Student - February 25, 2016

Once a Wageninger…

Lieke de Kwant

For such a small town Wageningen exercises a remarkable power of attraction over its graduates. Many stay on, many more return after a few years abroad or in one of the big Dutch cities. And not always because they get jobs at Wageningen UR. ‘There is something cosy about Wageningen.’

University cities get a bit of a spring clean after every graduation ceremony. As if someone turned them upside down and beat out the dust. The new graduates go off to a future elsewhere. But there are always some who stick around. They may start a career at their alma mater, they might commute or they decide they like their job on the side more than the pursuit of science. After some time these ‘stayers’ are joined by old friends: the ‘returners’.

The ten editors of Resource and Wageningen World include one stayer and three returners: a score of 40 percent. A coincidence, you might think. But that is debatable. Anyone spending some time in Wageningen cannot escape the impression that a remarkable proportion of the city’s residents are ex-students of Wageningen UR and its predecessors. One quarter of the parents’ committee at the Pantarijn secondary school, for example, and one third of the municipal council, are Wageningen graduates. De Vlaamsche Reus and Loburg cafés are run by graduates. Look for a career coach, yoga teacher, copywriter or journalist in the city and the chances are you will find a Wageningen alumnus. And then we haven’t even mentioned Wageningen UR itself, where alumni make up an estimated 24 percent of the staff (nearly 1400 alumni who live in Wageningen, according to alumni association KLV, out of a total of about 5800 staff.)



This could lead one to assume that an above average proportion of Wageningen graduates cannot tear themselves away from their university town, but that is not so. The national higher education monitor of 2013 shows in fact that Wageningen University graduates tend to go far afield in the first year and a half after graduating. The percentage of Wageningen graduates who stay in the province where they studied is lower than average for Dutch universities (44 as opposed to 68 percent) and the percentage that goes abroad is nearly double (23 as opposed to 12 percent). These statistics are tricky though, because they don’t tell us anything about those who come back. Also, it is like comparing apples with oranges because staying in a big city like Amsterdam or Rotterdam is not the same as staying around in Wageningen, says Rien Bor, ex-spokesman for Wageningen UR and municipal council member for Stadspartij Wageningen. ‘The general universities often have a regional role. So if a lot of students stay around in Groningen, that is logical as most of them already came from the region. That is not the case in Wageningen.’

A comparison with another specialized university outside the Randstad, such as Twente University (UT), is fairer. But even then Wageningen turns out not to have an above-average number of ‘stayers’. Of all the Wageningen alumni whose place of residence is known, according to KLV/ University Fund Wageningen, more than 15 percent live in Wageningen (more than 5700). Enschede beats that by a long way, with 26 percent (more than 10,000), show UT statistics.

Distorted picture

So is the idea that there are lots of ex-students knocking around Wageningen sheer nonsense? Not if you compare the number of alumni who stayed or came back with the number of residents of the city. In Enschede, for instance, alumni make up 6.4 percent of the total population of 160,000, whereas in Wageningen with its nearly 38,000 residents, homegrown alumni account for 15 percent. So even though in absolute numbers, fewer Wageningers than graduates elsewhere stay in their university city, they do have an above average impact on the city. This is what Louise Fresco – herself a ‘serial returner’ –  calls an optical effect, which gives a distorted picture. ‘Alumni are very noticeable because the city is so small.’ To add to that, says Rien Bor, alumni like to get involved in everything. ‘Most of the people who study here care about the world and their environment. They are conscientious and active.’ This is confirmed by Willem Straatman – born and bred in Wageningen, ex-municipal council worker and columnist with local paper De Stad Wageningen. ‘Alumni often have a vision on life and they bring something in. They serve on boards and committees and help bring new blood into politics.’ There is a downside to all that involvement, however, says Bor: ‘You can’t move even a pole in Wageningen without someone writing in about it.’


What makes this little town on the Rhine so attractive as a place to live for some alumni? Of course Wageningen UR plays a central role as a big employer and a magnet for employment. Nearly 1400 Wageningen alumni have reported themselves to alumni association KLV as working for Wageningen UR, and an unknown number work for the growing number of knowledge-intensive companies that have settled in this area. But work cannot explain the presence of all the roughly 5700 alumni living in Wageningen, according to KLV records. Hordes of Wageningen ‘stayers’ commute hours a day to work. Why do they feel it’s worth it? One pull factor mentioned by nearly everyone is the size of the town. ‘There is something cosy about Wageningen,’ says Straatman. It is small enough for you to feel connected and involved, but big enough not to feel that everyone knows your every move. And it has everything you need. Fresco also believes there is such a thing as a Wageningen culture. ‘The fact that Wageningen is a specialist university generates identification: the sense that “we are Wageningers”. It is an appealing community to belong to, with a culture of its own: a nice mix of pragmatism, idealism and professionalism. Shoulders to the plough and believing in something.’

Forever young

The diversity of the population is another plus point. ‘I believe that we have 100 nationalities among 37,000 residents,’ says Fresco. ‘That feeling of being welcome extends to everyone.’ Straatman: ‘You live among people from all kinds of cultures in a relaxed, safe atmosphere without much racism.’ Bor adds to this that the new generation of students coming in every year brings in freshness and liveliness. ‘This town remains forever young.’

