Most Wageningen students are between 18 and 25 years old. But there are a few people in the classrooms who have half a career behind them already. Or even a whole one. What motivates them to become students again? ‘I wanted to take a look from the inside and see how academia functions.’
text Gina Ho photos Aldo Allessie
‘I have a much more societal view of research’
‘I’ve been very happy working in the environmental NGO sector for the past 10 years, so I was not planning to come back to university at all. But I had a major life disruption more than a year ago, as I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had to go through chemotherapy and all this nasty stuff. The whole treatment process took almost a year, but I wasn’t bedridden or anything, so I wanted to make something out of this time. Since I’ve never done a Master’s, I thought, maybe I can study!
The question “What does the research say?” plays a massive role in the issues I’ve been advocating in my work. As well as learning academically, I wanted to take a look from the inside and see how academia functions and interacts, and how researchers see their societal role and so on.
Compared to my full-time job, studying itself isn’t very stressful. I think my age makes it easier to decide how to spend my time, as I’ve got a clearer idea of what I’m interested in, and I bother less with things that do not interest me. Being back in school also allows me the time to figure out where I stand on certain issues. I also have a much more societal view on what’s the point of university and research, such as how they serve society, are they getting a tangible message out or not. I’m also definitely even more frustrated than before about how bad academia is at talking in a way that would be relevant for policymakers.
If I could speak to my younger self, I would say: go girl, well done! During my bachelor’s, I did a lot of other stuff outside my studies as I was, and still am, frustrated that we’re not doing a lot with the wealth of knowledge we have in academia. So I got involved with grassroots NGOs and student politics, organizing demonstrations and the like. Everything I learnt from those activities was what got me my jobs ever since. Of course it’s useful to have a degree, but the most important stuff I actually learnt outside of university.’
‘I want to introduce organic farming in my prefecture’
‘For my Bachelor’s, I studied environmental science in Japan in the 70s. At the time, it was a new subject as only three out of 50 national universities offered the course. When I graduated, I joined the Shizuoka local prefecture government and for 38 years I worked for extension centres, in research and also in policymaking.
I retired this year and I’ve still got 15 years until I’m, say, 75, so I asked myself, what should I do in this time? Things are often hard for farmers in the mountainous areas of my prefecture, where tea is mainly produced on a small scale. I believe that appropriate farming systems could benefit the environment, and I want to introduce organic farming to these mountainous areas, where farmers could produce organic, premium quality tea for export as well as local markets. I seriously wanted to return to university, as I wanted more scientific knowledge. So here I am now.
When I was a student back in the day, I didn’t study that hard. If I had known what I know now, I would tell my younger self to work hard! I would also tell him, when you want to study, then go to university again whenever you want to, be that 5 years or 38 years later.’
‘I’m seven or eight years older but I don’t feel the maturity gap’
‘I was travelling for a few years before I went to university and again after I finished my Bachelor’s. During my travels I got interested in food, gardening, horticulture, food systems and the natural world in general. And I figured agriculture is a really good interface for studying how we relate to the natural world.
Since I was travelling so much, I didn’t really have a home. I was developing all these interests and I didn’t know what to do with them yet. Being anchored somewhere helps. I’ve been interested in permaculture, but I felt that I wasn’t learning as much as I wanted from talking to people in the movement. I felt like I needed more serious training, hence the decision to come back to university.
During my Bachelor’s, there were a lot of opportunities to write personal essays, which allowed a lot of intellectual freedom to find your angle, ask questions, and read what you want to read. The courses I have done here so far are different; there is a big focus on group work. In retrospect, the courses were all good and I feel quite comfortable with what I’ve learnt, but at the time, they felt micro-managed and the courses weren’t linked between periods.
I’m seven or eight years older than most people in my year but I don’t feel the maturity gap. I’m surrounded by smart people who are on the ball. Some of them have got more idea of what they want to do with their lives than I have. I don’t have a solid plan yet – but I’m getting there.