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Professor Jos Schaeken: 'I had no idea where Leiden was, but I did know I wanted to study there.'

In the Pioneers of Leiden University series we talk to past and present students who were the first in their families to go to university. In this third instalment we talk to Jos Schaeken (1962) dean of the Honours Academy and Professor of Slavic and Baltic languages and Cultural History: 'I had to look Leiden up on the map because I had no idea where it was, but I did know I wanted to study there.'

Mohammed El Baroudi (1995) a trainee at Leiden University, was himself a first-generation student. He is tracking down the stories of pioneers of Leiden University. This is his third article in the series.

The coffees are barely on the table before Jos Schaeken turns to a flipover and starts to sketch a map. Limburg, North Brabant, Eindhoven, the border with Belgium and somewhere in the middle a cross: 'This spot is where I grew up.'  His office at the Honours Academy in the building of the Leiden Observatory is the setting for what was to become an animated and inspiring conversation. 

Schaeken grew up in the North Brabant hamlet of Dorplein, today a village known as  Budel-Dorplein. In the sixties it was a typical workers' hamlet for a flourishing zinc industry. The Walloon manufacturing family ‘Dor’ – from the French d’or (gold) – built a zinc factory in around 1892 in the peat land between  Budel and Weert, on the border of the province of Limburg. The residents of the hamlet were mainly labour immigrants from Wallonia and Southern Europe, primarily Italians and Spanish, all of whom worked in the zinc factory. 'That was what the hamlet was built for: to house the workers. At that time, you weren't aware of the national borders at all. You looked out over the Belgian fields and if our football net got shifted a bit too far, before we knew it, it was in Belgium. There was a Belgian border post, but it was hardly ever manned.'   

Mother and father Schaeken

Father Schaeken stoked the factory ovens with coal and had a second job as a forest ranger. He had little or no formal education and went to work at the age of ten. 'He had trouble writing, but had taught himself to read quite well. De Volkskrant was his daily reading matter.' Even though everyone in the district was 'automatically' Catholic, Schaeken explains that his father was an exception: 'He didn't agree that the church could make an exception to Sunday as a day of rest so that the factory could carry on operating. For him that was too hypocritical.' Schaeken's mother was herself Catholic and looked after the family of four daughters and one son. Both parents originally came from Weert in Limburg, from families of farmers and gardeners.   

Portrait of Jos Schaeken
Jos Schaeken in the Hortus near to the Leiden Observatory

Linguistic mishmash

The environment where Schaeken grew up was in any event a linguistic borderland. There was French from the nearby Wallonia, German, Dutch and, of course, the local dialects. 'My father spoke a kind of Walloon. My native language was the Limburg dialect and at school we learned Dutch. The dialect has many similarities with German, which may explain why I think my German is better than my English. I even wrote my dissertation in German.' 

The families of workers who came from outside the Netherlands made the village into an even more diverse mishmash of languages and cultures, something that Schaeken took very much for granted. 'A good friend and colleague of my father's was Italian and he spoke very little Dutch, even though they spent a lot of time together. I still don't know even today how they managed to communicate with one another, but somehow they managed.'  

Living the good life with few resources

Most people in Dorplein managed with very little, but that didn't stop them enjoying the good things of life. 'Money was in scant supply, but our family life was harmonious and we always had good food.' He was later to discover that things were very different in the Randstad: 'In the Calvinist Netherlands, food seemed to be an afterthought; you only ate because you had to. In our village it was something you savoured and took your time over.'

‘The advice that I should go to grammar school came as quite a shock. It had never occurred to us.' 

Unexpected advice

When he was nearing the end of junior school, Schaeken's parents hoped that he would  be a good leaarner and perhaps have an office job as a career.  Their reasoning was not particularly because that kind of job was felt to be prestigious: 'I was born with a hereditary condition and my parents knew that heavy physical labour would not be good for me.' They had no need for concern because Schaeken turned out to be a complete brainbox, moving on to the Bisschoppelijk College in Weert. ‘The advice that I should go to grammar school came as quite a shock. It had never occurred to us.' It explained why Schaeken had been bored out of his mind at junior school, and some of the effects this has at that time: 'Young Jos was allowed to stand beside my desk because he simply couldn't sit still. A learned habit that he has never quite lost. 'If I'm giving a talk in Russia, where normally everything is done sitting down, they take it into account and give me enough space to wander around while talking,' he says self-deprecatingly.  

