Ik Student
Universiteit Amsterdam

‘I had to succeed, I thought’


‘It frustrated me enormously that I was playing Tetris all day, despite all my talents. But that was my syndrome: you have great wishes and desires, but in reality nothing much happens and you’re inactive. I had come to a complete standstill as far as organising things for me and taking care of myself were concerned. Throughout the whole year I was overtaken by events.’

Four years of school

‘In my family it’s the norm that you go to secondary school first and then go on to university. You don’t go there for four years of active study, it’s simply another four years of school. Student life as a part of the whole studying experience, completely passed me by.’


‘I had a part time job setting up the tables and chairs in exam rooms. I got up at five o’clock in the morning to do that. At half past seven the students would come in one by one. Twice I had to set up for an exam that I was supposed to have taken myself. Even then I had the twisted idea that I wasn’t doing too badly.’

He was very good at presenting himself to others as being successful, bold and slick. But in the meantime Jason (28) was ‘severely depressed’ and lonely. And his studies weren’t going well at all. Right now he’s got through the roughest times and he has a new self-image.

Jason came to Amsterdam at the age of eighteen, to study economics. ‘I had this image of myself as the slick economist. At first everything went smoothly: I found digs immediately and all was fine and fun in my study groups. I didn’t join a students’ union. If people went out for drinks after the study group, I didn’t join them, I thought that was nonsense. I didn’t go home at the weekends, so as I result, I spent a lot of time in my room on my own.
In secondary school I had also been the only one who never went to school parties. I pretended they weren’t interesting. I had that same attitude at university and everyone thought: “When that guy gets home, he is going to do really cool things.” I didn’t mind them thinking that and I even kept up that image. There was a certain arrogance to that. At the end of the day I was at home, alone.’

A break-up
Halfway through the first year Jason found himself a girlfriend. ‘She was enrolled in the same course as I was and she was very hardworking. That kept me going: I passed all my exams and even took on extra subjects. Then we broke up. I had never experienced a break up before, because this had been my first proper relationship. Girls always think that boys get over break-ups very easily and are back down the pub the next evening. That wasn’t the case with me at all.’ Jason knew almost everyone through his girlfriend and he and she were in the same study group. That became awkward. ‘I did not have a boys’ night out. I didn’t sign up for study groups and lectures anymore. I just quit. That was the breaking point. That’s when I noticed it was all getting on top of me.’

Mohammed Ali
‘Right after the break-up I got it into my head that I had to be an absolute success on all fronts. I took up running and football fanatically. I also decided I had to be a well read student. And my grades had to go up. I wrote down many motto’s by Mohammed Ali in order to motivate me. I also started making to-do lists. But I didn’t do any of the things on the lists.’ At the time Jason slept badly. ‘Days, nights and weeks just became one big blur. That was a dark period. I was severely depressed and lonely. I got up at one o’clock in the morning, looked up the record for Tetris on the internet and set out to break that record. Being more clever at procrastinating studying, than at studying itself, is a strange phenomenon.’

Tough talk
No matter how bad things were, he upheld the image of successful slick student. ‘At parties or at my parents’ house I would always look smart and talk the tough talk. That kept me going for a long time. It really was a double role. People thought I was successful, fun to be around and witty. It was easy to keep this image going. Even when I didn’t try hard and I sat moping in a corner, others would think: ‘he’s the mysterious type’. Girls like that and I always had girlfriends until they found out that on the inside I was dark and sombre. Because I am so open and can talk about things with humour, people find it hard to gauge when I’m joking and when I’m not. It literally took years for me to talk about my problems.’

From 2001 to 2006 Jason only passed one exam a year. In the end his mother phoned a psychologist. ‘Otherwise it would have taken quite a while longer, because helping myself was at the bottom of my list of priorities. The psychologist I met with was a very kind man. He had a very friendly voice. It felt good to admit to him that I wasn’t doing well at all. I told him everything: about being lonely and about how the things I wanted to do, were miles apart from the things I actually did. Those first nine months were very intense and soothing, but they didn’t make me study any better or live my life any differently. The psychologist felt I wasn’t making any headway either. I was always late for my appointments.’

Actually left wing
The change was gradual. He met a new girlfriend. Jason: ‘That gave me a tremendous boost. The feeling of unhappiness slowly subsided. I slowly picked up a better routine. I’m through the worst of it now. I’ve almost finished my thesis.’ Organising things for his studies remains painful. ‘For a long time I convinced myself it was a learning curve. Study wise it has been a complete waste of time. For some things it’s too little too late now. But on a personal level it was good to break through that image of the slick and quick witted guy. It turns out I am left wing and green. I always thought I was conservative, but it’s actually the opposite. These are things you simply don’t know about yourself when you’re eighteen. I’ve given myself the space and opportunity to find out.’

Bob’s story: ‘Sweaty palms and fear of making a fool of myself’
Jason’s story: ‘I thought I had to be a resounding success’
Marla’s story: ‘I find it harder to concentrate than other students do.’
Michael’s story: ‘And then my student grant ran out.’

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