“My nephew said, ‘Wow, you’re a professor now, how should I address you?’”

“My nephew said, ‘Wow, you’re a professor now, how should I address you?’”

First-generation students/academics

20-10-2021 · Interview

Carla Haelermans, age 38

Went to Maastricht University in 2002 to study International Economic Studies, received her PhD degree from UM in 2012 and will deliver her inaugural lecture at UM in 2022

Professor in education economics at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA)

Grew up in Arcen, North Limburg, with her father, mother and younger sister

“You have to get the best out of yourself”, her mother always told her two daughters. “A little hard work never killed anyone”, was her father’s motto. Carla Haelermans, professor in education economics and PhD director at the School of Business and Economics, took both messages to heart from an early age.

She grew up in Arcen, North Limburg, a small village with a primary school that excelled at giving its pupils conservative secondary-school-level advice. “I was a quick learner and I got 547 points on my Cito test [an achievement test taken at the end of primary school with a maximum possible score of 550], but they gave me a mixed recommendation of havo/vwo [the intermediate and the highest level of secondary school in the Netherlands, respectively]. No, it wasn’t because my parents are not highly educated. Recommendations in the entire village were relatively low. Recommendations are on average higher in cities, which means that city children have an advantage”, says Haelermans, who studies inequalities between schoolchildren.

Glandular fever

Her mother went to nursing school after completing secondary school, but didn’t finish her training. She worked as a school administrative assistant until she had children. Her father went to agricultural school after completing secondary school. He eventually got a job inspecting animal feed (for growth hormones and antibiotics, for example). “I never thought of my parents as not highly educated. If I needed help, I got it.” Then again, she needed little help.

She was – and still is – a hard worker, who supplemented her Nature and Health profile with additional subjects in secondary school. “Economics, German, and Management & Organisation. I contracted glandular fever in the penultimate year. I missed almost everything between September and Christmas. But I was stubborn and I didn’t want to repeat the year.” She worked hard and made it.

Her decision to go to university was not a difficult one. “I’m very much in my head. I’m an analytical person.” She remembers a photo of herself, her parents and her little sister on holiday in Austria. “It was taken by a photographer in a miniature park. I look very pensive in it. My parents immediately said, ‘That’s you, all right’.”

Moving out

She moved out of her parents’ house right away. “I was ready for it. I wanted to stand on my own two feet. I don’t know how my parents felt about it at the time. I didn’t discuss it with them; I’d already made my decision. I got lucky and found a room in the city centre of Maastricht. My parents came to visit me, but not all the time, which was good.” In the first year, she went for the safe option and followed the Dutch track of the English-taught degree in International Economic Studies. The entire programme would be taught in English from the second year onwards. “English being the language of instruction made me doubt myself. In hindsight, I would’ve done fine. I managed just fine in the second year. It took some getting used to, but that was the case for everyone. I was cautious. I don’t know if it had something to do with the fact that I was a first-generation student. Indirectly, perhaps. Having people around you who say, ‘Of course you can do it, I’m sure you can’ makes it easier to overcome self-doubt.”

Picking cucumbers

She graduated without student debt. “My parents paid my tuition fees, I had a grant and I always had jobs, from picking cucumbers and working in food service to working in a call centre or as a receptionist. My father was always very conscious about spending money. I got that from him. It never even occurred to me to borrow money to go out partying. Then again, I’m not much of a partier to begin with.”

She never thought she would end up in research. “When I was in primary school, I wanted to be a librarian; I loved reading. After that, I didn’t know. I only discovered that research is fun in the last three months of my master’s degree. But I was also interested in working in public policy. I applied for a lot of different jobs and ended up in research almost by accident. And now I’m in the right place, conducting research in the public sector.”


No, she hasn’t really changed over the years, “I hope not”. But she has noticed that her family regards her professorship “with awe”. She laughs: “The other day, my nephew said, ‘Wow, you’re a professor now. How should I address you?’” Then, seriously: “I’m proud to be a professor, but I also tend to downplay it. I’ve worked hard and I’m good at what I do, so it just feels like the logical next step for me.”

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

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: first generation student,haelermans

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