Ghost student: student of Biomedical Sciences lied to friends and family for 2.5 years
“8:00 o’clock. The alarm goes off. Eat some breakfast and stick a book about all the Tour de Frances of the past 100 years in my bag. From 9:00 until 12:00, I have an 'exam'. A flatmate wishes me good luck as I leave. I walk at a gentle pace to the city park, hoping that I don’t meet anyone I know. Once I get to my favourite spot in the park, I check my telephone. It is only 9:10. I sit down on the bench near the pond and start reading. It is cold, but I can’t go home yet. I walk aimlessly through the park just to get warm. Then it is 10:30. A bit fast for an exam, but I can get away with it. When I enter the student house, I meet a housemate: ''So, you finished quickly! How did it go?'' ''Yeh, it was fine, but it was tough. I’ll quickly go and eat something because I’m hungry.'' (Diary fragment SE)
It is about 17:00 hrs on an ordinary Monday in April 2021. Stijn Engelen (23) is coming from his work – he is a depot assistant at the hospital chemist – and he parks his orange swap bicycle at a bench along the Maas, close to the Bonnefanten museum. A tall young man, sporty appearance, good-natured glance, friendly. He wants to tell his story – he already wrote about it on his own website – because he no longer wanted to be secretive about the hard time in his life, which is now behind him. Also, because by doing so, he may be able to help students who are in the same boat. He feels that a photograph would be taking things too far. He doesn’t want people on the street to recognise him as “that ghost student”.
Engelen was born and bred in Panningen, in North Limburg. He went through pre-university education (with a science profile) without any problems. “I paid attention in class, did my homework through a kind of fearfulness, I didn’t want to get caught out by the teacher. I didn’t strive to be the best; I didn’t aim for a nine. I was fanatical about sports: it was football and bicycle racing at the time.”
That he would go to study at a university, was a given. After all, his entire group of friends – thirteen guys – chose to do the same. Except for one who preferred to go to a university of applied sciences, and had to suffer a load of jokes because of that. Engelen went to the open days, information evenings, participated for a day at two technical universities. He looked around in various places, especially because he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Ultimately, he decided on Biology in Wageningen: “The emphasis on nature instead of on the human body appealed to me.” But after a couple of months – he passed all his subjects – he quit. The transition from his parents’ home to a room with a landlady was too great. Making new friends was also more difficult than expected. “You actually need to join one of the three large student associations in Wageningen to build up a social network. My intro papa and mama encouraged me to do just that: become a member, join in. But those fraternity guys and that hoity-toity culture, was so far removed from me. I became a member of the athletics association, where I knew nobody. It soon became a trial to go to the training sessions, I started to skip it more and more. I just couldn’t find my place in Wageningen and I felt worse and worse. With hindsight, I realise that I wasn’t mature enough to stand on my own two feet.”
He stopped in the February of his first year of Biology and returned to Panningen, worked full-time at the Jan Linders supermarket and diligently went looking for a new study. “I was in a rush, as I had to register before May.” The option of taking a year off didn’t occur to him. He had to move forward. Surely, he didn’t want to lose out on the best years of his life? “I didn’t feel strong enough to say: I am not going to study. I did what was expected of me.”
Friendly student house
He settled on Biomedical Sciences in Maastricht. He was good at sciences; this could be suitable. This time – thanks to his three-year-older sister – he found a room in a friendly student house with “nice people, good friends by now”. Unfortunately, he missed the Inkom because of a medical issue, but he did participate in the faculty introduction day, where he got to know his mentor group (and the members of his tutorial group in the first period). He joined athletics association Uros, “my sister was also a member, I was able to join really easily”.
So far so good. Period one went smoothly. The first credits were quickly gained. But then, through illness, he missed the first week of period two and he became anxious. The threshold to go to the tutorial group meetings grew. What if he didn’t know the third learning objective? What would others think of him? “I also became fearful on the street, something that reared its ugly head every now and again since primary school. Why is that person looking at me in that irritated way? Do they think I am arrogant?” The stress increased, he had stomach aches before the tutorial group meetings and lectures, and he skipped meetings more and more often. He only prepared himself half-heartedly for the exam, but because he had not met the compulsory attendance requirement, he would never be able to pass the block. He would do a resit, he promised himself.
