“We keep saying to each other in the board that we’ve basically organised three Eurekaweeks”, says Sander Doude van Troostwijk, chairman of the 2020 Eurekaweek board. “The regular programme for Eurekaweek is great, and we had identified some opportunities to fine-tune it. For example, Monday afternoon and Wednesday evening both focus on introducing the students to the city. We wanted to do more with the digital options offered by our app. These ideas and plans had more or less been rounded off by early March. After this, we planned to flesh them out.”
Thursday 12 March, 7 p.m.
On 12 March, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte calls together a press conference to announce new measures for curbing the spread of the Covid-19 virus. “It turned out to be a bit more serious than we had assumed, so you start discussing your options. I remember saying, ‘Let’s prepare ourselves for what might happen so we won’t be taken unawares.’” The board started thinking about what else was possible. What could actually be done online? Could smaller groups be an option? “When you start on something like this, you commit to organising an event for 5,000 people. But would that still be feasible? From that point on, we started to work on multiple scenarios, side by side.”
The Eurekaweek board was allowed to return to campus fairly soon after the start of the lockdown – to the considerable relief of its chair. “Staff members were allowed to work in the Polak Building, and the Eurekaweek board also counts as staff. I remember that some people had it – and still have it – a lot worse than we did. So we were very grateful and happy that we could get together again for brainstorming. Have you ever tried to brainstorm via Zoom or Teams? It’s sluggish, but we had to make new plans.”
There were other perks to having an office on campus besides more effective brainstorming. You also sign up for a year on the board to make new friends, according to Doude van Troostwijk. And being stuck at home didn’t help. “You got out of bed, had breakfast, went over to your desk and flipped your laptop open. And when you closed it at the end of the day, that was the last you’d see of each other for the time being. We were colleagues, that’s it. We must have played every game available on Zoom, but I’m really more into seeing people in person.”
The board members’ own experiences with digital interaction – and how difficult it is to really bond this way – also informed their basic point of departure for Eurekaweek 2020: organise as many opportunities for offline encounters for the new students as possible under the circumstances. In mid-March, their focus lies elsewhere though. “In this period, we worked with a number of different scenarios. Anything seemed possible. In early April, I didn’t have those small dips yet, where you thought: ‘Oh shit, this changes everything!’ I remember one moment like it was yesterday, though: 21 April, a Tuesday, 7 p.m.”
Tuesday 21 April, 7 p.m.
“We were still at the office. The closer we got to Eurekaweek, the longer our work days had become. Of course, we knew that there would be another press conference about the Covid measures that evening, so we sat down to watch it together.” That evening, the government announced that it would be extending the ban on events that required a permit until 1 September – a week after Eurekaweek 2020, in other words. In a few seconds, many of the plans that the board had been working on for months could be thrown in the bin.
“In a situation like that, you don’t want to make any hasty decisions, but you can’t afford to do nothing. Although you do wonder: is this or that option necessary, overkill or wrong altogether? You need to get cracking – otherwise it may be too little, too late. What complicated things was that no one knows what the future will bring. At least, I don’t think so”, he adds with a smile.
In early May, Doude van Troostwijk watches back some clips of Eurekaweek 2019. It affects him more than he had expected. All those people having fun, the atmosphere – that’s what he was hoping to create too. “When do you get the opportunity to organise an event for 5,000 people? Me personally, probably never again.” It still isn’t clear whether Eurekaweek will be going ahead. But the board can now set to work on a new plan: a second version of the orientation week. “I said to the other eight board members: ‘This isn’t what you signed up for – including the extra pressure and stress. Feel free to bow out if you want to.’ They looked at me as if I had gone mad. I can’t express how proud I am of everyone. We’ve really done it as a team.”
Eurekaweek as we all know it won’t be going ahead. So where to from now? “We work with three pillars: becoming better acquainted with each other, the city and the university. That has always been our point of reference. Bringing thousands of first-year students together in one spot was out of the question. Our plan was to arrange 160 separate locations across the city that groups could visit one after the other.” It promised to be the most physical freshers’ week in the Netherlands, and Rector Magnificus Rutger Engels was highly supportive of this plan, remembers Doude van Troostwijk. “The university’s support was very important to us – as shown by both Rutger and Joop (Matthijsse, head of Student Affairs). We had only been part of staff for a few months at that point, and were still given that much confidence. They said: ‘Develop a plan for us. We’ll be happy to think along.’ That’s exactly what we needed to hear for a plan as ambitious as that.”
Wednesday 5 August, the push message of 9:19 p.m.
The board were sitting around a big table, having a few drinks. They had just finished testing Identity Crisis, an interactive game on your tablet in which you followed different instructions that had been devised especially for Eurekaweek. “Then the RTL Nieuws push message came in. I don’t remember who saw it first, but what he or she said doesn’t bear repeating. It came down to: ‘Well, this is a bit of a disappointment.’ And that’s putting it very politely.” RTL’s headline? ‘Cabinet wants to scrap student orientation weeks.’ Back to square one again.
