Karen Ali began working at TU/e thirty years ago and started as a staff member just after rector Jack van Lint had been appointed. She says that Van Lint was a wise and erudite man, and she was tasked with developing the university’s internationalization policy, among other things. Her decision to work at TU/e was partly based on the fact that she could work close to home, and that she saw opportunities to develop herself. “I was ambitious, but I also wanted to be a good mother for my children, and it seemed to me that TU/e was the place where I could optimally combine these two things.”
Six years later, she took a major step in her career: she became director of the Student Service Center, widely known to everyone within the university at the time as STU. Her main task was to merge several individual departments that had been grouped together within the Student Affairs service, into a “professional, student-orientated organization,” as she describes it.
“It was my job to unify a large group of small islands - think of the central student administration, the student counselors, the student psychologists, Studium Generale and the Student Sports Center. It took some persuasion, because many of these groups were used to steering their own course. It didn’t happen without a struggle. Sometimes, I was the one who had to communicate a rather unpleasant message, which didn’t always go over very well. Most people eventually started to understand it and realized that we had to handle things more professionally. The most important thing, however, was that we started to see an upward trend in students’ appreciation, and that earned me the Executive Board’s support.”
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Ali says that Henk de Wilt, who was board president at the time, went out of his way during the first year of her appointment not to interfere with her work, and that he gave her time to get things done. “This meant, for example, that our student psychologists had to adopt a more solution-orientated approach, and that they started to become more focused on the needs of the students. And that student counselors were more attentive to the student’s specific situation. Didn’t the career advisors offer more than just a few possibilities for students to continue to develop themselves? At the time, career guidance was usually limited to writing a letter of application, or preparation for the first job interview.”
Piazza and Bijenkorf
The departments also welcomed the new approach, Ali says. “They were happy that they were no longer sent back and forth. We worked towards one, central service desk at STU to which they could address their questions. That really never had been done before at TU/e, and it was inspired by a visit to TU Delft, where they already had some positive experiences with this approach. At the time, I would regularly visit other places, with people from STU as well as from Real Estate, to see how they had organized certain things and whether we could learn something from that.”
The biannual Magical Mystery Tour, during which administrators would visit Maastricht or Rotterdam for a day with a large group of students, allowed Ali to find out to what extent that group appreciated her service. “Using a metaphor, I tried to explain to them how exactly STU was structured and what we were aiming for. I would tell them: ‘Don’t think of STU as the Piazza, a large shopping center with many individual stores that have nothing in common, but as a Bijenkorf with different departments and possibilities, conceived from an integral approach, vision and with the same service orientation.” The student community regularly provided her with feedback through meetings with the Student Advisory Body (SAO), the education committees of the study associations and the department boards, Ali says. “My starting point was always that we needed to take every complaint seriously, and that we had to pass this on to the Executive Board. Because these complaints often exposed much of the underlying problem. That is why I basically thought of every complaint as a gift.”
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Internationalization was also among the tasks assigned to STU, and it became an increasingly important topic over the years. “When I started in 1997, we were still in the very early stages of that development, but in 2005, rector Rutger van Santen had already started a very close collaboration with the Northeastern University (NEU) in the Chinese city of Shenyang, with a population of millions. Our bachelor’s program Biomedical Engineering was eventually introduced at that institution. I was closely involved with that exchange and it took quite a lot of administrative work.”
There was much that had to be done, Ali says, including in the area of legislation. “I had the Executive Board’s mandate to go to China to lead the negotiations. I was honored, but I was very anxious as well. This was uncharted territory for the university, but I really clicked with my female counterpart at NEU. I think that my non-Dutch cultural background – I grew up in Suriname – played an important role. China is an impressive country, with a rich culture and history. I already knew quite a lot about these facets because I had come into contact with Suriname’s large Chinese community at an early age. As a result, I felt at home with the country and the way in which the Chinese conduct business. It gives you more sensitivity and respect for diversity, you sense that in one another, and that led to a chemistry that worked very well. We stayed in touch for a long time afterwards.”
Industry’s call for more engineers accelerated the tempo in which internationalization became increasingly important at TU/e, Ali says. “At the time, the domestic market for our student intake didn’t produce enough graduates for large companies in the region, such as ASML. It became our task to start recruiting abroad. We also introduced a grant system to make things more attractive for international students.”
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Language and accommodation
The arrival of more internationals had a significant impact on the university as well as on STU. “Language and accommodation issues became important. I always advised students from abroad to learn Dutch fast. I sympathized with international students, because I used to be one myself. I came to the Netherlands after I graduated from high school to study at the university here, and I still remember how overwhelming that first encounter with a new country and a new culture can be at that age. I wanted to be able to help those students in some way. They regularly sent me kind messages, such as ‘you are my mom here,’ or ‘I wanted to let you know that I obtained my PhD, you selected me at the time.’ That’s heartwarming.”
