Alexander Louwes came close to staying on in his part-time job at the zoo in Emmen after secondary school. His entire family worked there. His father worked in HR and his mother sold ice cream “near the sea lions”. Louwes himself was a food service worker at the park. “I enjoyed the work a lot and my colleagues were great. I was taking the pre-university level of secondary school, but I wasn’t all that ambitious. I thought about staying there for quite a while.”
With his interest in food service, Louwes considered applying to hospitality school. But when he began to explore his options in earnest, he came across many other interesting study programmes: education, artificial intelligence, mechanical engineering, psychology and so on. “I’ve always been a voracious reader with a lot of interests. Legend has it that I chose my programme by pinning various options to a dartboard and throwing a dart at it”, he says mysteriously. He doesn’t reveal whether this really happened.
Either way, Louwes started studying Advanced Technology at the University of Twente in Enschede in September 2004. He felt right at home in university. Gone was the bullying he had been regularly subjected to in secondary school. “My mother is from Thailand. They made slanted-eye gestures and mocked Chinese sounds.” Sometimes he was forced to react to his bullies with violence, he says. “I once threw someone against a window. That immediately put an end to it. I never had to do that at university”, he laughs. “I found myself in a world of like-minded people.”
Louwes couldn’t really discuss his studies with his parents, although they were very interested and supportive. University was too far removed from their own experiences. His father studied a little more after leaving secondary school, but started working at the zoo soon after. His mother, who was born and raised in a fishing village near Bangkok, left primary school at a very young age to earn money for her family. “She still proudly tells the tale of how she cut her hair short and became a Muay Thai fighter when she was ten years old, fighting boys for money. She wanted to make money fishing, but only the men were allowed to fish. She’s a very sweet woman with a lot of spirit.”
He also couldn’t turn to his parents for help in secondary school. “‘I’m sorry, I don’t know’, my father would say. I often had to figure everything out on my own.” But he did well. “I never felt lonely because of it.” His mother was taking Dutch classes at the time. “After finishing my own homework, I helped her with hers.”
Louwes’s face lights up when he talks about his student days. “My best friends also went to Enschede. I was excited to move out. We were the first cohort of students in our programme. It was a great group of people.” He had a lot of friends and engaged in a lot of activities outside the programme as well. “I could often be found in the pub, but I also sat on the boards of various study associations and sports societies.” It took him six years to complete his bachelor’s degree.
He completed his master’s degree in Sustainable Energy Technology within the prescribed time, despite the death of his father. “Pancreatic cancer, an awful disease. It was diagnosed very late. My father was a quiet man. He never said it out loud, but I’m sure that he was proud of me. It was a terribly sad time in my life, but I received a lot of support from my girlfriend, who is now my wife. She helped me come to terms with the loss.”
The two were already living together before they became a couple. They were roommates in Twente and got together after six months. “She was a psychology student from Germany, one of the many Germans who were already coming to Enschede to study there at the time. The programmes were taught in Dutch, so we’ve always communicated in Dutch. She’s fluent now.” After completing their degrees, they both became PhD students. “Unlike my family, my wife was very familiar with the kind of life I led.”
Louwes moved from Enschede to Maastricht for her. “We’ve always said that we would relocate together if one of us found a good job far away, whether in Australia or Maastricht.” She works as an assistant professor in the School of Business and Economics. After working as a researcher in Belgium for a year, Louwes landed his current job at SBE. “My mother would have preferred that I became a judge, a doctor or – especially – a pilot”, he laughs, “so that I could’ve arranged cheap flights to Thailand for her.”