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“Things get blown up quickly, you always have to keep that in mind”

“Things get blown up quickly, you always have to keep that in mind”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Presidents of Tragos, Saurus, KoKo and Circumflex are more cautious

Songs about ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in Utrecht. First-year students who are made to sleep with rancid fish. A bad Carnival joke by students from Eindhoven: de wil van de vrouw doet er #nietoo (roughly, ‘what women want doesn’t matter’, where #nietoo rhymes with #metoo). And very recently, Vindicat in Groningen simply ‘forgetting’ to report an abuse, and subsequently having its board grants withdrawn. Every incident that takes place within student associations is widely reported in the national press, and can count on being met with indignation. Is all this negative publicity justified? Is there no longer room in our society for students’ excesses? Where do the sanctions imposed on Tragos and Circumflex fit in this picture? Observant sat down with the presidents (two men, two women) of the four main student associations: KoKo (the only one that does not haze new students), Tragos, Circumflex and the rowing club Saurus. They are willing to talk about anything – except their own hazing practices. 

“Shall we do The Beatles on Abbey Road?” one of them suggests enthusiastically during the photo shoot on the steps of the Minderbroedersberg. Good plan, but how do you make your feet look like you’re actually walking? And what do you do with your arms?

Observant last interviewed the four presidents eight years ago. The photo shoot back then was at the Vrijthof, including KoKo’s caravan. Unfortunately, that caravan ended up on a scrap heap somewhere, current Koko president Stijn Zonneveld says at the table with Observant.

Other things have changed since 2010 too. The alpha-male talk of the four (male) presidents recorded then in the cheerful, light-hearted section Praeses versus Praesus would not be well-received today, suspect Zonneveld and Circumflex president Joris van Wel. Take the answer to the question ‘Is the presidency good for your love life?’ “It hasn’t been bad for any of us; I’ll leave it at that”, said the then Circumflex president Joris Wielders. Former Tragos president Niels van de Ven added, “As a Tragos member recently said, even if you’ve got four eyes and one arm, it’s about the president’s vest.” Power is sexy, in other words.

“If we were to make jokes now about the president’s vest and women, it could turn into a row”, Zonneveld says. Van Wel: “Society is different now; jokes about women are not okay.” Comments are easily misinterpreted. Even a recent interview they gave about Maastricht’s student housing policy – the city council sees students as a necessary evil, according to the associations – generated a flood of negative reactions. “People were calling us Stijntje and Jorisje on social media, telling us that adults also need to sleep. That was the level it was at. Unfounded and unsophisticated.”

They are under a magnifying glass, agree Maaike van Griethuysen and Catrien de Vries, the presidents of Saurus and Tragos, and that makes a person more cautious. The names of parties, for example, no longer go out the door without first being censored. “You pay attention to that. We currently have Zuipen in het Zuiden [‘Boozing in the South’]. We decided that was okay. Sounds good too”, Van Griethuysen says.

That caution was evident even when Observant responded to the invitation for an interview (it was the associations that took the initiative). When it was made clear that the editors would also want to discuss the recent hazing incidents, De Vries wrote, “I would like to state in advance that I will not comment on any incidents in my own association.”

In the first half hour of the interview De Vries, more so than the others, often needs a long time to think, especially when we ask for practical examples of how the associations have changed their hazing practices and other traditions under pressure from public opinion. Later, when the ice is well and truly broken, she will say: “I could give the full answer, but I don’t want to. Many of these things are private to our association; you don’t talk about them with others.”

The new zeitgeist forces them to reflect critically on themselves. Which is no bad thing, the four believe, as even student associations need to move with the times. Traditions need to have added value, Van Griethuysen says. What does that mean? “There should be a story behind them; they’re much more than a habit that’s arisen out of laziness.” The Saurus president points to the red board jacket she is wearing, which does not smell overly fresh. “The tradition is to wash this jacket only once a year, preferably in the Maas. At the end of your board period you write your name in it. When my mother asked recently if she should give it a quick wash, my answer was: no, you really can’t. But since it’s been so warm lately, I take the jacket off – which is against the old custom – when I cycle alongside the boats during a race. That tradition is fading.”

Sometimes changes happen of their own accord. For example, one of the customs at Tragos is that students in their tenth year are carried into the pub by the first-years. De Vries, chuckling: “They’ve almost died out. Recently a member showed up who joined in 2008/09. We asked him if he wanted to be brought to the pub on the shoulders of the first-years and he said, ‘Ssh, don’t go saying I’m that old.’”

Occasionally it’s a conscious choice. For instance, Tragos has changed tack when it comes to recruiting first-year students. “Challenge less, invite more,” De Vries says. “Aspiring members used to have to demonstrate why they should belong to Tragos; now we show them why they belong with us. And that it’s valuable to be a member. You learn such a lot in a short time and there’s a lot of solidarity. We teach new members to be proud of their association.” This new policy, she adds, has nothing to do with a decline in membership numbers. The intake of new students – at all four associations, in fact – is reasonably stable. Still, the presidents notice that first-year students think twice before taking the step to become members. And sponsors, too, occasionally have doubts about whether they want to link their name to a student association.

