“I had to hear from others that my parents were proud of me”

“I had to hear from others that my parents were proud of me”

The first in their families to go to university

  • Franziska Gassmann, aged 59
  • Studied International Economic Studies at Maastricht University from 1991 to 1995
  • Professor of Social Protection and Development at UNU-Merit
  • Was born in Sankt Gallen and grew up with her parents in Walchwil, Switzerland

Life can sometimes take a weird turn. If Franziska Gassmann had not met her husband Willem, she most likely would not have taken up a study. Was that not in the line of expectations for the daughter of a chef and a hostess in a restaurant?

Actually it was, as a teenager Gassmann went to grammar school. Going to university seemed like the logical next step. “But not for me,” she grinned. “My big dream was to become a fashion designer. Fashion was my passion, I sometimes made my own clothes, I was always making and designing things. I remember that I even wrote in my diary that I wanted to own a clothes shop by the time I was 30 where I would sell my own designs but also clothes made by others.”

She considers the Academy of Arts (“But you have to be able to draw to get in, I absolutely can’t”), Physiotherapy and even the Hotel Management School. “To be able to work in a large hotel. I didn’t want to run a restaurant like my parents. You have to work very hard. If you also want to have a family, something ends up paying the price.”

A job for life

She doesn’t think about university. “I would not have known what to study. My father said nothing, but I think he was disappointed. My mother was less bothered, she mainly wanted me to be happy.” Eventually she chose to train as an art and crafts teacher. “It was a university of applied sciences programme. I found it easy, but good fun. I still wanted to do something in the fashion industry, even if I had given up on the idea of doing a work placement at Dior in Paris. I learned about materials, creating patterns, sewing, and didactics. If things don’t work out in fashion, I can always teach, I thought pragmatically.”

Teaching is exactly what Gassmann did after her study. For two years. Laughing: “I don’t have the patience for it, to continue would not have been good for me or the children.” So, she resigns. “I told my parents about it in a restaurant in Zurich, that is where I made all my big announcements. They thought I was crazy. Giving up a job for life?!”  

Love at first sight

Gassmann finds a job as an assistant purchaser for a chain of shops. “A kind of Swiss Hema. I felt really at home there. I got more and more responsibilities and I also did management training in Economics.” She would most likely have stayed in the fashion industry if she hadn’t met her husband. “It was love at first sight. He is Dutch, so after a year you start to think: are you coming to Switzerland or am I going to the Netherlands?” It was the latter, and again Gassmann dropped a bomb on her parents.

“That was hard for them. I am an only child and I was moving far away. Then we told them that we were getting married, but that it would be a very small affair; at city hall and just us with nobody else. That was tough on them, but they said: Is this what you want? Then it is okay.”

In the disco on Amorsplein

Gassmann started all over again in the Netherlands. “I realised soon that you can’t do much without diplomas here. So, I decided to go and take up a study.” The choice was International Economic Studies at Maastricht University. She didn’t really notice the fact that she was a first-generation student. But she did notice the age difference. “I was 29, I didn’t really have a connection, certainly not in the first year. On one occasion, I went along to a disco on Amorsplein. I thought: All those girls are looking for boyfriends and all those boys are looking for girlfriends. I don’t need to do that anymore. I felt so out of place. Later on, when we specialised, things became easier, because you had a shared interest.”

When her thesis supervisor offers her a job as a junior researcher on a project for the World Bank in Latvia, she immediately said yes. She writes her PhD thesis about the same topic. “Not because I particularly wanted to do research. I had done a work placement with the UN in New York; I saw myself working in that kind of international surroundings. But those organisations all asked for a PhD thesis. Ultimately, I worked as a consultant for a while and later on I returned to the university. But even now, what is important for me is the impact that my research has. That is my motivation, not being published in a journal.”


Her parents are tremendously proud, but don’t show it. “I heard from others. For example, that they were so impressed when I was working with the World Bank on a project. That is how I knew that my parents had been passing on that news. After I completed my PhD, my father said it to me for the first time.”

They are also very interested in the content of Gassmann’s work. “They were very curious and well-read. We always had three newspapers at home and they were all read. My father was very interested in politics and loved having discussions. My mother spoke multiple languages and brushed up her Spanish at a later age. Even within their own profession, they were always looking for innovation and knowledge.”

They couldn’t be at her inaugural speech as a professor. Travelling was physically too taxing. A video connection provided the solution. Gassmann smiles: “At one particular moment, I really had to laugh and I said in Swiss: ‘You have to be quiet.’ I could actually hear mumbling in Swiss in the background, that was them.”

This is a weekly series of interviews with students or academics who were the first in their families to go to university.

Author: Cleo Freriks

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: first generation,instagram

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