Van Waarde (45) has degrees in chemistry and theology. He was appointed as Rotterdam’s student pastor last February. His conversational style betrays a background in the ministry: point by point and backed up with examples. “That makes it easier to talk.” Besides offering pastoral care on behalf of a number of churches in the region, for the past decade he has worked in a similar role in Leiden. He does very few sermons, but this doesn’t mean he doesn’t talk with people: in trainings and workshops, or one on one with students.
Since the start of the Covid crisis, Van Waarde has been part of the student welfare platform ‘Are You OK out there?’, where he bears responsibility for the pillar ‘spirituality’. Reviewing a study into the welfare of students and staff members during the pandemic, he couldn’t help noticing students didn’t score too well – even worse than the staff. This worries him. “Students’ horizons have become a lot smaller.”
Back to your parents’ village
“Working within student welfare, I noticed the low score in the ‘inspiration’ category,” says Van Waarde. “You can see decreased motivation and inspiration among many students. The big question is: why? I don’t think you can pin it all on the frustration and disappointment caused by Covid-19 – that will pass. It goes beyond that, as also becomes clear when you talk with students. Their horizons have become a lot smaller.”
Van Waarde’s take: since the crisis broke, there has been no long-awaited student exchange, no travelling around the world, no master programme abroad, no partying into the wee hours, or early morning get-togethers at the society hall, no casual chats in the campus corridors. “The life you were building is suddenly up-ended. I was talking with a girl who wanted to make a big trip, and she had to cancel her plans.”
“Now she has moved back to her parents’ village. And she’s worried that she’ll have to go for ‘safe’ choices: a steady job in this little village rather than a challenging career in the ‘unfurling, enriching world of the city’. The dream of making your way in the world, of developing as a person, falls apart. Your horizon contracts, as do your dreams and aspirations – and as a result your sources of inspiration in life. I think this is what students are currently dealing with.”
It has made the Covid crisis extra hard for students. “You need other people when you’re a student. You’re at a stage in your life when you aren’t settled yet – you’re still forming your identity. This takes shape over many casual contacts with your peers. That’s also why I’m worried about first-year students in the coming academic year: there’s no spontaneity in the new situation. When could they have a casual chat? It’s precisely these chance, unplanned encounters with people outside your own bubble that can really enrich your life.”
Why are students turning to you with these problems?
“My talks with students often revolve around who they are and who they would like to be. What drives you, what’s important to you in life? If you have an idea of what suits you, you are also more motivated to solve the problems that cross your path. Covid is forcing students to rediscover or reconsider these drivers – and I may be able to help.”
So in which respect do you differ from the student psychologist?
“It can be difficult to distinguish occasionally, but generally, I focus less on helping students with traumas or problems. I’m there when they’re dealing with questions like: how should I handle this? How should I structure my life at this point? That girl who was planning a big journey, for instance. Talking with her, I tried to help her identify values and beliefs that mean something to her, and what helps her lead a fulfilling life. Her parents had always taught her: work hard, achieve something. These conversations helped her to become milder.”
Critical and creative
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“In this process, I can start by asking a question. At a certain stage, I can also position myself in the discussion – more than a psychologist would, I guess. Why? As a pastor, you’re more used to presenting your own, personal choices as a human being. Not to set a standard, but as an experience that you have reflected on. I take a broader view: looking at society, what would we need?”
The university, for example. According to Van Waarde, many aspects are made subservient to teaching students how to work. But that isn’t how universities started out. “A degree programme has more to do with developing as a human being than with learning how to be productive. This means developing your capacity for critical reflection. And not just in your chosen field, but also as a citizen in the world at large.”
The balance is starting to shift in Rotterdam, according to the student pastor. “The present rector is putting a lot more emphasis on the students’ welfare and success as students rather than simple academic performance. But the higher education sector is primarily driven by funding and output rather than a desire to develop independent thinking. Even though a university should actually be about fostering people’s development into free, creative and critical thinkers in ten or fifteen years’ time.”
God, life and vitality
Is ‘God’ off limits in your conversations with students? So far, you haven’t mentioned Him once.
(Laughs) “Yes, that’s true – now that you mention it. It’s not that I avoid talking about God, it’s that it has become rather uncommon in our society. As has talking about spirituality – I prefer to say ‘inspiration’. It’s too easy to simply say ‘God – and that’s that’. A philosopher from Nijmegen once said: more often than not, the word ‘God’ presents a problem rather than an answer or a solution. Why? When you refer to God, you’re basically talking about what it means to live well; about what you want to focus on in life. There are many different people, who all have a different concept of God. It’s only after you’ve heard people talk about their life that you could discuss what they mean by ‘God’.”
What’s your personal relationship with God then?
A long pause. “I don’t know if this really suits the purpose of this interview… It’s a very personal story, and I’m not sure whether I can convey what it means to me in this context.”
At the same time, you just said: I’m less hesitant – than a student psychologist at least – to guide a conversation based on my own convictions. But isn’t it important for the other party to have an idea where you’re coming from?
“Certainly. That’s where it all starts. For me, God has to do with everything that inspires; the source of life and vitality. One time I was talking with a woman who worked in home care. All the paperwork was affecting her motivation. She had to take care of a mentally handicapped man whom no one else wanted to visit. He had poor hygiene and couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Little by little, she was able to gain his trust, and ultimately it turned out that he had a wonderful singing voice and could play the organ. Which he did, as a way to thank her.”
“It’s moments like that: a man like that lives on the side lines, in social and economic terms he has become a ‘cost item’. And still he manages to find quality of life. And precisely the person you’d least expect to actually gives you something. That’s where God comes in.”