'Quite random'

Schaeken took his final school exams in 1980 and it was far from clear what he wanted to study. 'My parents had no strong preference, but they suggested that I was good at languages so maybe I could do something in that field.' Probably classical languages: in the Jezuit environment of his grammar school, studying Greek or Latin was considered highly prestigious.    

Schaeken knew he wanted to study a modern language, preferably a major world language. It could have been Arabic or Chinese, but in the end he chose Russian. 'It was quite a random choice,' he admits. It so happened that the Leiden professor of Slavic Literature Karel van het Reve, with his impressive essays, awakened Schaeken's interest: 'I read a lot of his work, and that must have contributed to my choice.' 

Schaeken's choice to study in Leiden was much more decisive, albeit not due to any deeply held conviction. 'It was largely a gut feeling. I had to look Leiden up on the map because I had no idea where it was, but I did know I wanted to study there.’ An inspiring talk by a lecturer during an open day in what was at the time the new Gorlaeus Building was the deciding factor. 'People would sometimes say that, because of all its languages, the sun never sets in Leiden. That vibrancy that that suggests is certainly something I have experienced here.'

Steep learning curve

Once he arrived at the university, Schaeken started his studies as a blank sheet: 'Yes, a real kind of tabula rasa. Minerva and all those other student associations were completely alien to me.' Finding a student room at Flanorpad in Leiden marked the start not only of his journey of discovery into academia but also into social life. 'Certain aspects of etiquette, things like eating with a knife and fork so to speak, were and are second nature here. Things were very different at home. But I learned to fit in and even had a girlfriend who was a member of Minerva.'  

Portrait of Jos Schaeken
'I am proud of my background; it's been my inspiration.'

'What say?'

Bit by bit Schaeken became more polished, and created a place for himself. Í occasionally said something like ''What say?'' and everyone would laugh uproariously. After that kind of experience, you find yourself watching everything you do and say.'  His study results were fortunately so good that he had time and energy over for this social journey of discovery. His studies went swimingly and he obtained his PhD at the young age of 24, followed by a four-year postdoctoral fellowship in Leiden and Los Angeles.


The pioneering spirit that Schaeken had to develop as a young student speaks volumes, and is palpable. Going to study in a place over two hundred kilometres away that  you've only heard of from books, that you have to look up on a map and where you have to build a social and academic life out of nothing are just part of it. And doing it so successfully. But, as Schaeken himself says, 'You need luck; chance has to be on your side. Hard as it is to accept, chance is still one of the parameters for success. We all need to stay open to that.'

Master-apprentice relationships

The determination to get everything possible out of what you are doing has been the key theme running through his study career, in spite of not knowing what he ultimately wanted to become: 'I wanted to maximise the opportunities.' When he is asked precisely what it was that made this determination, talent and coincidence come together so successfully, there is a silence while he takes time to reflect. When it comes, his answer is clear: ‘Master-apprentice relationships, without any doubt. That's what I would wish for all pioneers.' 

Spontaneous relationships with role models in education, who ask the right questions at the right moments. 'Questions to which you have absolutely no answer at that point in time, but that are nonetheless essential. The people who do that, without any pressure, set you thinking.' Schaeken has had several such mentors, from when he was at grammar school to university, where Professor Frits Kortlandt recognised his potential. He regards the conversations he had with these individuals as the catalyst for these success factors. 'At crucial decision-making times, the transition to secondary school, the study programme you choose, working for a PhD, being paid attention by a chance passer-by with an open mind who recognises your potential - that can make such a difference.' 

Freedom and stewardship

Studying has brought Schaeken above all freedom, something his parents never had, but he will always carry his background with him. 'Knowledge is freedom; freedom that is far from automatic in the world of the zinc factory. Everything you learn through studying, certainly as far as languages are concerned, helps you to discover the world better, to grasp it.' From his background he carries with him the importance of being useful and striving to achieve the maximum possible: 'I never had the feeling I missed anything during my childhood, but I never went on holiday until I was 18; there simply wasn't any money for holidays. It's important that my children also gain that perspective.' 

Stewardship in the academic world is for Schaeken absolutely essential; it is a way of sustaining knowledge transfer: 'It's what I do at the university by passing on my knowledge and creating an environment where students dare to be free and uninhibited. I am proud of my background; it's been my inspiration. Whatever you do, don't make your background into a problem.'

Text: Mohammed El Baroudi
Photos: Melissa Schriek

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