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What do mums and dads do at an Open Day?

What do mums and dads do at an Open Day?

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Bachelor’s open day

Last Saturday, the Maastricht faculties opened their doors to school students – and their mums and dads. There were special information sessions and parent cafes, and tips and tricks from a real parent information officer. Observant did the rounds and asked parents whether they were meddling or merely involved.  

“Employers bothered by meddlesome parents”, joked De Speld in last Friday’s Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant. A colleague sends the article – with a winking smiley – over shortly before your reporter heads off to interrogate parents at the different faculties during the Open Day. “De Speld writes satiric news. But we can imagine that there are really fathers out there who confront their child’s boss after a poor performance review. The meddling phenomenon is also known at universities. Ten months ago, Professor Jaap Bos from UM’s School of Business and Economics revealed in Observant the extent of the complaining – from students and their parents – that follows an exam. There were even parents who had directly telephoned the dean.

Staying home

It is a fact that parents feel more involved in their offspring’s studies than, say, thirty years ago. Today’s school students tend to take at least one parent with them to an open day, but are often accompanied by the whole family.
In Maastricht the vlaai can’t be served fast enough, and the huge turnout in Randwyck brings with it other concerns, too: “Due to this fantastic turnout, it might be the case that only one parent per registered student can join the information sessions”, reads a poster.
A bit of asking around reveals that parents don’t see themselves as meddlesome. “Involved, rather.” Or as one father says of his seventeen-year-old daughter: “I’m going to have to leave her here in the south. So I want to know it’s okay.”

At the Universiteitssingel 50, a mother and daughter are eating a sandwich after attending a session on the Health Sciences programme. The daughter is in group 5 at high school (VWO) and can no longer see the forest for the trees. “She’s doing a broad range of subjects, with chemistry, biology, maths, languages and economics. That’s great, but it also makes it hard. And she’s in a bilingual stream, so studying in English is an option too.” The student laughs: “I sometimes ask my parents what they see me doing later, but I never get an answer.” So mum’s not going to help her decide? “No, definitely not. She has to make the decision herself. We don’t want to influence her.” Then there’s the question of whether the daughter sees herself living in Maastricht. General social sciences in Utrecht was also appealing; they were at the open day there last week. “But as far as the city goes, I’d rather be here.”
Yikes – that’s a trap, your reporter learnt two hours earlier at a presentation by Hermien Miltenburg. “Try to choose a programme first and only then the city. Staying at home because you’ve got it so good there or because mum’s a good cook is the wrong motivation”, she warns. In addition to her work as relationship marketing and parent information officer at Wageningen University, Miltenburg writes a blog for parents who want to help their children make the right choice of study programme.
In the morning she shares her knowledge with a handful of attendees at the Student Service Centre. “I have three children myself, and because of my experience as a Dutch and history teacher, I thought I’d be good at helping them choose a programme.” But it wasn’t to be. With the first one she was far too involved: following visits to the Saxion University of Applied Sciences and the University of Twente, she couldn’t hide her enthusiasm for the latter. As a result, she unconsciously pushed her son in a direction he didn’t want.

“Parents these days are important advisers for their children, even when they’re 21 or 22 and doing a master’s already.” Later, Miltenburg says of parental interest: “I notice that it’s often motivated by the prospective students themselves. Parents are sometimes still in the mind set ‘I’m letting my child be free.’ That’s a perfectly fine attitude, of course, but the children themselves ask for feedback from the people who know them best, and often that’s family.” School students are also increasingly aware that the wrong choice can cost a lot of money. “And then there’s the enormous range of choices awaiting them. This can sometimes make them desperate.”

Plan B     

“I’m from a small village, and after high school there was only one thing I wanted: to study medicine in a big city”, says Doris Lokin, master’s student of Health Sciences at UM, who tells her story during Miltenburg’s presentation. “That’s something I hear often”, Miltenburg replies. “Then they choose Amsterdam, because they finally can, and end up not liking the programme. That’s a real problem for the University of Amsterdam.” Medicine is a popular programme. “Half of all girls in group 5 VWO want to be doctors.” But those who don’t get offered a place need to have a plan B. “So it’s good to visit lots of open days, to step outside your comfort zone”, Miltenburg says.
Like the family from Gouda, who have come to Maastricht to find out about medicine. So far they’ve mainly looked around Gouda, in Amsterdam and Utrecht. “That’s doable by train”, the student says. But Limburg is fairly familiar territory because “she’s been coming here since she was a child”. If she ends up choosing Maastricht – and is actually offered a place – she’ll need to find a room. “Three hours each way is too far to go every day.” Plan B is psychology or biomedical sciences. “A while back even air-traffic control was on the cards, but that’s since fallen by the wayside”, her mother says. “Ultimately it’s up to her to decide.”

A British-Belgian mother, waiting in the parent cafe at the law faculty while her daughter attends a session on European Law School, sees herself as a “supporter”. “My daughter knows what she wants, what she likes. She’s looking for intellectual development, so the university is the right place for her.”
Parents need to give their children sound guidance, Miltenburg tells her audience. But how do you do that? Finding the balance between guiding them and letting them go, being involved but no longer feeling responsible, is the most difficult thing about the process, she says. “My daughter was really keen on a programme with an 80 percent dropout rate in the first year. I said ‘don’t do it’, but she wanted to. I had to let go of that responsibility. Unfortunately she didn’t make it in the end.”
She also refers parents to the Keuzegids, the guide to higher education in the Netherlands, as a “consumer guide for prospective students”. Interviews with a number of parents, however, show that next to none know about it. Or even see it as necessary, since, the parents conclude, it all comes down to their child’s choice. Take the father from Groesbeek who is here with his daughter, from group 6 VWO, to find out about Health Sciences. “We’ve been to six open days in two years. She ought to know by now. We think along with her, but we don’t tell her what to do.” The daughter needs to bite the bullet by 15 January, because her other options – pharmacy in Utrecht and biomedical sciences in Nijmegen – have only a limited number of places.
When time is short, hasty decisions tend to be made, Miltenburg says. “Start looking around in good time, go to open days and shadow-a-student days, talk with school counsellors and family members, and approach current students – after all, they know what it’s really like.” And once the choice has been made, she advises parents to stay interested, visit their children, “and don’t constantly whinge about exams”.



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