It was during the presentation of his bachelor’s thesis that Milio van de Kamp (31), a lecturer in Interdisciplinary Social Studies at the University of Amsterdam, recognised the significant discomfort and anxiety in his mother’s eyes. It was her first time at the university, and she had put on her Sunday best, which she had bought at the market. She sat at the back of the room, withdrawn into herself, and Van de Kamp soon saw that she was not able to follow his presentation in the slightest. “She didn’t need Marx to tell her she wasn’t part of the group of people in the room”, he writes in his book Misschien moet je iets lager mikken, which was published last month. “I felt that the gulf between us had never been greater.”

Behind closed doors

Parents of first-generation students sometimes find the university experience stressful because it is a world they are not familiar with, according to a series about the parents of first-generation students by Erasmus Magazine. However, they were able to offer their child a safe and secure home and support them in many ways during their time at university. Van de Kamp was on his own.

He grew up in a deprived neighbourhood of Amsterdam, where his violent father terrorised the family and where there was no gas, water and electricity because there was not enough money. His father moved in criminal circles, and his mother shuttled between welfare benefits and a cleaning job for years due to heart problems, until she started working long evenings and nights as a bartender.

The fact that the stories of parents and first-generation students who live or have lived in poverty often remain obscured – even to the media – is no coincidence. Van de Kamp believes there is a certain stigma attached to poverty, which leads to shame.

Parents of first generation students 1 – eerste generatie studenten_3000_Migle Alonderyte

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The hidden reality

Van de Kamp’s book offers a harrowing glimpse into the life of a first-generation student growing up in a shattered family shaped by what he calls ‘the harshness of intergenerational poverty’. A life that, like that of his parents and grandparents, is dominated by violence, spiralling debt, being systematically underestimated in schools and, as a result, depression and a significant sense of inferiority.

It is a hidden reality for more students, as he found out while working at the university when he began supporting first-generation students. “On the one hand, it gave me a sense of reassurance: I had always felt that I was the only one – and it was nice to see that there were more of us around”, he writes. “On the other hand, it was painful to see how many students were forced to break through the same barriers as me.”

Absence of support

Milio van de Kamp_3000_ Fjodor Buis – rechtenvrij KLEUR
Milio van de Kamp. Image credit: Fjodor Buis

Unlike the parents EM spoke to, Van de Kamp’s parents were unable to give him emotional support. Just before he started at his second secondary school, which was known as a ‘very weak vmbo school’, he succumbed to depression for the first time. “Bottling up your emotions is a form of self-protection for people in poverty and troubled families. When you’ve had so many setbacks in life, you have to keep emotions at bay as much as possible – otherwise you get overwhelmed”, he writes. He also didn’t want to bother his parents.

On top of that, when he was in school and in higher education, Van de Kamp was forced to figure everything out on his own without his parents’ help. Whereas many parents EM spoke to encouraged their children to work hard, Van Kamp had been forced to find every scrap of motivation from within himself: his parents would have already been satisfied with a secondary school diploma. His mother only had a mavo certificate (junior general secondary education), and his father had never finished secondary school.

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The social ladder

Although he does not remember exactly why, Van de Kamp decided that he wanted to go to university and become a psychologist. But his dream was crushed with just a few words. “Maybe you should aim a little lower”, a teacher at the secondary school told him.

Ten years later, he received his master’s degree in Sociology, despite all setbacks. Shortly after that, he became a lecturer at the university. Although he never received much support from his parents, they nevertheless were proud of him – as were all the parents EM spoke to. Even his father, who was involved to a minimal degree, was unable to conceal his pride when Van de Kamp phoned to tell him that he had got the job at the university. “I had climbed the social ladder and had made it to the top of the hill. For a moment, they shared in the upward social leap I’d made.”

Title: Misschien moet je iets lager mikken. Een verhaal over armoede en kansenongelijkheid.

Author: Milio van de Kamp.

Publisher: Atlas Contact.

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