Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts In front (white shirt) Prof. Corine de Ruiter, last row: Leyla Salimova, Raneesha De Silva and Vilius Andrulionis
International classroom in Forensic Psychology: 24 students, 16 nationalities
More than fifteen nationalities in a single study programme? For a number of Maastricht master’s programmes, such as Media Culture, Public Policy & Human Development and International & European Tax Law, this has become the norm. Observant looks inside one of the ‘international classrooms’ that do justice to the name: the two-year master’s in Forensic Psychology.
When the two-year master’s in Forensic Psychology kicked off in 2010, Professor Corine de Ruiter was dreaming of an ‘international classroom’. “I specifically wanted an English-language programme. There aren’t many master’s degrees in this field, and I knew that nowhere else in the world was there a Forensic Psychology programme focusing on both academic training and practical skills. And yet there’s a great need for well-rounded ‘scientist-practitioners’ in prisons, forensic addiction clinics, institutions like Veilig Thuis [an advisory and reporting organisation for domestic violence and child abuse] and the Blijf-Groep [for victims of physical and mental abuse], but also in academic research.”
From the outset the programme ran at full capacity (maximum of 24 students), with students hailing from “rich Western countries, but also – and increasingly – from low-income countries”, De Ruiter says. “All of them super-motivated people.” The 2017/18 cohort takes the cake, with 24 students and 16 nationalities. “They learn a lot from one another. Last week we were looking at the case of arranged marriages. One of the students is from India, and explained that these are not necessarily forced marriages. It’s simply a different tradition, where the parents choose someone who suits you. Here in the West we take a different approach, but it’s not clear whether that’s any better, given that one in three marriages here fails.” With such a mixed group, De Ruiter says, the participants can’t help but develop cultural sensitivity. “That’s important even if you plan to work here in the Netherlands, because in forensic clinics you have people from all sorts of backgrounds.”
The master’s also attracts people from countries where there is still much to be desired in terms of the law. “In the second cohort we had a student from China. She wanted to learn about forensic care here and take that knowledge back to her own country.” In addition to academic knowledge and practical skills, De Ruiter and her team (seven assistant professors, four professors and a group of PhD candidates) hope their students learn to “stay curious, be open minded and always remember that in forensics, nothing is ever what it seems.”
“I went to study in the US when I was 18. That shapes you, makes you a more open person. I always say that spending time abroad is good for world peace. When you come into contact with people from different cultures, with different beliefs, and you like them, it’s very difficult to maintain your prejudices. Exposure helps.”
Are there any disadvantages to the international classroom? “Our students come from far away, and are sometimes away from home for the first time. They miss their loved ones and can struggle with homesickness. Others have had bad experiences and are psychologically vulnerable. Most of them are ashamed of their problems and often seek us out too late. The waiting lists for therapy in Maastricht are huge, and therapists need to be able to offer help in English. It would be good if UM had its own low-threshold counselling centre. I can imagine looking for counsellors within the clinical psychology department. I myself would be happy to provide therapy for students – not my own, of course – for say three hours a week. That way we could solve it internally. Study advisers aren’t trained for this; their role is to answer study-related questions. And the student psychologists are there for milder problems.”
Vilius Andrulionis (22) from Vilnius, Lithuania, spent the last three years studying psychology in the UK. “It was a research master’s, so I gained theoretical, but not practical knowledge. I’m lacking the skills needed for fieldwork in clinical psychology. I really didn’t see myself working yet and went looking for a master’s programme with strong content as well as a practical side.” Online he came across a programme in Denver, Colorado, but also Forensic Psychology in Maastricht. In the end, the choice wasn’t hard. Not only are tuition fees in the US ten times more expensive than at UM, but the Netherlands is also just a two- to three-hour flight from Vilnius (“If anything should happen, my parents could be here in no time”). Last but not least, “In Denver they have next to no foreign students; only one every two years, they said. Here at least half of the group comes from abroad, the website said.” And that turned out to be accurate. “I learn a lot from my fellow students. During a skills course recently, we watched an interview with a prisoner and had to assess his capacity to express emotions. Corine explained that a Chinese student last year had trouble with the task; in her culture you rarely show emotions.”