Excuses and lies
This is where the excuses and lies started: ‘The exam went well.’ ‘I have almost completed the block; I just have to redo a practical.’ ‘Tutorial group meeting tomorrow at 11:00 o‘clock.’ Et cetera, et cetera. “I was so ashamed. I had failed. How was that possible? Surely, I was the guy who sailed through secondary school, who had a lot of friends in Panningen and who was also loved outside his circle of friends? I was the guy who people thought would go really far?”
In April and May of his first year, he hardly came to the faculty. “The fear became worse, I had palpitations when I had to open my e-mail.” He hoped– having passed periods 1 and 3 – that he and would be allowed to pass on to second year with some extra assignments. It appeared that his hope was in vain. He had to repeat year one. He told friends and family that he didn’t pass his first year because he missed out on one subject.
When the university started again in September, he gave up. From day one, he didn’t take a single subject, and from that moment on he fell under the category of Ghost Student. He lived off his student loan and a small job and told nobody about how the situation really was. It was tough, but he never let anyone notice. He started to suffer with a tic, an ‘old familiar one’ from his youth: “When I watched a film or series, I would count the number of letters in the subtitles.” Upon advice from his mother, he went to see a psychologist. “No, not a student psychologist, a ‘regular’ one. After two or three months, I also told him about my social anxiety. I thought: he is an outsider, an impartial person, I can tell him that.” But he remained quiet about his study.
It was only after he had missed the re-registration for third year - “I didn’t check my e-mail” – that he ended up in psychological but also financial distress. His student load was stopped, his public transport pass became invalid. “I didn’t need to pay tuition fees, which made a difference, but by November, December I was in financial trouble. My savings were used up, I couldn’t pay the rent of 350 euro from my job and I was fined for travelling with an invalid pass.”
It was a weekend in December, when he was at his parents’ home with his sister to celebrate Sinterklaas, that he took her into his confidence during a walk. “I had played the conversation out in my thoughts about a hundred times. My sister was really shocked when I told her that on my worst days, I wondered what the point of living was, and that I could imagine that someone would end it all. Even though I myself never had plans. Her reaction was one of concern, being very understanding. The fact that I had lied about studying for 2.5 years she felt was not at all important.”
Together with my sister, I told my parents that very same day. “I talked, she filled in the gaps. My parents realised that I had been through hell and their reaction was very understanding. At the same time, they were very practical: wanted to solve everything: pay my fine, help me with a possible move.” He didn’t take them up on their offer to move back to Panningen. “I was doing a year on the Uros board and that was going well. I enjoyed doing it and I wanted to complete it. It helped me, gave me self-confidence, certainly when I had to speak to sixty or seventy students during the Cantus. I also didn’t want to leave my student house. I found a job and ended up in the hospital chemist’s depot.” Quite soon after telling his parents, he told two fellow board members of Uros, his best friend and his girlfriend at the time. “They were very shocked, although some things did fall into place. That I had tutorial group meetings at strange times, for example.”
Biomedical Sciences again
He enrolled again for the first year of BMW at the end of August 2019. Why? “Getting a university degree, apparently I wanted to meet that requirement.” I had already passed blocks 1 and 3, he did 2 and 4, they went well, but then came COVID-19. “I ended up in the same spiral. My social anxieties started up again and then education went online. You can’t really see people’s reaction very well via Zoom. Moreover, my student house was as good as empty. Everyone had gone home.” And once again, he held his tongue and didn’t take anyone into his confidence. He didn’t go to the student psychologist either. Why not? “I didn’t realise how serious it was, I saw it as being separate from those 2.5 years, this had to do with COVID-19.” Again, he quit.
So that was a year ago. Will he ever study again? “I am keeping my options open, but I will never again study just for the sake of studying. But who knows, I like journalism, or something medical. Maybe at a university of applied sciences, maybe at a university, maybe a dual course, working and learning simultaneously. That may suit me better. That supervision, needing to be somewhere, that helps me, that is when I am productive. If I have to plan everything myself, things become tougher.”
He is working in the hospital chemist’s depot again. “I am being given more and more tasks, earning a good wage. I set up my own website, which I use for my columns and articles. I really like doing that. I train with Uros a lot, I am busy and I am feeling good. I am glad about that.”
Recognisable? Don’t continue to shut yourself off, Stijn Engelen advises. “Get help, if you can’t tell family or friends, go to the study advisor or the student psychologist.” You can also e-mail Stijn:email@example.com