The student accommodation problem took the university somewhat by surprise, Ali says. “That wasn’t necessarily our first concern. We sometimes had to temporarily accommodate students on a campsite in Mierlo. In 2005, we finally managed to create housing units for internationals on the campus grounds, the so-called space boxes from Vestide. It provided students with a roof over their heads, but that led to another problem: loneliness and isolation. Our student psychologists and the head of security at the time, Mirjam Jahnke, were particularly active in addressing that problem. I would like to specifically mention Mirjam, because people didn’t realize back then just how much time and energy she devoted to this. Because we all know that things can end badly for foreign students or PhD candidates who feel out of sorts. Loneliness can turn into depression, and we’ve sadly had students, both foreign and Dutch, over the years who committed suicide. The loss of someone that young always affected me, as did their family’s pain. Fortunately, loneliness among young people is gaining increasing recognition in society these last few years, and it has become more topical than ever during the current COVID pandemic.”
It became clear to Ali that the university should have a meeting space for internationals, “and so we started setting up a buddy system in which a Dutch student helped an international student find his or her way within our university and in Eindhoven.”
The introduction of the Bachelor College in 2012 was a major dossier, Ali says, “one that required much capacity and at the same time caused much pressure. I think that we failed to appreciate back then just how much it put the entire institution under pressure. Also, we didn’t always ask ourselves whether management listened to people’s feelings sufficiently. Perhaps the administrative bodies just couldn’t fully oversee the situation. My colleagues and I, however, were tasked with making sure that the transition ran smoothly. That puts someone in a managerial position in a tough spot, when there’s so much pressure. But the students were always at the center for me during the entire operation.”
There were quite a few stories going around within the university at the time about her leadership style: she wants to read everything, nothing gets passed her desk, she’s too much of a perfectionist. She has heard the stories. “It was difficult for me to find my own style of leadership. I had been one of the few women in a position of leadership for a long time, and I certainly have a perfectionistic attitude. I expected the same from the people who worked for me. And yes, that sometimes leads to friction or incomprehension, or an incorrect perception. On the other hand, people also regularly told me that I didn’t lose sight of the person: a gift certificate for their birthday, people who felt that I was warm and most of all compassionate when they were going through a rough time at home. Still, there’s definitely a great deal of truth to those stories, but that perfectionistic attitude did help me get things done. It was always important to me to maintain a close relationship with the staff at STU. And I certainly didn’t manage to do so with everyone. But more often than you might think. My time at STU resulted in many warm, lifelong friendships.”
“Looking back at that period, I don’t believe that there’s much I would have done differently with regard to the content of the work. I’m glad that I got much done and that I managed to solve many problems during those thirty years, but it also took a lot of sacrifices. The Executive Board could call me up in the middle of the night, so to speak, to ask me if I could tackle something.” That was certainly true for then rector Hans van Duijn, who always knew where to find her when there was a problem that needed to be solved. “Hans and I faced many challenges together. I always devoted much energy into the search for solutions during those years. I think of my career as the weather: sometimes the sun is shining radiantly, but before you know it, you’re caught in a hailstorm.”
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Quite a shock
She was caught in that hailstorm in late 2015. She had to make room at STU for a new director, and the Executive Board informed the TU/e community of that news in a rather brusque manner. “Admittedly, that came as quite a shock, but I also received wide support at the time from many sides. Not just from within the service and the university, but also from people who worked elsewhere but with whom I had worked closely together in the past. And there was more support than you think.” That’s all she wants to say about that period.
In September 2016, she started to work as director of the Eindhoven University Fund and the Alumni Office. A new job, in which she could once again serve others. And once again, she was committed to accommodate the needs of a group, only not students this time, but alumni. “I develop a relationship with our alumni, such as Shell top manager Marjan van Loon for example, and I ask them what the university meant to them, both personally and professionally, and how they view their connection with the university. It’s not necessarily about asking people for donations, although we’ve become increasingly successful at fundraising over the last couple of years, but more about getting them to return to the place that meant so much to them. Building a relationship like that takes time, and we need to invest in that. We often see that people feel appreciated simply because we reach out to them. Because many alumni feel somewhat neglected by their alma mater in that regard. And yet, they always look back on their time at TU/e with warm feelings, and they’re very interested to hear how their former fellow students are doing. One of the things they immediately ask, is: ‘Tell us what we can do for you.’ To me, that’s a clear sign of gratitude from alumni who find their way back to our university and who make this known to us.”
Her successor will have plenty of opportunities to expand these alumni activities, Ali believes. “In the end, our alumni are TU/e’s standard bearers to the outside world. Their donations allow us to financially support several projects in a variety of areas. Companies too, such as DAF recently, have found their way to the University Fund increasingly often. What’s also great is that so many of our alumni want to engrave their names in the glass of Alumni Avenue, the walkway between MetaForum and Matrix. There’s hardly any space left.” A striking example, Ali says, is the story of the alumnus whose last wish was to engrave his name, after which the university opened the walkway especially for him during the COVID pandemic. There are more than enough projects in the pipeline, she says, “but you continuously need to explore new territory and maintain contact with your network and contacts.”
She already said her goodbyes to the university in small groups during the past weeks, but she will stop working permanently on Wednesday 15 December. She decided against a large farewell ceremony. “I did the things that had to be done in good conscience and managed to do my work with passion and satisfaction. I cherish the warm contacts of my time here, and I leave the university after thirty years with my head proudly held high.”