Daring to be strong from a position of vulnerability

Joint interview Bernadette Deitmers and Lara Hofstra

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Daring to be strong from a position of vulnerability

For Bernadette Deitmers and Lara Hofstra, this is the first time they meet. They hit it off right away. Both have a passion for helping others to achieve maximum personal growth, whoever they are, and whatever their background. Deitmers is a TU/e alumnus with her own successful coaching and training company, called Savvy Training, whilst Hofstra is TU/e’s Student Diversity Officer. They both agree that personal encounters have an inspiring effect, even if you cannot control everything. Such encounters enable growth, both personally and professionally.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

Heroes Past and Present

The theme of this lustrum year, which marks TU/e’s 65th anniversary, is ‘Heroes like you.’  In keeping with this theme, Cursor will publish a series of double interviews throughout the year with the motto ‘Heroes Past and Present.’ TU/e employees with proven track records, still working at the university or no longer under employment, are matched with their counterparts from today. In all possible fields: science, policy, or student life. This time we give the floor to alumnus Bernadette Deitmers en Student Diversity Officer Lara Hofstra.

Bernadette Deitmers began studying Industrial Engineering and Management in 1985 - a wonderful time that she remembers with great fondness. However, whilst her study programme had a relatively large number of female students compared to the more exact study programmes, such as Electrical Engineering and Mathematics and Computer Science, as a woman she was still in the minority. "Amongst the approximately 200 first-year students, only about twenty were girls. In those days it was still exceptional for girls to study at the TU/e. I often got the response: 'What, are you studying at the TU/e? You just wait, it won’t be long until you also have a boyfriend there.’ And indeed, I met my current husband at the TU/e,” she confesses with a broad smile.

The girls at the TU/e quickly learnt where to find each other. "This was partly because in those days, the TU/e still organised a so-called pre-intro for all first-year female students. Over a period of three days, in the week before the official intro, we came together to prepare ourselves for our time at the TU/e. With games and information about the university, but also with discussions about what it is like to be a woman in a men's world." Lara Hofstra laughs out loud when she hears this; she can hardly believe it. "Really?! That is truly remarkable, I have never heard of such a thing. It must have been a very different situation back then, because today our students would definitely not appreciate that - that would not fly well.”

Throughout the conversation, Hofstra often uses English terms and expressions. Being a daughter of expat parents, she lived abroad until she was seventeen, surrounded by 'internationals'. "Therefore, I have never truly felt at home anywhere. When I came back, I had to adapt a lot. That has made me very conscious of the fact that, as an outsider, you sometimes have put in a bit more effort in order to find your place, to feel at ease. That realisation has always stayed with me: what it is like to try and find your way as a loner, or a minority."

This is a theme that Deitmers recognises, also from her days as a student. In 1985, she was one of the founders of l'Attaque Attique, a women's student association in Industrial Engineering and Management that is still very much going strong after more than 35 years. "With all alumni taken together, we now have about 100 members. It is a wonderful group that still continues to grow each year." However, why did they found the collective in the first place - was it purely for fun, or was there another reason? Deitmers: "Of course, it was for fun and a nice feeling of group cohesion. We had a fantastic time together. The male students also really appreciated that we started this group. Actually, we only ever received positive reactions."

Yet there was also another reason for starting l'Attaque Attique. “Laying a foundation for a professional network of like-minded people for then but certainly also for the future. It was a dream of ours to after many years would have passed by, to still have an active dispute at the TU/e. And how cool is it that our dream has come true: l'Attaque Attique is still very much alive. In addition, we have started two years ago to strengthen the network of the alumni of l'Attaque Attique. Because we women do that far too little: build a solid network and make use of it. "

We women do that far too little: build a solid network and make use of it.

