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“I have to get reacquainted with Dutch culture”

“I have to get reacquainted with Dutch culture” “I have to get reacquainted with Dutch culture”

Alumni about their dreams: did they come true?

Marie Zwetsloot (30) has only just returned to the Netherlands. She spent seven years in the US as a Fulbright and Huygens scholar, obtaining a research master’s degree in soil science and writing her PhD thesis on the influence of roots on belowground carbon in the context of climate change. None of this is what she planned to do when she came to University College Maastricht in 2007. As a UCM student, she studied subjects related to politics, society and philosophy and worked at Observant. Her plans changed after an exchange programme in Ecuador.

She loved travelling from an early age. Zwetsloot completed secondary school in Wales through the United World College. When it came time to choosing a university, she opted for Maastricht, “as far away as possible” from Groningen, where she grew up. “It’s not like I have a poor relationship with my family, though.” But out she went, into the world.

One of the reasons why she chose University College Maastricht was its international character. “What I remember most vividly about my time at Observant is an article I wrote on international friendships. Living abroad yourself, or being friends with people who are here temporarily, often involves spending a limited amount of time together very intensely. After that, you all go your separate ways. What do those kinds of friendships look like?”

This topic is relevant to her again now that she’s back in the Netherlands, having landed a postdoc position at Wageningen University & Research. “I have one good friend in the Netherlands. The others live elsewhere, with those in Belgium and Germany being the nearest ones. My younger brother and sister, who’ve always lived in the Netherlands, are still friends with people they met in university and secondary school. I don’t have that kind of network here. Most of my friends live in the US.”

She went to Cornell University in the US, first to earn a master’s degree and then to get a PhD. But before that, there was a moment when her ambitions changed and she went from aspiring policy maker to soil scientist. “When I came to Maastricht, I was very idealistic. I wanted to make the world a better place, but I didn’t know how.” She could see herself working at an NGO, doing something related to international cooperation and development. “Until I went on exchange to Ecuador. That’s where I learnt about farming systems and how people try to maintain or even increase food production while minimising the environmental effects. I realised I was especially interested in the technical aspects of it all: how do you do that?”

Once back in the Netherlands, she switched from social sciences to natural sciences. She also enrolled in a few courses at Wageningen University & Research, awaiting her Fulbright scholarship. Her boyfriend at the time was already studying at Cornell, but he wasn’t the reason why she decided to go there. “I made that decision for myself. I chose the master’s programme I liked. I’m glad I was smart enough to prioritise that, because we broke up shortly after I arrived.”

She recently moved in with Valente, her boyfriend from Mexico. They met at Cornell. “It’s so nice. We were in a long-distance relationship for a year, as I was still in the US and he was working in France.”

Living in the Netherlands will take some getting used to for the both of them. “I feel like a foreigner here. I have to get reacquainted with Dutch culture, with the way people interact. How do you shake hands? Do we kiss cheeks? Can you just stop in on a colleague at work, as I was used to doing in the US, or do you make an appointment first? I miss the spaciousness, nature. The Netherlands is quite full in comparison, although we live near a forest here, too. I also miss the Americans’ openness to strangers. They very easily invite you to their home or to a party. That’s how you meet new people and develop friendships. Dutch groups of friends are often long established and don’t easily let new people in.”

That said, Zwetsloot didn’t want to stay in the US. “It’s also a hard country. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of inequality. If something goes wrong, like you fall ill or lose your job, there’s no safety net. It feels nicer here. And I like living closer to my family now. My little brother went to university and graduated and I missed all of it.”

Does that mean she’ll stay in the Netherlands permanently now? She’s not sure yet. “I have a four-year contract and Valente is still looking for a job. We’ll see if we can put down roots here.” Does she want children? As a student, she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around the concept. “I haven’t made up my mind yet. The last few years have been so busy, what with moving and changing jobs. Let’s first see if we feel at home here.”

(Un)fulfilled dreams

In 2003 we interviewed UM students about their dreams for the future. Now, in 2019, it’s time to check in with them and see where they’re at. They’re about forty years old now; did their dreams come true? We’re using this special year (Observant is celebrating its 40th birthday!) as an opportunity to find out. Former student journalist Niels van der Laan, who wrote the majority of the interview articles in 2003, is writing a fair share of this year’s articles as well. In addition to the previously interviewed alumni, we’re interviewing former Observant student journalists about their fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams.

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