new tricks

Taking classes in your twilight years

Twenty-somethings are not the only people taking classes at the university. Amongst all the young folks are a few grey-haired students with life experience to spare. The UK spoke with three of these older students to see how it feels being the oldest student in class.
By Anne Floor Lanting / Photos by Pepijn van den Broeke / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

After a career in IT, Peter Huizenga (55) enrolled in the biology bachelor programme at age 49 because he was no longer enjoying his work.

Huizenga thought the fact that he was an older student would cause a stir, but he has been pleasantly surprised.

Marieke Creemer (51) signed up for the European languages and cultures bachelor in 2015 when it became difficult for her to find a new job as policy adviser with a background in biology.

Because Creemer has two teenagers at home, she knows a lot about the inner workings of her younger classmates. She never considers the age difference between her and her fellow students to be a hindrance.

Jons Straatman (70) ran a veterinary clinic in Groningen for years, and after retirement, he enrolled in the history bachelor programme.

He takes inspiration from being surrounded by young students, but does not socialise much with them outside of classes, with the exception of the trips organised by Middle and Eastern European studies.

Reading time: 6 minutes (1207 words)

Jons Straatman (70)

bachelor student of history

In his younger years, Jons Straatman studied veterinary medicine in Utrecht. For years he ran a veterinary clinic in Groningen with a former classmate, but after he retired, he felt it was time for some intellectual enrichment. ‘I’d always been interested in true stories and I read a lot. Over the years I had become increasingly interested, so I figured, why not do something with that?’, Straatman explains.

He started the history bachelor programme in September of 2010. ‘In contrast to the medical work I did, history gives me a broad social view. I wanted to know about the philosophy behind history and learn more about the larger underlying structures. The university is the right place for that.’

Straatman has achieved the enrichment he sought after, but there were also some disappointments. ‘Sometimes instructors talked to us as though we were little kids. I didn’t really care for that.’ He also disliked the stress he felt about taking exams. ‘I think I was a bit more relaxed about it in the past. Perhaps I get more nervous these days because I want to get at least an eight on my exams.’

Surrounded by twenty-somethings

In his first year at the RUG, the ambitious history student was in a special class with part-time students. ‘There were nine of us, and many of us were older than most of the instructors. Some instructors were clearly a bit uncomfortable with that at first.’

Because there were too few part-time students, the class was disbanded, and now Straatman is surrounded by twenty-somethings in class. ‘Interacting with young people is very inspiring to me. They can’t spell, but they’re pretty smart’, he says, laughing. And yet he barely socialises with his younger fellow students outside of class apart from during excursions organised by Middle and Eastern European studies (MEES). ‘I go on these excursions every year. I’m on a bus with approximately 25 other students. We spend a week together and get along really well. The age difference just doesn’t matter at all.’

Straatman is currently working on his bachelor thesis. When that is done, he will be taking a break. ‘After that, I want to do a master in the history of science with a focus on veterinary medicine.’

Marieke Creemer (51)

bachelor student European languages and cultures (ELC)

Marieke Creemer studied biology and worked as a policy adviser for various provinces and municipalities for 25 years after graduating. In 2015, her position was eliminated and there were no new opportunities for her on the horizon. A second, completely different career seemed like a viable option. ‘I’ve always loved Eastern Europe and German and Russian, so I enrolled in European languages and cultures. I picked German as my first language and Russian as my second. Considering my age and career perspectives, it seemed like the most practical choice.’

Creemer started her studies with an open mind, hoping for an intellectual challenge. ‘I’ve certainly been challenged and I’ve learned so much, which is great. I also really enjoy being able to lose myself in a subject and get to the bottom of things. In my work as a policy adviser, the political pressure was so high that everything had to be done quickly and the details didn’t matter’, the student says.

One of the guys

Creemer does miss having colleagues since she started studying. ‘I would’ve preferred to study and work part-time, but unfortunately, that was not in the cards.’ Yet she feels at home at the university. ‘I have two teenagers at home, so most of the time I know what my younger classmates are talking about’, she says. Creemer does not think the age difference between her and her fellow students is a problem in any way. ‘I really feel like one of the guys, although I don’t go drinking with them’, she says, laughing. She does like the fact that there is another older student in the programme with whom she inevitably spends a lot of time.

The people in her life mostly responded positively to the news that she was going back to university. ‘My husband jokes that he’s got two students at home. My oldest son has just started his first year in university.’ After getting a bachelor’s degree, Creemer wants to go back out into the working world. ‘I would love to combine my knowledge of German language and culture and my background in biology, perhaps in a job at the German nature conservation agency. I also hope the RUG branch in Papenburg launches a linguistic-cultural department because I think it would be a great opportunity for ELC students with German as their main language.’

Peter Huizenga (55)

master student molecular biology and biotechnology

After graduating from high school, Peter Huizenga studied economics before taking a job in IT. He worked in the field until he turned 49 and then decided it was time for something new. ‘I wasn’t enjoying my work anymore and I’d always had the desire to study chemistry or biology. So I figured I’d just go ahead and do it’, Huizenga says enthusiastically. He does admit that his position is one of luxury. ‘Information Technology is a field you can always return to: there are so many jobs, and they pay really well’, the student explains. He enrolled in the biology bachelor programme.

‘It all went really well. I immediately got good grades and I was very interested in the subject’, says Huizenga. But it was not a bed of roses. ‘It takes up an unfathomable amount of time. I had initially planned to work in IT one day in addition to my studies, but that proved impossible’, the biology student says.

Odd duck

At first he was alarmed by how young his fellow students were, but he quickly got used to his new situation. Initially, Huizenga thought his presence would cause a stir. ‘My age and looks made me an odd duck by definition. So when everyone started pointing that out, I needed a thick skin to deal with that. It was exciting, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m always included in the department’s activities and no one’s ever had a problem with me when we did group work.’

After five years, Huizenga is still enjoying being a student. ‘Working in the lab is never boring. Time just flies there. It’s so different from how I felt at my job. There, I would look at the clock at ten in morning and complain about how I still had a whole day to go. It’s such a difference.’

Huizenga is surprised there are so few other older students at the university. ‘When I hear people around me talking about how unsatisfied they are, especially in their work, I often wonder why they don’t do something different. But not everyone is in a position where they can afford it, of course.’ After finishing his master, Huizenga would ideally like to combine his former professional field of IT with biology.


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