Bernadette Deitmers
Alumnus en founder of l’Attaque Attique

Despite the fact that she had wonderful times, Bernadette did miss good role models. She did not know anyone from an older generation who, as a woman, could balance a successful career with family life. "I'm sure they were there, but I didn't know them. At the time, we didn't have an alumni office that could, for example, put me in touch with such women. That is a pity, because it could have offered me an inspiring perspective. I now see that the current Alumni Office of the TU/e does indeed offer this. I think that is very positive, and I hope every student can have the opportunity to find a role model upon whom they might, at times, lean.”

Lara Hofstra soon discovered the power of personal encounters when she started working at the Student Sports Centre (SSC) at the TU/e fifteen years ago. First as a freelance sports instructor, and later as an employee, from the very beginning, she focussed on the international students. "Because of my background, I was able to put myself in their shoes. They often come to the sports centre, not just to do sports, but also to socialise. Especially as an international student, the chances of experiencing loneliness are higher. I introduced many new classes, such as salsa dancing, show dance, and acro-yoga, that serve as an ice breaker to really make contact with one another. Often, there is a great need for that. Students have many experiences and, whether significant or minor, it is important to be able to talk about these with others."

Last year, at the request of the students in the University Council, the new position of Student Diversity Officer was created at the TU/e. Lara Hofstra was quick to seize this opportunity, and now combines this responsibility with a part-time job at the Sports Centre. "The work is wonderful, but it is also very challenging. What started as a plan to pay more attention to minority groups at the TU/e, such as women, LHBTQ+ individuals, and students with different religious and cultural backgrounds, has now become much wider. Especially in the current Corona crisis, practically everyone is struggling to cope and therefore much more attention is being paid to the mental well-being of the students. This means I have to work much harder to lend an attentive ear to all these different people. This is especially important now, because in a way, a certain amount of guilt is imposed upon the students: as if they are the cause of all the sick elderly people, and therefore should not be allowed to do anything. That really eats at you. It is good that the TU/e is aware of this, and recently we had a good conversation with Robert-Jan Smits, chairman of the Executive Board, about this. But so much more still needs to be done!”

Deitmers sees many parallels between what is happening to the students right now, and her own observations in companies and organisations. In her current work, she supports ambitious professionals who want to grow further, but do not know how, or who get stuck in their work and are looking for new energy and new challenges. "Often, people are brought into a state of uncertainty, old structures they were used to are falling away or lose their meaning, and then these people have to reconsider: What gives me energy, what was my initial motivation? It can be very powerful to embrace this uncertainty, to recognise that you are vulnerable. From that position, which is actually very open and receptive, you can establish new contacts and tackle new challenges. That is precisely what makes you strong as a person - it is a senior leadership quality. If you approach it in this way, you can really inspire something in people.”

Hofstra adds enthusiastically: "Yes, that is it precisely! I also find it wonderful to see that the current generation of young students is so good at confronting this. They are open to diversity, to other opinions and customs. They know very well that life is not always easy, and really take each other into account. Inclusiveness, the idea that you are always allowed to belong, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or beliefs, is very important to them. What I do see sometimes, however, is how this generation differs from the older ones in this respect. Often, the students encounter old patterns, such as prejudices against women or other ingrained habits that are really no longer acceptable. But things are changing, we are doing well," Lara says hopefully.

She considers the involvement of the many associations in the student world to be extremely important. With some 150 associations, ranging from study, sports, and culture to the three student associations, everything depends on the willingness of students to organise something for others. Hofstra is worried about this. "On the one hand, the current boards are working overtime, they feel very responsible in this time of crisis and are working themselves to death. However, because students no longer get together on the field, in the hall, or in the social club, they lose sight of a lot of students. Loneliness is increasing, and the personal development of these young people is actually just on hold for an entire year. This means that next year, if we are allowed to have a more 'normal' student life again, we will actually have two first-year student populations, with twice the start-up and familiarisation problems that we normally encounter."

Because students no longer get together on the field, in the sports hall, or in the social club, the student associations lose sight of a lot of students.

