It wasn’t an arbitrary decision to call Petri van de Vorst. We received an email from exchange student Eline van Leeuwen in which she wrote: ‘Could you perhaps pay tribute to Petri van de Vorst? She was my tower of strength when I had to fly back from New Zealand. Everything about the situation was bad, except for Petri, who was the only one to respond quickly and who lifted my spirits.’
Van de Vorst is exchange coordinator at TU/e’s International Office. She arranges the foreign travels of students, and she also helps them in case they need to return home unexpectedly. Lately she has been running one communications marathon after another. “Since embassies, airlines and travel agencies were less reachable than before, it was great for Eline, for example, that I could occasionally provide her with advice, and that I could think along with her in a ‘level-headed’ way,” she responds modestly to the compliment.
On Sunday evening March 15, upon the instruction of ESA director Patrick Groothuis, she sent out an urgent advice to all students residing abroad to return to the Netherlands. “On March 16, my mailbox had exploded. I got many concerned questions from students all around the world. Ranging from ‘do I need to come home?’ and ‘I’m safer here than in the Netherlands,’ to ‘I’ll take the first available flight back home.’ There were also many questions about the travel insurance, because it doesn’t cover the costs of repatriation in case of code orange. Fortunately, TU/e offered to reimburse travel expenses. I’ve been busy communicating with students all week, sometimes also with parents and supervisors. Within a few days, we managed to obtain an overview of the situation of all students, more than 170, residing abroad.”
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That exploded mailbox is located in her living room in De Veste in Brandevoort, Helmond. She had set up a workplace there at an earlier stage already, and her love for design is evident. “I have a vintage industrial steel desk from the sixties, with a linoleum top, and I sit on a nice plexiglas Philippe Starck chair; it might not seem like the most ergonomic combination, but mister Starck understood the verb 'sitting' quite well. I’m very comfortable here on my spot facing south and with the view from our balcony.”
A floor each
The house has four floors. “Very nice in these times, because I live here with my husband and two teenage daughters, and we each have our own floor now that we’re all home. My husband sits downstairs at the kitchen table and has meetings practically fulltime. My eldest 17-year old daughter, who suddenly passed her final pre-university education exams, is in her bedroom on the second floor, finishing school projects, and our 15-year old youngest daughter has the entire attic to herself. Fortunately, the girls are relatively independent.” She finds this setup ‘quite cozy actually,’ because the ground floor and the first floor are connected through an open space, “so you hear each other, but you’re not in each other’s way.”
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Van de Vorst has been closely monitoring the situation regarding corona since mid-January already. “When the situation in China started to get worse, we immediately tried to get in touch with the students who were residing there for an internship or exchange. Luckily, this took place near the end of the first semester. Most students who were in China at the time had finished their semester already and were on their way home. And because the second semester hadn’t started yet, the students who were supposed to travel to China had to cancel their exchange or internships. The students who had been in China returned home or hoped to go back soon. We had no idea at the time of what was still to come.”
But then the coronavirus came to Italy. “At first, it didn’t seem to affect the universities in northern Italy, where our students were, but it soon became clear that major cities like Milan were also cancelling education. These students were also urgently advised to return home. At first only the students who resided in the safety code areas orange/red, but a week later that advice also applied to students in the code yellow areas where it was still safe: Naples and Rome. We received notices from all universities in Italy that education was cancelled, even though some of these universities were hundreds of kilometers away from the epicenter of the virus. And then things happened fast..”
What she’ll remember from this crisis is that she saw how TU/e is genuinely concerned about its people. “It’s so great to see that everyone feels responsible for the students, it’s not about corporate processes now.” Fortunately, each of the students who wanted to return home managed to do so. Right now, Van de Vorst is working on the financial compensations for the students who returned urgently. “We have a system for that, but it requires a customized approach.”
And as if that weren’t enough, she is also busy in the meantime with the annual selection interviews for the VSBfonds scholarships, national consultation with fellow coordinators from other universities, monthly International Office consultation with twelve people - “via Skype, never had such a to the point meeting before” -, et cetera.
“Yes, I didn’t have one second to feel bored in the past period, in fact, I’ve worked more hours than I do during my usual four days. I was ‘on’ every single day. Except on my birthday, March the 31st, when I took an ‘afternoon off’ to bake a cake.”
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She is used to challenges, this exchange officer: “Problems have been accumulating since November 2019; it started with the Hong Kong riots (we had a few students there, and a few others were supposed to go there), the riots in Chile (less extensively covered in the Dutch media), the large forest fires in Australia and subsequently corona in China, Italy, the Netherlands, the world… I’ve never seen so many calamities occur in my twenty years working on internationalization. Of course I remember the earthquake in Japan, earthquakes in New Zealand, but the size of the current crisis…”
“We will manage, and we ourselves are healthy fortunately, but it’s quite a disappointment that small highlights can’t take place. In May, I was supposed to go to New York with my eldest daughter after her graduation. I also miss my colleagues and the cappuccino moments, and I’m very disappointed that a number of (international) meetings will not take place this year.”