“You have to walk gracefully, my friends sometimes tell me”

“You have to walk gracefully, my friends sometimes tell me”

First-generation students/academics

09-11-2021 · Interview

Erik Driessen, age 55

Professor in Medical Education, FHML

Went to the University of Amsterdam in 1990 to study Educational Science

Born in Wijchen, Gelderland and raised in Zwolle, Overijssel with his parents and younger sister

He wasn’t quite sure whether he should participate in this series. After all, he has nothing in common with Connell, Marianne’s boyfriend in the novel Normal People and the TV series of the same name. Connell, whose mother was a house cleaner, felt completely out of place at university. “I loved being at university. I took to it like a duck to water. All those books, the discussions, writing papers… It was like a whole new world opened up to me.”

He’s also nothing like Elena Greco, also known as Lenù, from the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and the TV series My Brilliant Friend.  “Lenù was escaping from the poor neighbourhood in Naples she grew up in. I [laughs] escaped from Zwolle, which is not at all the same thing.”

“A contrary kid”

Erik Driessen, professor in Medical Education since 2015, was a good learner and an open and enthusiastic child. But he didn’t do well in secondary school. He was “a contrary kid”, he says now. Why? Was it because of his background? He came from the lower middle class, he says, with a mother who proudly completed adult secondary school at a later age and a father who engaged in continuous learning after training to be an engineer. They wanted to be a normal family: they would never buy an expensive car and they went out to dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, but they also liked to read and had a subscription to the local newspaper. He doesn’t know. He can no longer ask his parents; they passed away before he received his PhD degree in 2008.

“I was eventually suspended and decided to transfer to a lower level of secondary school. My father was furious. He said that I was throwing away my life and later refused to contribute to my university studies after I completed a degree at a university of applied sciences. But I had a great time at school after transferring. My new friends and I rebelled against mainstream society and had a lot of fun.” After completing secondary school, he went on a hitchhiking holiday. “I hadn’t enrolled in vocational training or higher education. When I got home, I discovered that my father had enrolled me in an applied degree in social work in Kampen, Overijssel. I now realise that he must have forged my signature to do that.”

He hated the sensitivity training he received in Kampen, but he loved the library full of books and films. “I was always there. I learnt a lot in those four years. Ultimately, the programme was the best possible preparation for leadership, whether you’re leading a research group, running a journal or leading a section of a department. It taught me how to read people, how they behave and relate to each other.”

Open-minded and naïve

After completing his applied degree, he went to the University of Amsterdam to study Educational Sciences. He immediately felt at home. “It was a small programme with about twenty students. It felt like a playground to me. I was very open-minded, naïve. I do have that in common with Lenù.” His very first lecture was the moment he found out that almost all course materials were written in English. “I suddenly found myself paying for not trying harder in secondary school. I was terrible at English and French. I always failed spelling tests.” After class, he hopped on his bicycle and cycled to the local bookshop to buy an English-Dutch and a Dutch-English dictionary. “I had to look everything up. The same was true for mathematics: I had to compensate. I suspect that people from higher-class backgrounds were expected to learn decent English and French. This wouldn’t have happened to them.” But his efforts paid off. Not for the first time during this interview, he points out the importance of education, “of seeing the potential in people and trying to help them reach it, regardless of their background.”

Full academic dress

Working as a student assistant, pursuing a PhD, becoming a professor – those kinds of things are for other people, not for me, he always thought. As a student, he held various jobs in the food service industry; that was where he saw himself in the future. But to his own astonishment, he somehow found himself working on a PhD project and eventually becoming a professor. “Sometimes when I’m attending a ceremony in full academic dress, I think of my parents. How would they have felt about this? My mother would’ve been proud, and I think my father would’ve been, too. But he really was the man of the house, the authority, so it might have been difficult for him to see his son become a professor. I’m sorry they never saw me turn out well.”

Walk gracefully

“You have to walk gracefully”, his friends sometimes tell him when he bounds into a room in his gown. He just can’t seem to make it stick. Similarly, he often feels uncomfortable wearing a tie, which is considered a must particularly in England, where he attends lectures from time to time. “I hate those dinners there. I have table manners and I’ve learnt how to keep a conversation going, but it’s still a pain. I didn’t grow up in that world and it makes my contrary nature rear its head again. All those unwritten rules just keep out people who weren’t raised in that world. It’s like academic language – it seems to deliberately create a barrier to academic articles. As the editor-in-chief of an academic journal, I’m working with a colleague to try to change its language to common English.”

Downward mobility

One last thing: there are also advantages to being a first-generation student. “I don’t have high expectations, so I’ll never be disappointed. I’m also not afraid of downward social mobility, which gives me a sense of independence. I can see myself helping out in my youngest son’s trendy lunch restaurant after retiring. He is training to be a cook. That way, I would even be making my childhood dream – I also wanted to be a cook – come true.”

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: news_top, People
Tags: first generation student,erik driessen,fhml,she,instagram

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