Science - January 19, 2006

'Too little time for structural solutions'

A familiar face is leaving the central student desk. Dean Jan van Bommel gave guidance to several generations of students during their studies. Now he’s taking early retirement.

‘Maybe international students should be better prepared for the cultural differences they encounter here, but I’m glad we developed the workshop on intercultural communication, which is held in the introduction period. It gets people connected and that helps improve their general enjoyment of life as well as their study progress. International students often have a lot to endure, certainly when they have to leave their children behind or when their parents fall ill.’

Van Bommel knows all about student problems. For thirteen years he worked as a dean and he gave guidance to many individual students during their university career. ‘It’s rewarding when you get students back on track who’ve got stuck in the middle of their thesis and stopped working altogether.’

He trained as a lawyer but chose to work as a teacher and dean at a secondary school before he came to Wageningen. His legal background came in handy as part of his job involved dealing with rules and regulations. ‘Finally I was able to use my knowledge to help people.’

Over the years, the questions that students came with remained largely the same, he says. The main change took place after the Dutch study grant regulations were tightened up in 1995. The new system put more pressure on students. ‘We certainly noticed this.’

He reckons that the main problem of international students is that they’re sometimes too dedicated to their studies. ‘They develop RSI, fall ill, get overstrained or have to deal with sick relatives, but nevertheless keep on studying. It’s often hard for them to slacken their study pace as they face financial problems. I would have liked to develop arrangements particularly for international students to deal with these issues, but I lacked time.’

Another recurring problem was accommodation for students with families. ‘I kept trying to find solutions for individual cases, but looking back I should perhaps admit that all I could do was sweat it out. The main problems are the housing corporations and political policies.’

General work stress is his main grudge. ‘In the last years we were understaffed. For us the students come first, our main priority was to solve their immediate personal problems. Unfortunately, finding ways to deal with more general problems, or things that you noticed affected many students, we had to put on the side. The organisation has suffered from constant reorganisations and the people in charge are not people managers. But I enjoyed the contact with young, intelligent people during an important phase of their lives.’

One of the things he now plans to get involved in is working with refugees. He will start mediating on behalf of refugees looking for jobs. / YdH