What is your vision on this?
“I am certainly in favour of this development. I believe it’s essential for everyone to have the possibilities to develop themselves in the broad manner that University Colleges allow us to do. The idea of a residential campus is what influenced me greatly though; the continuous contact with other students, for example when you eat or play sports, is the essence of the University Colleges. It’s not just a study, it’s a life experience. I hope University Colleges don’t become mainstream in the sense that we lose this aspect.”
Still students often experience that they live in a bubble on campus. Did you have a similar experience?
“Of course there were students that did not interact with the city that much. I played football at local clubs and went to bars in the city centre. I find it important to keep in touch with the environment in which you study. In that regard my choice for LSE was a logical one: LSE is a university that is embedded in the city, the corporate world and journalism. That’s exactly what University Colleges should be too: it’s not just a place where you pursue academics, it should be a place through which you become deeply connected with the world around you.”
That sounds like a good note to end this interview on. Thank you for your time.
This article was written without any political bias. Do you have suggestions for us to interview interesting University College graduates? Contact us at [email protected]