The Alumni Connection

Life after UC, Examined

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2 May 2017
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Women in Resistance; Democracy in Islam—a journey with Nobel Laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi

Marina Lazëri, class of 2013 & Matthijs Maas, class of 2012

Last October, a mere three weeks before a shock election would mark a shock victory of nationalism—and would trigger renewed debate over Western democracies’ relation to Islam, to women, and to refugees—an event in the Academiegebouw in Utrecht marked an opportunity for a different voice to be expressed: a celebration of past struggles for human rights, as well as an attempt at contributing to the articulation of a more democratic and inclusive public debate.

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At the invitation of the University College Alumni Association (the official representative body of University College Utrecht alumni), Dr. Shirin Ebadi, recipient of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts for democracy and human rights, addressed a large and diverse audience of UCU alumni, members of the Iranian diaspora and many other enthusiasts, in a speech which crossed a wide range of contemporary issues, and which focused in particular on the challenges faced by women in patriarchal regimes.

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13 November 2016
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Houston, you have a problem

The day after the election, I was asked whether I wanted to ‘write something’. Oh hell, said I. Yes and no. So much had already been said and written by that point; every prominent thinker, writer and politician was and is weighing in. My tuppence, given below, makes no pretense to being an expert/comprehensive/sophisticated analysis, but it was written from the heart. Hence also the foul language.

by Myrte Vos (class of ’12)

 

Okay! Settle down, everyone. So, that happened. Limbs all still attached? Lungs still in working order? God, I love all those reminders to breathe – breathe fire, maybe. I don’t subscribe to the theory that if you are calm and serene, everything is automatically a little bit better – or rather, I know it’s true, but it’s also kinda duh and also completely un-fucking-helpful. This is gonna be an explicit post, by the way. Hang on to your geitenwollensokken.

 

Anyway. Four days ago, about half of all vote-eligible U.S. citizens did not vote, 25.6% of them voted for a woman named Hillary, and 25.5% voted for a villain from a Wild West cartoon. You know the one. He stomps into the saloon, garish three-piece suit, bulging cigar between his teeth, and in under three minutes has groped the barmaid, insulted everyone within earshot and is flagrantly cheating at cards, all while racking up a tab that he is not going to pay. Lucky Luke sits at the bar and raises one eyebrow. There’ll be a showdown later; Luke will shoot the suspenders off of this brute, dropping his pants to his ankles and revealing pink flowery bloomers. The humiliation will be total; the brute will scurry off, mortified. Life continues as normal.

 

But Trump won, so that’s not the story we’re getting. The advantage of writing for this audience is that I don’t need to go into what this means, and what’ll happen, and how could we have been so blind – you’ve already read all of that. So I can skip straight to what I want to say, which is this:

 

  1. We’re not angry, just disappointed

Americans, you’re on the brink of a multi-year catastrophe, the exact form of which is as yet impossible to predict. You have my heartfelt condolences. For many WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) Europeans such as myself, the United States now joins a long, long list of regimes that we find at best problematic, at worst appalling: Turkey, Hungary, Russia, China, South Africa, India, the entire Arabian peninsula, etc. But we do business with them anyway, because that’s life, the whole world can’t be a fucking safe space, blablabla, whatever. We feel betrayed, and afraid, and deeply concerned; we thought we were friends. But we’ll deal.

 

  1. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

Trump isn’t the problem, not really. We see that now. I cringe to think back on how smugly I nodded at all those John Oliver videos, ridiculing ‘Drumpf’ and his little hands, shrinking him down to manageable size for an urban, progressive, upper-middle-class audience. Calling Trump names is a little like calling a hurricane ‘fat’ – it’ll continue to destroy everything in its path, and insofar as it cares (and insofar as it’s sentient, it’s a metaphor, give me a break), it will make sure to destroy your house, specifically, out of spite. You don’t out-bully a bully. Much has already been said and written about the mistakes made by the DNC, and by American progressives who fell victim to the social media echo chamber just as much as their red counterparts did. And I’ve already seen many friends come to the realization that they are part of the problem: part of a WEIRD elite that doesn’t communicate with or listen to those who think differently, who only make fun of them and belittle them. My ‘echo chamber’ blows up with horror and indignation every time a cultural institution loses its funding, but I’ve yet to see anyone seriously engage with concerns about, say, senior citizen care. There are lessons to be learned here, and we better learn them fast (fortunately, something that we are quite good at!). Rather than just blame the poor, or the ignorant, or the resentful white middle class, we need to do a lightning-fast bit of navel gazing and change our attitude. But…

 

  1. Fuck fascism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny

But. There are limits to what we should abide, and those limits are defined pretty fucking clearly: violence, hate speech, and discrimination. Good lord did that piece of shit get a lot of airtime – it’s like the saloon in our Wild West cartoon had a TV in the corner broadcasting the villain’s vile opinions half the day (the other half is rodeo and competitive horseshoe throwing). I know part of my feelings of shock and horror – about Trump, but also about Wilders – come from the realization that such a huge part of the population agrees with him. It’s rather like the way ‘they’ feel about the refugee crisis, isn’t it? An ever-swelling tidal wave of strangers who want to either take everything you hold dear, or break it. Many of them may be harmless, but there are definitely also some violent nut jobs in there, and how do we tell which is which? Simple – by acknowledging our universal humanity, and not assuming someone is evil or stupid or dangerous just because we don’t know them. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same things: safety, opportunity, love, netflix. Kumbaya.