It is also the case that the alumni and other professionals who already live in Wageningen with their good incomes can support attractive facilities such as a library, a cinema and a theatre, says Han ter Maat, himself a returned alumnus and city councillor whose portfolio includes spatial planning and the town centre.

Wageningen’s final secret weapon is its location. ‘Where else do you find such a range of landscapes within a radius of five kilometres?’ asks Ter Maat. ‘Water meadows, hills, polders, forest, heath, the Betuwe fruit farms. Plenty of space for the mostly nature-loving alumni to hike, cycle, run and take the dog or the kids for a walk. But that is also a concern for the municipal council, says Ter Maat: there is no room for very many more people without putting too much pressure on the open space that is so crucial for the quality of life. So: ‘This is a great city, but don’t tell too many people about it…’

Freek Aalbers, Soil, water and atmosphere 2001-2005

Project leader at Wareco Ingenieurs in Deventer

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‘Wageningen is not too big, but not too small either. It has good facilities such as a theatre, a cinema, a swimming pool and a library. There are also lovely landscapes and nature areas nearby, such as the Eng, the Wageningen Hill, the water meadows of the Rhine and the Blauwe Kamer wetland reserve. We have sometimes considered moving to Deventer but we like Wageningen too much to say goodbye.’

Arjen Wals, Environmental Hygiene 1982-1987

Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development, Wageningen University

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‘After graduating I went to the United States to live with my American girlfriend. I got my PhD at the University of Michigan and then I had a choice between a job there or in Wageningen. My girlfriend said, ‘You have lived nearly five years in America; now I’d like to live in the Netherlands for five years. Those five years have turned into nearly 25 years by now. There is a global university here with people from all over the world. And although it is not a metropolis, it does have everything.’

Geraldine Sinnema, Sociology 1985-1992

Freelance career coach and trainer

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‘The city has such a special population that for me there are enough interesting things going on. Film, theatre, courses, lectures and funny initiatives. The presence of alumni has a formative influence on the city. Take the initiative of ecologist Patrick Jansen and the Mooi Wageningen foundation to develop a new nature area in the Binnenveld. That is so typical of this place. There is a lot of knowledge available and it gets used locally too, because Wageningers are quite practical.’

Simon Vink, Biology 1974

Spokesman for the Executive Board of Wageningen University


‘In Wageningen it’s not unusual for someone to say, “I’ll be in Burundi next week”. And there are lots of students and staff here from other countries. That international character makes it an attractive town. Another of Wageningen’s strengths is that everyone here is working on nutrition, food security and the environment. Wageningen UR is a wonderful organization in an important field. I am very happy to do my bit towards that. Wageningen does lack the buzz of big city life though. Every now and then I have to go back to Rotterdam, where I come from.’

Bas Bremen and Anne van Doorn, Rural Development Sociology 1993-1998 and Biology 1995-2002

Both project leaders at Alterra

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‘When we graduated Anne got a PhD place in Portugal. After four years there we reached a critical juncture: do we stay and put down roots, or go back? We decided on the latter. We wanted to have our children grow up in the Netherlands and a social network was very important to us. We knew Wageningen. You feel part of the community and we have interesting work at cycling distance from home. With children you get to know a whole new side to the town, through their school and sports clubs, and after a while old and new friends start mixing. It is a nice hotchpotch of people.’

Elmar Theune, Environmental Hygiene 1974-1982

Policymaker at the ministry of Economic Affairs, The Hague

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‘I will never leave. I felt at home here from the start. I loved and still love the open, lively and intellectual atmosphere in the town. What is always special to me, and makes Wageningen different to other university towns, is that people from different disciplines, with different goals and different political persuasions, all get on pleasantly together. That has something to do with the breadth of the university, with the way the degree courses are organized, and with the people who opt to come to Wageningen.’

Jacobijn van Etten  and Hugo Hoofwijk, Both Tropical Land Development 1987-1993

Project manager at Crgb in Ede and freelance consultant on participation in Wageningen

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‘After graduating we spent ten years in tropical countries. When we got back to the Netherlands we went from place to place for a year before deciding to settle in Wageningen. We had a common history there. And Wageningen is an ideal place for our children to grow up in. Because we have been in the tropics, its international character is something we appreciate. In the Albert Heijn supermarket you can hear Portuguese and Swahili. That gives the town a certain buzz.’

Han ter Maat, Environmental Hygiene 1970-1978

Councillor for Spatial planning, traffic, city centre and sport in Wageningen

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‘Wageningen is a henhouse, but one in which you are free to run around. It is easy to meet people who are interested in the same things as you, like music in my case. On a Sunday afternoon I can play the blues with other people in café Loburg. But if I’m not there one week that’s fine too. That is the warm feeling you get in Wageningen: you can do a lot but there is no obligation.’

Linda Admiraal Tropical Land Use 1995-2002

Freelance personal trainer

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‘After graduating I wanted to get away because Wageningen was too small for me. I went to the United States, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Brazil and the Gambia. Then I was offered two jobs at once: one in Rome and one at Wageningen University. Against all my intentions I chose Wageningen: I had just met the love of my life here. Four years later I decided to turn my main hobby – sport – into my job. Wageningen is the perfect place for that because, as a personal trainer I am always out of doors.’