Eight associations started organizing discussion hours at the start of this academic year to proactively support student wellbeing. Former Van der Waals board member Mette Schouten and TU/e’s Diversity Officer Lara Hofstra are among the initiators. Students can openly discuss their problems eight times a year during discussion hours led by a mentor. For the most part, these meetings center around a specific theme in order to get the discussion going and to give it some structure. “This way, the meetings will end with a completed story, so that students don’t leave with too many loose ends left unresolved,” Schouten says.
“The main purpose of these meetings is to offer students the opportunity to support each other and to show them that they’re not the only ones suffering from stress or other problems. Also students who are not having any issues are welcome to join, actually, to gain insight into the subjects that are discussed, or to help out others” the student says. This is an easy way to get a discussion going, Hofstra adds. “It’s nice to hear each other’s stories and to realize that you’re in a similar situation. That takes away much loneliness.”
And that feeling of loneliness is high among students, particularly during the pandemic. Job Biemans knows what it feels like. He spent almost all his time in his student room last year studying for his pre-master’s program Operations Management and Logistics. “I didn’t know anyone and everything took place online, so I spent the entire day inside,” he says. “Suddenly, you have to study, eat, live and sleep in a twelve square meter room.” He had difficulty studying and couldn’t sleep. Eventually, he approached study association Industria for help. There, he heard about the discussion hours and decided to give it a try.
“The first meeting was about assertiveness. I needed some help with that. I wanted to study with other students, for example, but when I asked others in our group app whether they had that same need, no one replied. That’s why I was afraid to ask a second time.” There was still the option of studying at the university, but he had to ask the dean’s permission first. “I needed a boost to help me get over my fear of asking these kinds of things.”
Other participants in the meeting knew exactly what to do in his situation and offered him a variety of tips. For example, one participant advised Biemans to meet with students from different programs at a location away from home to study together. That way, his room would feel less like a place to study. “I followed every single advice. You forge a connection with the group and people share their thoughts and ideas. I believe that I should take up their advice.” As it turned out, it helped him tackle his problems.
Still, Biemans continued to struggle with his studies. “I thought that the teaching material was really interesting, but studying in times of corona sucked all the energy out of me. I also see it happening to friends of mine, they have a really low motivation. You’re completely left to your own devices.” It led to a serious study delay and a sense of loneliness that left him feeling unhappy. Together with the group, Biemans arrived at the conclusion that the best thing to do was to end his studies.
“We then thought hard about how I could still move forward in my career in a way that felt good to me. And since I had a bachelor’s degree in Mechatronics, I decided to go into industry.” Via TMC, Biemans managed to secure a job at his current employer ASML, where he feels happy. He has meetings every day and socially interacts with his colleagues on a daily basis, which makes him feel less lonely.
“Back when I was still studying, it felt as if I had failed, but that feeling is gone now. I know that I made the right decision. I probably would have ploughed on if it hadn’t been for those discussion hours. I might have graduated in the end, but I would have been unhappy. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll never take up studying again. Perhaps there will come a time for me to return to TU/e. It’s an option I don’t rule out.”
Fear of failure
Allard van Belois (21) was in the final stages of his bachelor’s program Applied Physics and Mathematics last year when he heard about the discussion hours. As a member of Van der Waals, he was invited by Schouten to attend the meetings. And since he was feeling out of sorts, he was definitely interested. “I felt very stressed about small things, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that bothered me.”
When Van Belois attended a meeting about procrastination and fear of failure, something clicked in his mind. “I had trouble getting things done. When I hadn’t done anything by the end of the day, I would feel guilty about it. I thought that I was lazy, but now I realize that my behavior was caused by my fear of not succeeding at something.”
The meetings made him realize that he suffered from fear of failure and stress. He talked about it with Schouten, who acted as their study association’s confidential advisor at the time. “She told me about TU/e’s student psychologists.” Van Belois thinks that he would eventually have made an appointment anyway, also without the discussion hours, “but I would have been far worse off. Now, I acted on time.”
At first, it felt as if he was fighting an invisible adversary in the mist, but now Van Belois has learned how to cope with the situation better. “If I didn’t do something I set out to do, I tell myself: It will be all right. At the same time, I make sure that it won’t happen next time. You do that by making things easier for yourself. I place my sports shoes by the door when I want to practice sports and I make lists of the things I need to do for my study. I make it clear to myself what it is I want to achieve.”
Van Belois is doing much better now. “I know myself well now, and I know how to make myself start working. The discussion hours certainly contributed to that. It was nice to have a place where you can openly discuss things without bothering anyone. I don’t find it easy to talk and share my thoughts, and you don’t just bring up your problems when you’re having a fun night out. During the discussion hours, the whole point is that you talk. You don’t solve your problems by attending those meetings, but they do help you piece together your own puzzle.”
Students who are interested in joining the discussion hours can turn to CHEOPS, GEWIS, Van der Waals, Industria, Japie, Intermate, Protagoras en Thor. On the websites of the study associations upcoming dates are announced.