But. When we happen to notice that someone is a fascist/racist/homophobic/xenophobic/sexist/antisemitic/anti-islamic crap dispenser, we:

 

  1. Say something

There’s this acronym in First Aid teaching: DRAB. Danger, response, airway, breathing. First thing you do in a First Aid situation: assess the level of danger. Is calling someone out on their crap going to put you in harm’s way? No? THEN SAY IT. LOUDLY, DECISIVELY, REPEATEDLY. Most people are extremely conflict-avoidant, and this is good, because we’re trying to run a peaceful goddamn society here. But bullying and hate speech deserves nothing more or less than an immediate and merciless smackdown, every single time. I know you don’t need further instruction. You know the difference between freedom of speech, heated debate, and straight-up discriminatory bullshit. And I know it’s hard, and it can seem so futile, and you don’t always want to grind a party to a halt by telling someone that joke they just made was hella sexist. But I’m asking you to do it anyway.

 

  1. Do something

And finally, while I’m asking you to do things: join a political party, or a union or something. There’ll be some who’ll heave a cynical, fatalistic sigh and go, ‘oh, politics is just the entertainment branch of industry.’ Yeah? Good for you. Fucking find some other way to contribute, then. Give to charity. Help out somewhere, whether it be a school or the Red Cross or a friggin’ petting zoo. (I’m sorry if you already do all those things, you are wonderful, please carry on). Look, I don’t know. I’m as new to this ‘grassroots activism’ thing as anyone. I’m really good at learning about problems, feeling upset, reading leftist thinkpieces until I’ve quelled my unease by rationalizing it all, and then doing nothing. This time, rationalizing doesn’t help. This time, I want to do something. And I think all my friends, all the people I went to school with, all the people who see UKIP and AfD and Front National and Wilders march up in those godforsaken polls and feel scared, want to do something. I wish I had better advice. I wish I had a to-do list like the ones Michael Moore’s been posting on his FB. But the best I can do right now is write this scrambled rant and verbally clutch your shoulders and plead: say something. Do something. Say something. Do something. Say something.

 

Help.

21 September 2016
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Life Beyond Bars

 

by Marieke Liem (class of 2004), author of 

After Life Imprisonment: Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration

 

“I just felt isolated, like, you know, I felt as if I was placed in a foreign country, I didn’t know anybody, nobody knew me, I didn’t know my position, my role. You know, there was no structure, there was nothing, it was just like, it was like being tossed, it is hard for me to describe, but it is just like being tossed in some plains where you have no survival skills, no tools, no nothing.”

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© NYU Press

Ruben was incarcerated for fifteen years before being granted parole. His story is not unique. Today, one out of every nine prisoners in the United States is serving a life sentence. This adds up to roughly 160,000 people, or an entire midsize U.S. city, such as Eugene, Oregon, or Fort Collins, Colorado. Even though a proportion is serving a life sentence without parole, the majority of life-sentenced individuals will at one point, most often after 30 years or more, be paroled.

For two-plus years, I interviewed over sixty lifers like Ruben, who had committed a homicide and, as a result, had been incarcerated for decades. After release, some were successful in staying outside the prison walls, while others found themselves back behind bars. I became intrigued by the questions: What happens after someone commits such a violent crime, and is put behind bars? And  how do they fare after their release after decades of confinement, including prolonged periods in solitary confinement?

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8 September 2016
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Using Excellence as an Equalizer

by Maria van Loosdrecht (class of 2013)

As I sat in the auditorium at the start of my first year, somewhere in the front, to the right, next to one of my intro-sisters, I listened carefully to the welcoming speech. During this talk the word “excellence” was used with reckless abandon. When I walked out of the auditorium I turned to my intro buddy. Of course we discussed the speech a bit. At first carefully: we didn’t know each other, nor how seriously to take this speech. Then we whispered to each other, asking, so, what did you think of the excellence part of the speech? When we realized we both felt that the excellent people the speech referred to weren’t us, we laughed.

Not because we thought it was ridiculous, but because we were assured that “excellence” was a buzzword, not applicable to us on the inside of the college, but only there as a marker for the outside world. We were cocooned at UCU, with a reading room, a dining hall, and a pretty campus. Part of this cocooning was the insistence that we are all excellent people, who don’t have to fear retribution or disinterest in class: we were all “excellent” and shared an open outlook on the world, at least in theory. This is not liberal arts-specific, but I believe this contributed to the feeling of having total academic freedom that I, at least, felt on the Utrecht campus.