Lara Hofstra
Student Diversity Officer at TU Eindhoven

According to Hofstra, it is crucial that students feel like they are truly seen. They must feel that they count, and that their ideas are being listened to. "First of all, I would like to say that I really notice that the TU/e pays a lot of attention to diversity and inclusion, and to the mental well-being of our students. However, more attention could be paid to the ideas of the students themselves when it comes to these subjects. For example, today's students experience a lot of study pressure, which is really different to when I was a student. In addition, the ways in which students communicate is changing, and we have to look at how we can better connect to the world of today's student generation. A personal approach, being addressed directly, using social media much more - there are many more ways to reach students better. In addition, more effort should be made to make the many activities organised by the associations visible. It is not that there should be more activities - there are in fact plenty - but how can you lower the threshold, allowing people to get in touch with each other through common interests? Unfortunately, the latter is still very difficult.” Personally, Hofstra would like to work with volunteers. “Currently, aided by a start-up subsidy from TU/e, Fontys, and Brainport Development, we are trying to match up students via a Buddy-finder app to engage in fun and meaningful activities together."

Deitmers is keen to provide some advice in this respect, drawing on her many years of experience as a personnel coach and trainer. "You should really find a way to get lots of students and staff members to volunteer in order to shape such a community. So, starting from the whole university, moving increasingly towards smaller groups, within faculties, departments, and perhaps even separate courses or professors. You can then scale up from there, so that it can have more impact."

Do women or minorities in the business community face similar issues as those confronted at the university, or are there different issues at stake? Deitmers: "If you look at the proportion of women, especially in high-potential companies such as consultancies or large multinationals, sometimes up to seventy percent of the new young employees are women. So that in itself is very positive. However, you do notice that the higher up you get in the organisation, the smaller that number becomes. Especially at the very top, which can only be reached after twenty to thirty years of hard graft, the majority are men. However, I find it difficult to pass judgement about that. In my view, everyone - both men and women - make their own, conscious decisions about their careers and how to combine these with family life. When they have children, women very often decide to take a step back in their work. For them, work alone is not everything. Whilst men also consider this, especially the youngest generation of fathers, it is primarily the women who want to free up more time for the family. Again, everyone has their own considerations. Each case is different, and each situation is unique.”

Deitmers does have some advice for women who want to climb the career ladder. "Men generally take a slightly different approach: They tend to see work, competition, and ambition more as a game, rather than as something personal. Dealing with it that way seems to enable them to handle the pressure and responsibilities well. In a way, women could learn from this, and engage in ‘the game’ a bit more. This is also explained in the management book Stratego for Women, which I often use to challenge my clients and help them move forward."

Hofstra diligently makes a note of this. This happened more often during the conversation, as the approaches of both women often seem to concur, complement each other regularly, and give each other many tips during their conversation. Not surprisingly, afterwards, they immediately connect via LinkedIn, and agree to talk further at a later moment. This encounter, between two professionals who had not previously met, led to new ideas, insights, and actions. This is something that they put into practice themselves and wish, wholeheartedly, to pass on to others.

The interviewees

Lara Hofstra was born in 1980 in Alkmaar. Shortly after her birth, she moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, at the age of 14, she left Saudi Arabia to attend boarding school in Switzerland, graduating with her International Baccalaureate diploma. In 2018, she began studing Leisure Sciences at the University of Tilburg, leaving two years later to follow her true passion at the Academy of Physical Education. Hofstra subsequently worked for eight years at the International School Eindhoven until, in 2012, she started a fulltime position at the Student Sports Centre Eindhoven, where she set up programmes for community building and internationalisation. Since 2020, she has been TU/e Student Diversity Officer.

Bernadette Deitmers was born and raised in the province of Brabant, where in 1990 she completed her studies in Industrial Engineering and Management at the TU/e. After graduating, she worked for 17 years in several management and training positions at Merck Sharp & Dohme. Since 2007, she has worked as an independent trainer and coach focused on workload reduction, management, leadership, collaboration & communication, and team development. In 2014, she co-founded Savvy Training, a training and coaching agency focused on challenging business professionals and teams to change, outdo, and improve themselves through the ‘Outsmarting’ approach. She is currently a partner at Savvy Training.

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