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Photographer:Fotograaf: archive former students

Four foreign alumni tell about their time in the then Rijksuniversiteit Limburg

MAASTRICHT. They were some of the first foreign students to attend Maastricht University. They have at least two things in common: they learned Dutch in no time and they took to Problem-Based Learning like ducks to water. 

Surinam citizen with a soft ‘g’

Sonja Caffe (53), Surinam, studied Health Sciences from 1982 to 1987, works as a Regional Adolescent Health Advisor for the Pan American Health Organisation (a department of the WHO) in Washington.

“Three of my brothers and sisters already studied in the Netherlands, but I still felt that moving to Maastricht was a big step. I spent some time in the Netherlands with my sister in Utrecht, a year before my final exams, and I didn’t like it at all. I missed the Surinam conviviality, the warmth of family and friends, and the cheerfulness. Besides, I heard all kinds of stories about racism. After those six weeks I told my parents that I was staying in Surinam.”

It was her older brother who eventually convinced her: try it for a year, it will be good experience, you will learn to stand on your own two feet, and Maastricht has the study programme that you want to do: Health Sciences.

“I will be eternally grateful to him. Limburg is so different to the rest of the Netherlands. People are much kinder. I was the only black person, but soon felt at home and accepted. Although some people had strange ideas about people from Surinam: they thought that we didn’t wear clothes and lived in clay huts. It was by no means malicious, just a total lack of knowledge. They knew absolutely nothing about my country, whereas I knew everything about the Netherlands.”

“I never felt lonely, ate with friends every evening, and went to my family at the weekends.” Sonja Caffe has nothing but praise about the study programme: “A very progressive education system, an open vision on health care. It provided the basis for me to continue in public health. I am very grateful for that.”

She already spoke Dutch, so that was an advantage. Laughing: “What I didn’t know was that Surinam Dutch differs from Netherlands Dutch. We have a lot of different words. And when I went to work in Utrecht after my graduation, I was the first person from Surinam who spoke with a soft ‘g ‘.”


“I never felt like a foreigner”

Tarek Meguid (55), half German and half Egyptian, studied Medicine from 1980 to 1986, worked as a gynaecologist in Zanzibar, Tanzania, is a member of the academic staff at State University of Zanzibar (SUZA).

Tarek Meguid is still extremely enthusiastic about the UM, and the list of staff members (Gerard Essed, Hans Evers, Gerard Dunselman, Henk de Koning Gans, Ger Brouns, Yvonne van Leeuwen, Ernest Weil) to whom he feels very sympathetic, grows steadily as the interview progresses. He uses characterizations like “not pretentious,” “heart for the patient,” “very good”. “All role models. And the skills lab! Terrific as well. The Netherlands was fantastic for me. Everyone was unbelievably kind, I felt very welcome. There are at least four people who went to study in Maastricht on my recommendation.” Even dean Vic Bonke has his sympathy: “We protested against a new student evaluation method and ended up with him. He didn’t agree with us, but you could talk to him, he was open to our views. That was what was so good about the Netherlands.”

“From my daughter, who is studying cultural anthropology in Amsterdam, I now hear stories about Wilders’ Country. I never felt like a foreigner during my time here. I was received with open arms.”

It was in Nigeria, during a gap year after secondary school in Germany, that he heard about PBL. “I didn’t speak a word of Dutch and thought that Maastricht was on the coast, but I was awarded a place for the Maastricht programme and to this day I feel that it is still the best training to become a Doctor of Medicine. You learned from real problems and were forced to keep up with the literature. You were never done with studying and that is the way it is in real life too. You have to keep reading and learning. I was very much influenced by it and use PBL myself. When I hear that the UM education has become school-like, I think that is such a pity. It’s that freedom that you learn so much from. ”

He learned the language in no time. “I only had Dutch friends (I still see many of them to this day, including my now ex-wife Carla who also studied in Maastricht), took lessons in Dutch, but mainly learned through using it. I failed my first progress test after two weeks; it was still a little bit too difficult. Around Christmas, I was fluent, and in April I was really good. I really wanted to learn Dutch.”


