ucg: one big family

Class of 2017

In 2014, University College Groningen opened its doors. A big adventure for the university and the new faculty, but especially for the new students. Now, three years later, the Class of 2017 is graduating. Who are they, what have they been through, and where are they going?
By Tim Bakker / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Three years after the start of the University College Groningen the first batch, the Class of 2017, is graduating.

UCG was off to a rough start in 2014. There were financially difficult periods and several teething problems.

The programme started with thirty-three students, of which twenty-six are left. Next year will see 150 first-year students.

The great thing about the University College? It is a great continuation of high school, and at the same time it prepares people for university.

‘Enthusiastic and committed, true pioneers’, Hans van Ees calls the first batch of students.

Reading time: 8 minutes (1,486 words)

A place where excellent and international students gain skills in Liberal Arts and Sciences. The University College Groningen (UCG) had been a long-held dream of the RUG Board of the Directors. In March 2014, one year after the project started under the leadership of dean Hans van Ees, the UCG was given the green light by the Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Committee (NVAO). ‘We then had to rapidly recruit students who could start that year’, Van Ees remembers.

There were thirty-three students, of which twenty-six are left. The university first met the Class of 2017 during the opening of the academic year at the Martini church in September 2014. The first batch of UCG students introduced themselves and their new faculty with a cool video and a scene using cardboard signs. Two of those students were Marieke van Beek and Akelei de Lange. Together with their classmates they also represented Janek Gulbis, who at the time was in bed with the flu.


The students got to know the staff members in addition to each other. Because there were no senior UCG students, they took care of the programme’s introduction period. Due in part to the small size of the programme, the bond between students and staff members only grew stronger over the next few years.

‘There were disagreements as well, of course’, says Janek. ‘But they were always there for us, weird as it sounds.’ That this bond goes beyond the time the students spend at the UCG is proved by the fact that several former staff members came back to Groningen to attend the project presentations, Van Ees concludes. ‘But we don’t get sentimental.’

The students themselves did get quite sentimental, and some even started a relationship with each other. The fact that UCG students are forced to live together in the Frascati building during the first year also contributed to that bond. ‘And after three years, you also know who to turn to for help with your studies. That also creates a good bond’, says Janek.

The UCG building at Hoendiepskade. (Photo by Traci White)

Since approximately a third (two-thirds by now) of the students are foreign, the working language at the UCG is English. That quickly stopped being a problem. What’s more: ‘There were times were it was just Dutch people, and we would still be speaking in English’, says Marieke.

Student life

To outsiders, it might sound as though they lived in one big, cosy UCG bubble, but she says that is not the case at all. ‘We lead a normal student life, and we’re members of all kinds of associations: sports, political, but also Vindicat or Albertus. I joined the rowing association Gyas, among others.’ It was all fodder for great stories for the yearbook the Class of 2017 made to remember their time, says Van Ees. ‘The students engaging in other activities in addition to studying is a good thing.’

Speaking of the study: What do people learn at a University College? What are those 150 new first-years signing up for? ‘I didn’t really know what to expect’, Akelei admits. ‘It just sounded good’, Janek says. ‘I liked the idea of flexibility and the opportunity to study my interests.’ The opportunity to choose did not come until the second year. In the first year, the students could choose from four themes, allowing them a little taste of the various academic disciplines.

It is a nice continuation of high school ‘that gets you used to a university level’, says Marieke. Akelei: ‘Many people want different things and have a hard time choosing. Here, you have the opportunity to do different things, but you’re also kind of forced to get a move on. It allows people to discover their talents. One of my classmates was studying engineering management, but after finishing his major in Health & Life Sciences, he’s going to do a master in food science in Wageningen. Someone else is combining psychology and business administration.’

Radical freedom to choose

The UCG students have their pick of five majors: Philosophy, Politics & Economics; Physics; Health & Life Sciences; Cognition & Behaviour; and Humanities. In addition, they take classes in general skills, do project work together, and they are strongly advised to go on exchange abroad for six months.

Taking a break

Akelei de Lange (22, on the right) moved to Groningen from Amsterdam to study biomedical sciences, but quit ‘because that’s mainly geared towards becoming a researcher’. At the more project-oriented UCG, she wrote her thesis on medical ethics. To this end, she lived in Wellington, New Zealand, for six months. After four years of studying, she will take a break for a year to do an internship, travel, and figure out her next step. She will definitely be returning to Amsterdam, ‘because it’s difficult to get started in a new city after your master’.

Marieke says these exchanges are not meant to be secret fun trips. ‘You have to pick which courses you want to take and how they dovetail with your major. Otherwise they won’t give you permission to go. There’s no room for ‘throw-away’ ECs.’ After all, University College is broad enough, the students think. ‘You really do need a master as a specialisation.’

In other words, as long as you have the arguments to back it up, you can do anything. That is the basic principle behind the University College, Van Ees explains: ‘The radical freedom to choose.’ While this is a noble objective, ‘the plans on paper cannot always be realised’. Giving thirty students the freedom to choose is not particularly cost-efficient. The first few years were difficult, financially speaking, but partly thanks to the faith the RUG Board of Directors, the project was allowed to continue.

True pioneers

‘We have discovered and learned a lot during those first few months, and the students have been a tremendous help in this’, Van Ees says, full of praise. ‘They were really enthusiastic and committed, true pioneers. We’re very grateful to them. Their ownership, the sense of being responsible for their own education, are characteristic of the values we want to propagate.’

That there were still some teething problems did not go unnoticed by the students. But all three feel it is only logical for a new project. And besides, they were always actively involved in the UCG development, for example by setting up a study association, sitting on a selection committee to hired new staff members, and brainstorming on how to set up a faculty council. ‘And so many things have been improved on the basis of our feedback’, says Akelei.

Small-scale appears to be the magic word at the UCG. For Van Ees, the challenge lies in maintaining that mindset now that the twenty graduates will be replaced by approximately 150 first-year students. Now, the third-years and the staff member were able to get together for a barbecue after the project presentations. ‘And that was a lot of fun’, Janek mumbles the next morning, barely awake.


Together with two other classes, they organised a ‘traditional’ trip to Schiermonnikoog. Next up, in late June, is the graduation week, which includes a gala and a closing ceremony involving the classic American cap and gown. To appease the people staying behind, it is not called a graduation ceremony. The students did one last favour for their faculty, although it was mostly for themselves: an alumni association. Because they want to stay in contact, no matter what the future may bring.

And that future will be different for everyone. Hans van Ees hopes the Class of 2020, which starts in September, will set foot on the new campus when they are still students. But the Class of 2017 also have different plans. Will they take another six months to finish a bachelor, take a break for a year, or go on to do a master straight away? But first, it is time for summer. After that, everyone has to get down to business.

The Class of 2017.



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