Leyla Salimova (21), from Azerbaijan, studied psychology at an American university in Prague. “In Azerbaijan psychology was unpopular for a long time; it was linked to the psychiatric clinics in the Soviet era where people were mainly locked up for political reasons. But now interest in it is growing and more and more people from the middle and upper classes are in therapy.” After her bachelor’s she did a gap year to figure out which aspect of psychology she wanted to pursue – clinical psychology or research. She gave lessons to primary school children with physical and psychological disorders. “I enjoyed it, but not for forever. A few friends mentioned Maastricht; one was enthusiastic about the programme in Forensic Psychology. The combination of research and practice appealed to me.”
The international classroom is not new to Salimova. “In Prague too we had small classes and many different nationalities. Very useful. And there was a lot of one-on-one contact with tutors, just like here in Maastricht.”
Raneesha De Silva (24) obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology at a British university in her own country, Sri Lanka, and previously worked as a journalist and a counsellor in the military and in a prison. Everything is different here, she says. First and foremost, it’s safe – there’s no war. You don’t have to be afraid you’ll be killed just trying to get to university. But also the food, the people, public transport – nothing is like it is at home. She holds up a photo that illustrates what she is used to: a packed train with passengers hanging on for dear life in the doorway. She has noticed that Dutch people and Westerners in general complain if a train is a mere five minutes’ late, while Sri Lankans are happy if it comes at all. “A typically first-world problem, we say in Sri Lanka”, she laughs.
During the three years she worked in a prison, she became fascinated by people with personality disorders, such as psychopaths and serial killers. “I have a lot of practical experience, but I’m lacking the theoretical knowledge. That’s why I’m now studying here. In Sri Lanka we’re lagging behind when it comes to forensic psychology; we just don’t have this kind of study programme. I made a list of potential programmes, some in the US, one in India, and compared them. The choice was very easy: the Maastricht programme turned out to be exactly what I wanted. A great curriculum with both practical and research skills. It’s still expensive for people from Sri Lanka, but a lot cheaper than in the US.”
It’s her first time in an international classroom. “I watch what I say; what I find funny isn’t necessarily funny for someone else. I often make jokes about the war that’s been going on for thirty years in Sri Lanka, but I notice that here people aren’t that keen on jokes about terrorists and bombs. The humour is different, although after two months my fellow students have learnt I don’t mean it in a bad way.” She grins: “I’m known as the girl who loves psychopaths and Ted Bundy.” Then, more seriously: “It’s fascinating to see all those different perspectives at once. There’s a lot of respect here for other people’s opinions. In my country everyone wants to be right; here we agree to disagree.”
UM increasingly international
The proportion of foreign students at Maastricht University has grown steadily over the last decade, from 42 percent of first-year students in 2007 (bachelor’s and master’s) to 59 percent (bachelor’s) and 55 percent (master’s) in 2017. In the early years of the internationalisation process, these students mainly came from Germany and, to a lesser degree, Belgium. Although Germans remain the largest group of foreigners, today the intake is much more varied, with students hailing from Italy, the UK, Ireland, France, Spain and Greece, but also Turkey, China, Lithuania, Romania, Poland and the USA. The proportion of Dutch students at both bachelor’s and master’s level, which had recently shrunk, is now increasing, and partly thanks to special recruitment drives is currently at its highest level since 2014.
Not all programmes get an equal piece of the international pie. Some master’s programmes are particularly diverse, with Public Policy and Human Development – 121 students of 42 different nationalities – leading the way. This is followed by International and European Tax Law (68 students with 25 nationalities) and Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management and Education (47 students with 23 nationalities). At the bachelor’s level, programmes such as University College Maastricht, the Maastricht Science Programme and European Studies are renowned for their diverse student bodies.