“The degree of familiarity took some getting used to”

Roland Böhm (58), Germany, studied Medicine from 1978 to 1984, works as an internist/nephrologist in a dialysis centre in Aachen

Roland Böhm already knew the Netherlands a little, because his father was a NATO officer in Brunssum, Limburg. When he was 21, after three years of military service in Germany, he opted for Medicine. Not in his native country, where there were entry restrictions: only school-leavers with an average of nine for their final exams were given direct access. So it was the Netherlands, the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam to be exact. “A huge factory in a huge city, three hundred first-year students in a lecture hall. Only a third would make it to the end, the professor who welcomed us said.” Not really Böhm’s cup of tea, but he was lucky and was reassigned to Maastricht after four weeks, to a study of Medicine with only seventy first-year students. He was the only German student in his year. A secretary at the UM, Ans Lippinkhof, had tipped off his mother: is the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg with the Problem-Based Learning not an idea for your son?

He was given a room in the former personnel apartment building at Vijverdal. “Lots of students lived there, senior year students too, whom you could approach with questions about the programme.” The switch from military service (where everything was arranged for you) to student life (where you have to do everything yourself) took a lot of getting used to, says Böhm. But he made friends quickly. Later, during his PhD research for the department of Pharmacology and attending the wedding of one of those friends, he met his wife. A girl from Limburg who was studying at the Hotel Management School.

PBL was a new way to study, but after a year he didn’t want it any other way. The language wasn’t a problem either. He still remembers that a large part of the programme was carried out on the Tongersestraat. “The skills lab was a few rooms on the ground floor. There were block books at the time, but no general lectures by content experts. You could reserve a computer at the biomedical centre to process your research data.” The fact that staff and students were on first-name terms with each other, was something he had never experienced in Germany. “Everyone was helpful, it was very easy-going.”


‘You can’t become a doctor like that’

Yenny Kurniawan (57), Indonesia, studied medicine from 1978 to 1984, works as a gynaecologist in Martini hospital in Groningen

Just out of secondary school and not even twenty, Yenny Kurniawan put foot on European soil. “I knew from a young age that I wanted to become a doctor. I had family in Belgium and my brother, who is a year older, studied Medicine at Koninklijke Universiteit Leuven. I followed him. The atmosphere in Leuven was fine, but I felt the system was very school-like.

“During visits to my grandmother in Amstelveen, I came in contact with student life in Amsterdam. I wanted that too! Still, I enrolled in a smaller university. I thought I would then be able to concentrate better on my work. Besides I had more faith in the small-scale setup: obviously I spoke and understood some Dutch, but not like a native Dutch person. Sometimes it was difficult to follow and I had to do my very best to understand.

“I belonged to the fourth batch to attend Maastricht, some eighty students. It was a time of experimenting, but also scepticism from outside. When I told friends and family about our tutorial groups – we had no lectures in the beginning – I got weird looks. A nephew who was studying Medicine in Amsterdam said, ‘you can’t become a doctor like that’. Lecturers from elsewhere were also appointed. It was clear that they didn’t really know what to do with Problem-Based Learning. And I must admit: the tutorial groups were not always great. It only worked if there was a content specialist present. Everything in Maastricht was easily accessible; getting into contact with lecturers and students was easy. Literature could be found in the Learning and Resource Centre on the ground floor of Tongersestraat 53, and that was often where we all sat.”

“In our second year, we had to do a nursing work placement, a compulsory part of the programme. I was allocated to the hospital in Sittard, at the department of Gynaecology where they had never had a student doing a work placement before. The nurses wondered what I was doing there, as if I would ever have to change a bed when I was a doctor. They sent me to the gynaecologists, from whom I could learn more. That is where I developed a love of the field.

Wendy Degens and Riki Janssen



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