Universiteit Leiden

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Fotografie: Pim Rusch

Ten years of International Studies: ‘During lectures I sometimes felt my brain was exploding with all the new insights.’

The bachelor's programme in International Studies is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Ko Voskuilen was among the very first batch of students to follow the study, and Sophia Healy graduated this summer. How do they look back on their time at the university?

At the Experience Day, I heard that an internationally oriented study would be starting with politics, economics and history, where you would also learn a language,' Ko says. I immediately thought: this is it. Because of that decision, he ended up in The Hague, where there was no campus to speak of at the time. The study was still very much in its infancy. Because everything was only just starting , I helped to think about the content of the study and setting up the study association. I was also involved in the opening of the building on the Schouwburgstraat,' Ko says. ‘All these unique experiences are one of the reasons why I stayed.’

There were some things that didn’t go according to plan in the first few years. The programme had not yet been completely fine-tuned, so that students sometimes had lectures on Karl Marx four times in one semester, and because there was not yet a suitable building on the campus for the hundreds of students that the study attracted from the outset, lectures were given in churches and theatres. There were no tables there, so the university gave us all a kind of board with a hole for your cup and a cushion underneath,’ Ko recalls. ‘You could then put your notebook and laptop on it. That thing was enormous and couldn’t be folded. Nobody ever took it with them.’

Ko in front of the Schouwburgstraat building

Malfunctioning microphone

For Sophia, Ko's experiences are hardly recognisable. When she opted for International Studies three years ago, it was a highly regarded study programme with excellent facilities. ‘At most, we had one occasion when Jeff Fynn-Paul's microphone malfunctioned and he mistook the sound for birds that had got into the lecture hall. While we were trying to explain it was just his microphone malfunctioning that was making the funny noise, he still kept looking around for the birds. That was really one of my favorite moments,’ the American student says laughing.

‘I also considered studying International Studies in the United States, but in the US a lot of International Studies programmes are focused on the US itself and looking at things from the lens of the US,’ she says. ‘I wanted to get outside that bubble and out of my comfort zone.’ She decided to come to The Hague and specialise in Europe. ‘The European politics class was amazing. Sometimes it felt like my brain was exploding, because I was gaining so many insights, also about the US, because the European and American systems were often compared. In the US people will criticise other political parties, but not necessarily the entire system as a whole. Now I was seeing the entire system for the fault it was. Painful? A bit, but in the end, it was more eye opening. I now see much better what power structures are and what they do.'

Sophia inside the Wijnhaven building

Critical approach

This academic year Sophia started a master's in Sustainability in Utrecht. ‘I would have liked to do more with that within International Studies. I wrote papers about it all the time, but it would have been nice to do more with it,' she says. Still, she is not dissatisfied with the preparation International Studies offered her for her master’s. ‘It taught me to take a critical view. I can no longer look at a subject without immediately thinking of three other possible approaches.’

This is something that Ko also recognises. As a policy officer at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Change, he is now also concerned with sustainability. ‘I once learned Spanish in a few months. That went so fast that it has all ebbed away now, but in International Studies you mainly teach yourself a process for conducting research and arriving at well-founded conclusions. That’s a skill I still use every day.’

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