28 November 2019

“I have always enjoyed the diversity of my job”

After eight years, Managing Director Bettina Nelemans is about to leave University College Utrecht to become the new Director of the Utrecht Summer School. She looks back at her time at the college and her long career at different institutes of Utrecht University.

bettina nelemans

If Bettina’s career should be put in just one word, that would be “international”. Once student of English Language and Literature at Utrecht University, she already went abroad for a year. “It was rather uncommon at the time, in the 1980s”, Bettina says. “The Erasmus Programme was not yet there, which made it not easy for students to go abroad. But for Dutch students of English, there were the Harting Scholarships that allowed 20 students per year to continue their studies in the United Kingdom and Ireland. That opportunity brought me to Bristol, where I took a Master’s programme in Medieval Studies.”

“After graduating I taught at a school in the Netherlands for a little while and then went to Indonesia via Voluntary Service Overseas, a British organisation, to coach local teachers of English. I lived in West Timor and West Papua, then called Irian Jaya, where I travelled to very remote areas on a motorbike.” Bettina’s temptation to stay longer cooled down when she spoke to seasoned development aid workers who had spent such a long time abroad that they felt they could no longer return to Europe anymore. “I didn’t want that to happen to me. Just think: I was 28 then and longed for going out with friends and seeing movies. Plus I missed my family and friends.” She took a job at the subtitling department of NOB, while also teaching individual courses at the language institute Babel in Utrecht.

It was through Babel that she met the director of the International Office of Utrecht University and was offered a job there.

“At the International Office, I was responsible for the cooperation of the University with universities in Europe and the United States. It was a great job, and I stayed for many years. I loved both the travelling and cooperation with partners. The collaborative spirit was very strong. Unfortunately, in 2004 the office had to close, as the Board of Directors felt that the goal of internationalisation had been reached and further international activities could be left to the faculties. I moved to the Academic Strategic Planning Office (O&O), and from there I went to the Utrecht School of Economics as Head of International Affairs, and finally to the James Boswell Institute that still was part of the University then.”

What made you apply at University College Utrecht after so many international and language-oriented jobs?

“I wanted to return to the core business of the university. It appealed to me to work with bachelor students and teachers. I knew University College from the days I worked in the Bestuursgebouw,  and I remembered especially the many discussions in the 1990s about whether it was a good idea to start a university college in the first place. Some people found it a risky business, as there were no guarantees that such an institute would succeed, but the Board of Directors was convinced of the endeavour.”

What did you appreciate about your job as Managing Director?

“Right from the start, I loved every minute of the job for its enormous diversity. I met so many different kinds of people from so many different offices and institutions, and I have been actually meeting new people all the time. I have always thoroughly enjoyed the variety, both internally and externally.”

Have there been any surprises?

“Even though this college is so small and we are at walking distance from each other, we still manage to send so many emails. The email traffic at the college is overwhelming. The danger is that if email is used not only for exchanging information but also for debating about all kinds of matters, things tend to get bigger on email than they actually are. Of course the overwhelming number of emails is also telling of how engaged people are in everything that happens here.”

Looking further, how do you think you will remember University College Utrecht over some years?

“First and foremost, I will remember the intensity with which life is lived here. Days are incredibly intense; people have strong opinions and want to be involved in everything. What also sticks out is the fragmented character of the Manager Director’s job. There is always a lot going on in one single day. That makes the job fascinating, but it can be exhausting too. At the moment I look forward to a month-long holiday before I step over to the Summer School: a month full of reflection, reading and cultural activities.”

That sounds like a warning to your successor.

“Well, no. Honestly, I have always enjoyed the many-sidedness of it all, and I guess one of the things I am good at is the ability to easily switch from one thing to the next, but it can be quite a lot indeed. It has always been very important for me to stay fit, as the job is so very hectic. But I must say, after eight years I am a bit tired and look forward to more focus in my work.”

What brought you to Utrecht Summer School?

Let me tell you a secret. Six years ago, Rob van der Vaart who was Dean here at the time asked me what I thought I would like to do in a number of years. I told him I was extremely happy with my job at the college, but should the current director of the Utrecht Summer School decide to leave, that would certainly be a job for me to consider. Well, in May this year he announced that he would retire, and his position became vacant. I thought that this was my chance.”

So you applied and got the job. It seems you are very consistent in your plans. What do you expect to find at the Summer School?

There are many similarities between University College Utrecht and the Utrecht Summer School. Both are international, both offer more than 200 courses and are small scale. But of course there are big differences as well. At the Summer School the office is very small, only two coordinators and me. From April to October, the team temporary expands with a number of temporary staff to assist with the course organisation. Next to that, I will start travelling again, abroad and within the university so as to involve faculties and programmes in the Summer School.”

“Utrecht Summer School, as it stands now, is already a very strong brand. It is the largest summer school in the Netherlands, and one of the largest in Europe. We may expand the course offer even further. For example, it is my intention to work with the lifelong learning people, to see if we can set up more summer courses for professionals. But the Summer School is also instrumental in stimulating further internationalisation at the university.”

You are leaving the college in an exciting time, in the midst of a reorganisation. If it were up to you, what kind of University College would you like to see here over a number of years?

At the Open Days last week, my temporary successor Martijn van der Weerd and I agreed both that the college is something to be proud of. Just look at the students and the many successful alumni we have. But I have also seen that the competition is increasing within the university, and elsewhere. There are more broad degree programmes than before, and more university colleges. The college has to stay innovative and keep a strong profile that is able to attract new generations of students. It certainly will need to distinguish itself from other programmes and university colleges. Sad though it is that it will have to leave the beautiful old campus over a number of years, the new campus will also be a chance for the college to reinvent itself. That is an opportunity the college has to embrace.”