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“It’s difficult not to envy others”

“It’s difficult not to envy others”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Simone Golob

Students on inequality of opportunity“It’s difficult not to envy others”

To most students, life feels awash with possibility. The vast array of opportunities and choices leaves many overwhelmed. Confronted with everything on offer, they struggle to choose and commit. But that doesn’t go for all students. “I don’t want to say you’re spoiled, but you are highly privileged.”

“Opportunities abound in Western society”, says Teodor Uzunov, a European Studies student from Bulgaria. “In my home country, there’s a deficit of opportunities rather than an abundance.” For this reason, and to be able to keep up with his “rich Western European peers”, he thinks it is important to be tough and organised. “You have to be willing to work a little harder than the others to stand out in what you do. And you have to learn to not give up whenever something doesn’t work out immediately. Otherwise you won’t get anywhere.”

“It’s difficult sometimes not to envy others”, says Romanian Darja Ion, who studies Psychology on scholarship. “While they travel to exotic places or do internships abroad, I usually spend my summers working as a babysitter.” Fellow Romanian Andrej Petrscu, who also studies at Randwyck, adds: “I don’t feel like I have an abundance of opportunities. Of course, I’m already privileged to be able to study here at Maastricht University. I don’t want to downplay that. But overall, I see quite often that there’s a disproportionality of opportunities.”

Laura Lu, a pre-master’s student from Beijing, feels she has to deal with even more obstacles than many of her fellow students. “I don’t want to say you’re spoiled, but you are highly privileged. As a non-European I face many more barriers here. I feel like I have work harder to find a job or even to get a visa. It’s not fair. But I don’t necessarily think I’m automatically falling behind, because if I put in enough effort, I can still achieve my goals – just like all of you.”

The same can’t be said for Janis Sarantos, an International Business student from Greece who sometimes struggles to keep up. “I have to study hard, because if I don’t keep up my grades I might lose my study grant.” While others go to DoubleTrouble parties or Studium Generale lectures, Sarantos waits tables at a restaurant two nights a week. “I know it’s stupid but it always seems like it’s easier for the others. Who knows, maybe they struggle just as much as I do. It just doesn’t look like that from the outside.” He confesses to an additional factor that puts pressure on him. As the first in his family to study at university, he knows how proud his parents are. “I feel like if I fail university, I fail them. That’s why I put even more effort into what I do”, he says with a shrug.

Lu can relate. She decided to come to Maastricht despite the higher tuition fees than in China. “I come from a single-parent household. That means my mom has to work extra hours so that I can be here.” This comes at a high price: she can’t afford to go home over the summer to visit her mother, whom she misses greatly. “Some of my friends envy me for having the opportunity to study in Europe. Only very few of them went to college. Many didn’t even finish high school. People from more rural areas in China are often denied access to university. They lack any resources that can be transformed into opportunities. In comparison to them, I’m privileged because I have the means to make things happen that seemed impossible.”

Asked about his future, Petrscu is optimistic. “I think the trouble will pay off. I’m sure that having studied here in Maastricht will open many doors”, he grins. “At least I hope”. Ion is less convinced that a university degree will be her ticket to the world of the privileged; in her view there are no guarantees. Uzunov, when asked about his plans, says he is “waiting for opportunities. As I said, I don’t have many.” Lu is slightly more optimistic: “I might try to get a PhD as this might make it easier to establish myself here in Europe. And it will enable me to teach at university in China. Maybe if I return, I could make a positive impact on some people’s lives.”

All agree that there is great inequality at play, and not just here in Maastricht. Do they see any prospects for change? Uzunov is sceptical. He sees this inequality as the product of the cleavage between capitalism and socialism. “For there to be equality, the countries of Eastern Europe and Africa would need to adjust to the capitalist mode, as this would allow them to gradually reach the same standard of living in terms of opportunities.” But this is no easy task. He also acknowledges that studying in Maastricht indicates that your status is already above average. “It means you can afford the tuition and you have opportunities.” While he says these opportunities are still fewer compared to those of others, Uzunov believes change is needed in Bulgaria rather than here. Sarantos: “I think change is very difficult. I can’t blame my fellow students for what they have. They come from a different background and they’ve been raised in an environment that automatically offers more prospects. But being more appreciative of and thankful for what they have would be a first step. In the end, people have to become more aware.”

As for those students who stress about which master’s degree to choose, which city to live in and where to travel to this summer, Lu says: “I think by stepping back people would realise that there are others who have to put in extra effort. Once you realise how privileged you are, you might be able to make up your mind.”

Kerstin Spath

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