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From Student to Staff:

Interview with Tessa Obbens, Coordinator of Studies

It is freezing outside when I knock on Tessa Obbens’ door. It is open, as always, and after she offers me a cup of tea, I start on my list of questions. There are a lot of them as I am curious to know what it is like not only having been a student here in Leiden, but now being a part of staff as well.

“What type of student were you?”
“I’d say I was just your average student in my first year, it wasn’t until the second year that I became more motivated and started to get a lot more involved. I spent a larger part of my time in the library, and you can really see my grades improving, but I also joined Albion. My favourite courses were in the second year, which is when my love for linguistics was born, especially phonology. I also really liked the literature course on the Romantics and Victorians, although that had to do more with the lectures than the course itself!”

As we start talking about how we both enjoy courses like linguistics more than some other courses, and that the logical side of language which has either a right or a wrong answer can be really refreshing in a language programme like this, Tessa tells me she actually is more of a beta person, and even did the NG (Nature and Health) profile in secondary school. It wasn’t all just books and lectures though, it turns out.

“I know you were quite an active member of Albion, what else did you do as extracurricular activities?”
“I joined Albion in my second year, and was part of the very first Party Squad. I also was part of the group that founded the Angler, and was on that board for a while, as treasurer.”

As Tessa continues to list her activities, I have trouble keeping up, “I also did the make-up for LEF for a while, I was on the board of the English Department as a student-member, as well as on the Faculty Council, I was an EL CID mentor, as well as being a mentor here at the department for three years. One of those years was together with Thijs (Porck, ed.), who was in my mentor group when we were in our first year. I even joined a Student Association; Quintus. I was a member for two years and was on the board of my dispuut1."

It sounds like she really got everything out of her years as a student here. But what made her choose English in Leiden in the first place?
“I went to school in Utrecht, and wanted to go to university somewhere else. Amsterdam didn’t sound like it was for me, so Leiden it was. Still in the Randstad, but small, and not too far away. I originally studied law, but it took only about three months before I quit that. I then chose English, because I loved reading and watched a lot of BBC, which might not be the best preparation to make that choice! I never went to open days, but I wanted to study a language, other than Dutch, and this was a beautiful one.”

“Was it what you expected?”
“No. It was a lot more fun!”

Can you recall anything that really stood out as a memory from your time as a student?
This one seems difficult to answer, and she takes a while to do so. “I don’t think there’s one specific moment. It’s the fun with the other students, also during lectures, my time at Albion, getting to study what I enjoyed most during my MA, the nights at Camino (now De Koets, ed.) after evening lectures.

“You went from student to staff here, how exactly did you end up at this job?”
I was student member on the board of the department in 2008, and they were looking for a new secretary. As they still hadn’t found anyone after the summer, they asked me whether I’d like the job of supporting secretary. It was still just something on the side back then, but during my MA I took over the job of the other secretary after she left. After I completed my MA, the administrations of English, Dutch, German and Dutch Studies were merged, and I got the job of administrations coordinator. After doing that for a year, Sieglinde (Bollen, ed.) left (The previous BA student coordinator, ed.) and I applied for her job, which I got. After Karin left, I took over her responsibilities as well. It was quite the quick rise from student to this, and originally I was afraid I was too young for this, but I always said I wanted to be Karin one day!

“That sounds like a lot of work. If you’d just disappear for a few days, what would just stop working?”
“Well, the department consists of an amazing team, so they would probably not just stop functioning, but if I really just disappeared, there are a lot of things that I’m responsible for that would probably not get done.”

“What are you responsible for?”
I quickly regret asking this question, and am very happy I am recording this, as the list that follows sounds indeed like she took over the job of two people. Tessa is not only responsible for the entire promotion and for providing information to prospective students, but also advises board of examiners on BSA decisions here at the department, supporting the board of the English programme, and the Examination Committee. She also decides what courses incoming exchange students are allowed to enroll in and she is an advising member of the admissions team. Then there’s also the timetable, the online study guide – making sure everyone hands in their course descriptions - , deciding whether the study plan every student hands in are realistic and making sure people follow them, as well as all of the administration surrounding graduations.

As if that wasn’t enough work, she’s also programme coordinator of the MA linguistics. Lastly she also mediates between students and tutors, does the minutes for most of the boards and committees she is on, and she manages some more practical things like whether there are enough whiteboard markers etc.

And, as everyone suspected, she is also the one responsible for the hilarious posts on the Facebook page of the English Department, together with Mili Gabrovšek and Thijs Porck.

After I send her the first draft of this interview, she remembers that’s not all she does. “I am again a member of the Faculty Council but now as a staff member, and I am a BHV’er (bedrijfshulpverlener, emergency personnel, ed.). We have trainings at least once a year (CPR and first aid, and evacuation).

It is a long list, and although she gives a lot of credit to her colleagues, I get the feeling that we would be slightly screwed without her.

“What do you love most about this job, and what is the least fun?”
“I definitely love the students. Even though they sometimes tend to rant to me. I completely understand that, I’ve been there, and they need to vent, but sometimes, and especially if I can’t really do anything, that can be tough. But if I can help, that’s what I love about the job. I love encouraging them, making sure they enjoy studying here, and getting them motivated and enthusiastic.”

“Lastly, do you have any advice for students?”
“I sometimes feel like some students here feel like they have to be here, and that they are dragging themselves through this. Find what you enjoy and do it. Remember why you chose this course, what you liked about it. Motivation goes a long way. Have fun and enjoy yourself!”

By Franziska Mattler


1. Subgroup within the main association.