CursorOnTour@CE&C | “I am used to responding to the pity that usually comes first”

A Limburger born and bred, student, graduate, chemist, theater-lover and theater-maker. Oh yes, and also: the guy without any legs, the one who is now scooting through Helix for the seventh year (and not the kind of person to sit still on a bench and have his picture taken by our photographer, as we found out). Meet Mike, with whom we are talking about expectations, risks, procrastination, tears and humor.

Mike was born over twenty-five years ago in Born in Limburg, without any legs. A medical condition that had no name, “because it's that rare. In the fifth week of the pregnancy, something went awry in the cell division in my mother's body.” His childhood was not always easy, especially at primary school. “Left to themselves, children are brutal; if you are different in some way, you're soon excluded.”

Added to which, his school teachers didn't always know how to deal with this pupil in his wheelchair who sometimes needed extra attention or particular facilities. “My mom still feels that I was treated as an oddity.” Mike ended up spending two years in special education: “That, by contrast, was too much of a cocoon. Teenagers are often busy making ambitious life plans but in that place any future expectations were really toned down. Some kids there probably weren't even going to make twenty due to their illness.”

I was raised in a very protective environment; here at TU/e I was suddenly thrown on my own resources

Chemical Engineering student

It wasn't until high school, the Trevianum in Sittard, that Mike felt at home. There was more guidance, he says, and above all, “More attention was paid to how pupils got on with each other, the group feeling. ‘You're one of us and you are useful.’” After doing senior general secondary education (havo), Mike did pre-university education (vwo) and university became a possibility. He chose Chemical Engineering at TU/e; in 2012 this Limburger started his Bachelor's here.

He spent the first year settling in. “I was raised in a very protective environment, when I got here I was suddenly thrown on my own resources.” What's more, he was the first student in a long time if not entirely to come study at the department in a wheelchair. So certain things had to be arranged, and adapted to suit his needs so that, for example, he could work safely in the labs. In a lab on floor four some changes have been made, including installing a fume cupboard at wheelchair height. “I'm a bit ambivalent about that; I create extra work for some people, but on the other hand certain skills are expected of students here. I'm keen to meet those expectations and to do that I have to be able to do certain things.”

During the first quartile everyone was finding their way, but since then his wheelchair hasn't been an issue, Mike tells us. He's now some six-and-a-half-years on from this and almost ready to graduate (in Kitty Nijmeijer's Membrane Materials and Processes group). After that he wants to work in the business sector. His time at TU/e is almost at an end; this seems like a good moment to invite Mike to join us in Cursor's Hot Seat.

What is the greatest risk you have ever taken?

“Coming here to study. First off I completed general secondary education, then I redid my secondary education in the stream that prepares you for university. I had to work pretty hard to complete that; was I up to TU's standard? Sometimes here, too, I've found studying a real challenge.

My decision to do this program was influenced by my high school chemistry teachers, they really inspired me, always explained things really well, showed me what was possible. I worked in a lab for the first time as part of my profile project (at Intertek in Geleen, ed.) and I really enjoyed the experience. Besides, everything is chemistry! It offers so many options and opportunities. You add things together and you can make something new, start puzzling things out, building.

Every course here has been a new challenge, but at the end of the first year I was nicely on track; I received a positive Binding Study Recommendation. And once I'd finished my Bachelor's, I thought, ‘There's no reason why I can't manage a Master's too.’

You can't always anticipate all the consequences, but I don't take risks often. I prefer to play it safe. My mom and I are both control freaks to some extent; we like to keep a firm grip on things. If that's not possible, it breeds tension. No, rash actions aren't our thing at all.”

What is your worst character trait or habit?

Mike doesn't need time to think it over. “Putting things off. Structuring is often a stumbling block for me. If I have a mountain of work, I often can't see the wood for the trees. And if I don't manage to get a handle on it, I back off. At times like that, it's easier to browse Facebook or go and do something else that's fun. Then I need a little push in the right direction from, say, my supervisor.

But there's no getting away from yourself. If you procrastinate you simply end up thinking, ‘If only I'd done that earlier’. But I have to say, I took the decision to tackle this head on, among other things by taking a course in planning and structuring. That's already proving fruitful, but if something like this doesn't come naturally, you always have to work at it.”

What is worse: failing or not trying?

“Failing is truly horrible, I feel. But I do also realize that if you don't give something a go, you'll never know if you could have made a success of it. So I think that not trying is actually worse. It's with good reason that people often say the things you regret are the things you didn't do. And it's not the end of the world if something goes wrong. I am jealous of people who can get over that more easily than I can - because at the end of the day, if you don't give up, you'll win eventually.”

When was the last time you cried?

“I think that was a few months ago when my girlfriend and I split up after three years and three months. I had just started my thesis work; wouldn't you just know it. You are sad for a while but then you pick yourself up and go on, with more time for new things.

When I parted ways with a theater company a few months back, on the other hand, I cried tears of joy. I had been their director and we had worked together for three years. The last production was a huge success, and got a lot of very enthusiastic reactions as well as good reviews in the media. Even though as a freelancer you come from outside the group, during a production like that you really feel you belong. When I left, I was given a photo album, and a thank-you was written on the last page. That moved me, for sure.”

What are you very proud of having achieved?

“Being really proud of myself is something I find difficult, but I am though. Proud that I achieved my 'vwo' diploma, that I am studying here, that the end of my Master's is in sight. No one ever expected that in the past; twenty years ago the attitude towards people with a disability was very different from what it is today.

And I am proud that I've been able to realize my dream to direct in some small degree. And I am proud of my friends, of having found people I really click with and who have been in my life since high school. We share the same sense of humor, a humor that maybe makes other people think, ‘They've got a screw loose.’ But we can be ourselves with each other. We never argue, behave very reasonably towards each other, never let anything come between us. 

I also try to be proud of my learning process and to appreciate what I have achieved. And yes, some element of that is a need to prove myself, even if it's only because people's expectations of me were once so low. But I am gradually losing that need to prove myself, you know. A colleague said to me recently, ‘Really, you can count yourself very lucky indeed’. She knows someone who has lost the use of one of his legs and has difficulty getting around. ‘You can still do everything,’ she said. A lot of people initially feel pity for me, and I'm actually used to assuming that's going to be the case and playing to it. With this colleague, I didn't need to do that.”

This article is part of the special CursorOnTour@CE&C series, with on-site reporting, this time from the department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry.

For our column The Hot Seat we ask students and employees to pull five cards from our top hat full of questions. One question may be exchanged. The next interview will appear in three weeks' time.

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