“We’re working very consciously on the Tragos brand”, De Vries continues. “On our website we don’t just say ‘come drink with us’, but also show the outside world that we do much more than that. We’ve always done much more, but now we also say it. Things get blown up quickly in the media, you always have to keep that in mind.”

In the TV show Rambam, for example, which went undercover during the hazing period in various cities early this year (not including Maastricht). “Negative messages also affect us”, says Zonneveld from KoKo, the only association that does not haze students. “We’re all lumped in the same box. Rambam was consciously out to get the student associations. Later it turned out that not much of their story was true.”

With all this drama, you have to wonder if there’s any fun being had at all in their societies. Definitely, all four presidents emphasise. De Vries: “It’s a place where everything is possible. I always find the build-up of an evening so great. Everyone arrives around eight, at that point still normal, functioning members of society. A few hours later someone’s riding around on a kid’s bike, others are having a game of curling with beer bottles, and in one corner everyone’s covered in white because someone’s got the flour out. In the eyes of the law we’re adults, but the association is a place where you can still be a kid.”

Membership brings advantages in more serious matters too, the presidents agree. “You meet many different types of people and learn to get along with them”, Zonneveld says. “It’s also an informal way of pushing social boundaries. If you cross them, you’ll be called out on it.” De Vries: “It’s a good exercise for later. Together you want to create something that everyone always wants to return to. If you have a fight with someone, you still see them at drinks the next week. You have to talk it out.” “You learn a lot of soft skills, in a playful way”, adds Van Wel.

And these are useful when applying for jobs. “Sometimes you see a student who’s focused entirely on their studies, and they can only talk about their thesis”, Van Wel continues. “Whereas a job interview is often informal – I know someone for whom the conversation was mainly about his side job frying chips.[A1]  Those are the things that come more easily to you when you’re part of an association, Zonneveld has noticed. “Take giving a presentation. When you’re new to the university, you put in huge amounts of preparation; now you just do it.” The network also plays a role – many former Tragos and Circumflex members end up at Deloitte, for example, or Randstad.

Will the associations be able to attract enough members in the future? Will they still exist in ten years? Van Wel: “Absolutely. There are always fluctuations, but student associations can generally stand the test of time. We have enough innovation capacity.” In Zonneveld’s view, there is too much pressure on students. “There’s nothing more to squeeze out, we can’t get a bachelor’s degree in two years.” At a time when students are encouraged, if not expected, to do other things alongside their studies, he sees joining an association as valuable.

The increasing internationalisation of UM does not worry the presidents. They will adapt – for example, Saurus already works during the introduction period with language buddies who translate important announcements for first-year students from abroad – but switching to English is not an option. “People find it part of the charm of an association that they learn Dutch quickly”, says Van Griethuysen. “I think that’s what makes us unique”, adds De Vries. “Our Dutch members also like being able to go to the pub in the evening and speak Dutch, precisely because they’ve been surrounded by English all day”, says Zonneveld. The need to speak a different language has to come from the members, Van Wel believes. “We could say: starting now, we’re going to speak English, but if nobody sees the value in that, it won’t happen anyway.”

Cleo Freriks and Riki Janssen

The rise of the women

When the Observant interview took place eight years ago there were no female presidents; now the distribution is equal. ‘Women are less ambitious’, the claim went then, and ‘men have an easier time accepting things from other men’. The latter is something that Van Griethuysen occasionally notices. “I sometimes get the feeling I have to go to greater lengths to justify a decision. But it also has its advantages. We can play more to feelings.” De Vries: “I notice that it can be useful to not always enter into direct confrontation.” She does not see women as less ambitious, but does think they lack examples. “If you’ve been a member three years and you’ve still never had a female president, you won’t put your own hand up too quickly. You’re inspired by friends and fellow members.” Van Wel sees a kernel of truth in this. De Vries also thinks men tend to speak up more readily about their aspirations to become president of the association. “The danger is that female students then think: oh, someone in my year’s doing that already, so I’d better go chair a committee.”

Some incidents at associations around the country have been sexist in nature – issuing a ‘slut cup’, for example, and singing songs with words like ‘whore’ in them. How would the women at the table respond to this? “That depends”, says Van Griethuysen. “We also sometimes sing that we’re the women from the garment factory who want to sew and the men are farmers who want to sow. Usually it’s a woman who starts it off and then things get loud. I don’t think there’s anything sexist about that. Something that’s actually written down, like the slut cup, I’d have more trouble with that.”

De Vries: “I’ve not experienced anything like that, but I would certainly respond. Whether that’s because I’m a women or because of the mood in society right now, I don’t know. If someone feels hurt by something and it has no added value anyway, I see no reason whatsoever to keep on doing it.” Only Van Griethuysen can agree with this.

Joris van Wel, president of the Circumflex student association, member since 2014, third-year student of Tax Law

Maaike van Griethuysen, president of the Saurus rowing club, member since 2014, graduate of International Business

Stijn Zonneveld, president of the KoKo student association, member since 2014, third-year student of International Business

Catrien de Vries, president of the Tragos student association, member since 2014, graduate of University College Maastricht

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