Of course, I never realized I had this freedom, wherein all students were deemed excellent on a similar level, until I found in my (Dutch) master programs that although the programs were great and the teachers excellent, the lack of a unifying teaching philosophy meant that a lot of my time was spent familiarizing myself with the teachers, their various methods, and their expectations. This is, I think, because the professors didn’t have the expectation that all their students would do well: there was a (low-key) pressure to constantly prove that you were willing to work. At UC this was less so, since you already proved you were willing to be there.

In the master program, the students were deemed “regular” rather than “excellent.” That doesn’t mean that the students in my master program were any less smart or less engaged than the people I met at UC. I believe the repeated insistence that you are part of a group of “excellents” provides UC students with a safety net (even if it can be oppressive at times) to trust in their environment, their teachers, and themselves, and that this is pretty unique. Our teachers were high caliber people who really believed and supported one coherent teaching philosophy: they were teaching interested, highly qualified pupils. This is powerful, a little bit strange, and pretty rare in the (Dutch) education system.

2 September 2016
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Inaugural editorial

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the newest creative platform of the University College Alumni Association! The Alumni Connection is a space for UCU alumni to reflect on life at UC and post UC, to share stories, experiences, and opinions. Through this platform, the UCAA wants to see you – us – all connect and reminisce about the old times, keep each other up to date and try to recreate digitally some of what we had at UC.

We here at the editorial team see this blog as a place for you to share what you care about. As such, we invite you to read and write about anything and everything you feel like sharing. We offer complete creative freedom – thus this launch is a mish-mash of ideas, stories and experiences. We kick off with tales of travel and transformative experiences, in Equador, Uzbekistan, and on the Appalachian Trail; on the sillier end of the spectrum, we offer a lamentation about the hardships of talking to normal people, and a typology of university colleges in the Netherlands.

This blog is inspired by the Post, the wonderfully quirky magazine of the UCAA. Unfortunately, Post will not be published in its old format anymore, nonetheless we hope to be up to the challenge of following in the Post’s footsteps in delivering you the best UC alumni have to offer. A shout out goes to Laurens Hebly (class of 2001) and Thijs van Himbergen (class of 2003) for all of their help in thinking about this blog. Not only was their Post an inspiration, but they gave us a lot of food for thought in coming up with an online space for you all. We hope to bring you little pieces of the Post throughout this endeavour.

This blog is a Beta version: a test, a try-out, an experiment. We want to see what you like and where you want to focus. Colour changes? Know how to design a kick-ass website and would like to refresh this one? We welcome all your feedback at ucu.alumni@gmail.com.

Would you like to write a piece to be published in the blog? Want to invite a friend to write for us, interview a person, photograph a thing, record a sound? Let us know, again at ucu.alumni@gmail.com.

 

Love,
The Alumni Connection Editorial Board

2 September 2016
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University Colleges in the Netherlands: a Typology

by Myrte Vos, class of 2012

[WARNING: the following was written with tongue wedged firmly in cheek. If, at any point, you’re in any way offended, stop being offended and go do something else.]

 

Way back in 1998, Utrecht University opened the doors of the first undergraduate liberal arts college in the Netherlands. Everything about it was un-Dutch: its selection procedure, which dared to imply that all animals were equal, but some animals were more equal than others; its teaching philosophy, which took education to be a vehicle for personal, moral, and intellectual growth, rather than a years-long, beer-sodden obstacle course towards adulthood; and most of all, its campus, which with its quad and its hedges and its monuments and, worst of all, its wrought iron gates, was an affront to postmodern student culture. UCU was like a nouveau riche stockbroker swaggering into a club full of financially struggling aristocrats. Jealously warred with disdain. This arrogant young upstart was never going to make it.

How dare they.

Fast forward a few years, and everyone and their grandmother seems to be running a university college on the side. If you’ve been out of “the scene” for a while, you might not be up to date with how many of them there are now, and where, and what their added value is. This article is for you.

 

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2 September 2016
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Adventures with Recon

Lessons on the Appalachian Trail

By Maia Kenney, Class of 2012

I’ve not been satisfied lately with my answer to the question “Where are you from?”

…”I’m from Colorado”, I would reply; “but I’ve been living in Indiana for the last few years…well, four, if you must know.” To sum up my citizenship alone takes ten minutes, so how could I qualify in a single word where I’m from? “Where have you come from?” “Today? Or in general? – well I hiked here from Georgia, but today I started, oh, fifteen miles back down the AT.”

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Scared witless as I say goodbye to my dad and hike on alone

To inform someone I don’t know and won’t see again of the exact nature of my journey is a daunting project, one I’d usually avoid, but you, dear reader, are probably either a former classmate or my grandma, and thus an attempt is worthy of your attention. Prepare for a messy recap of my experiences of the 141 days I spent on the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t fully comprehended what happened to me out there, and I don’t expect much closure during the tumult of moving to Europe with my boyfriend Arne. I hope writing this piece will help me organize my thoughts, and that in some mental chronological/spatial filing cabinet I’ll reopen next summer will sit the answer to that first question, and others.

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