‘Cabinet wants to cancel introduction weeks entirely’
Premier Mark Rutte will announce on Thursday that the introductory weeks at universities…
“I got more phone calls than ever. It was chaos, but at the same time I didn’t have anything to tell people yet. A bizarre experience.” On Thursday 6 August, the story gained a new twist: the freshers’ weeks would probably be going ahead, but under specific conditions. This was confirmed that evening by the government. “We had had nine months to set up the first version of Eurekaweek 2020, four months for version two, and not even three weeks for version three. We submitted a new plan in the early afternoon of Friday 7 August. We then discussed it with Rutger and Mayor Aboutaleb. They greenlighted it: ‘Based on our current knowledge, this is feasible,’ is what we were told. We spent the entire weekend working out the details. We had 60 to 70-hour working weeks. We were consulting with city management, the police, the fire department and a host of other agencies besides. They all cleared time in their agendas for us.”
Seven days before the start of the orientation week, the team were still working overtime to get everything on the rails. “One of our board members had been keeping track of the number of days until the start of Eurekaweek. ‘Fifty days left’; ‘twenty days left’. And while we were still up to our heads in everything that needed to be arranged, he called ‘seven days left’. Well, I really felt the pinch at that point. Over the past few months, I often thought back to what one of the previous chairs had said: ‘Whether you’re ready or not, Eurekaweek will be going ahead’. So even when you haven’t tied up every loose end, it will start when it starts. And that’s what happened.”
Sunday 16 August, 8 p.m. Eurekaweek starts
“All those months we were working, we knew we’d never experience something like this again. We learned so much, and made so many jokes about how we would have to update our CVs. ‘Flexible’, ‘crisis management’, ‘thinking up creative solutions’, and so on. We have more than enough material for job interviews, that’s for sure. We had some real highs when we were preparing the week, but also one disappointment after the other. Fortunately we were all working towards more or less the same goals throughout.”
The start of the week was exciting enough as it is, and only made tenser by the Covid crisis. But according to the Eurekaweek chair, the week was absolutely a responsible affair. “Of course, there was a risk of people becoming infected, but you’re also taking a risk when you go out to get your groceries. We’ve spoken with so many experts, and been given a mass of information and recommendations. And all these parties have approved our plans.” Before the week starts, Doude van Troostwijk can once again be found sitting around the table with ‘Mr Aboutaleb’, during a meeting that is also attended by the board members of the various student associations. “At the time, the Mayor was primarily interested in talking with the associations. But this allowed us to learn a lot from the associations’ experiences in the months running up to Eurekaweek. How to anticipate the different reactions among students, for example.Of course, we were still confronted with several ‘last minute’ challenges, like a pair of guides who ultimately didn’t feel comfortable about taking a load of students in tow due to Covid. Which we naturally understood. The guides withdrew and we looked for replacements.”
Eurekaweek kicked off on Sunday 16 Augustus. Early in the morning for the board and crew, and at 8 in the evening for everyone else. The stands for the campus information booths were set up, the vans for transporting students to the different locations were assigned. The first batch of one thousand students arrived on Monday, with groups being rotated between three different programme items. “During the week, we probably got to get more rest and sleep than any board before. We didn’t have an evening programme, and every day followed the same schedule.” While Day One was spent rushing around to get everything up and running, by Day Four, the board members even had time to actually chat with a lot of people. “On the second day, you could already see the same questions coming up time and again. So after a while, you knew the answer to most things. Everyone from the staff to the first-year students was very appreciative of the fact that we had also organised a physical programme. It brought the campus back to life. I do feel like there’s this big weight off my shoulders now. Everything we fought for has been rounded off now.”
See below photos of the Eurekaweek board during the week.
It was in the evenings – during the broadcasts of the Eureka Live talk show – that Doude van Troostwijk could see just how big an event Eurekaweek still was. “That’s when everything came together. You could see the pictures people had sent in, and we had some really cool speakers too. One of our former prime ministers, for instance. You know what my strongest memory is of the 2019 edition? Those moments throughout the week when you could see the board members looking at each other with this proud look on their faces: ‘Shit, we did this!’ I would have liked to have had a moment like that, but since we didn’t get to see 5,000 people all together in one place, it wasn’t meant to be. But when first-year students come over to thank you, it feels really cool too. And that’s what you were really doing it for of course.”
And what’s next? Well, first Doude van Troostwijk will be continuing with his master programme in Accounting and Financial Management. The lectures – both online and on campus – have already started again. And in the months ahead, the board will be rounding off any unfinished business. They’ll be getting the accounts in order, discussing the evaluations submitted by the first-year students and – as is customary – the chair will be going in search of a new board. “And after that, let’s wait and see whether I fall into that big black hole that every former board member seems to talk about.”