The Conformist in You

Marina Lazëri and Ivo Dimitrov 

“People at UCU claim to be breaking down barriers and reaching out to others, but they really aren’t the people they think they are,” says Rosemary Orr, linguistics professor and tutor at UCU. On this notion, we set off to investigate what campus life really is about, interviewing teachers, alumni and the oft infamous first years. Do we lie to ourselves about being intellectually alternative? Or can we save our self-esteem and still call campus a place that welcomes difference?

“UCU is definitely more alternative than high-schools and other universities. People are more approachable and, through getting to know them, you accept differences more easily.” says Liana Dobrica, class of 2015.

It seems, the first impression the bubble gives is that of a place that embraces differences. Some first years testify to this. “There is a sense of being different, but you don’t need to express it strongly and individualistically, because everything is accepted,” says Laurence Herfs.

First-year Vincent Gerez finds the structuring of social life at UCU rather prominent. “After a while most of us behave in correspondence to certain norms – involved, studious and so on. But I also think that the environment adapts to the kind of people that come here.”

But how different is difference in UCU’s small and socially structured community?

“After all, we do select students with a similar involved and curious character. We would like to admit people with a more different point of view than usual, but we cannot choose that over academic performance and involvement.” says philosophy professor and tutor Floris van der Burg.

An equal mindset, an equally structured life, and a homogeneous community – where did our self-proclaimed individuality go?

Tim Schoot Uiterkamp, class of 2011, disagrees that expressions of individuality disappear in UCU’s homogenous environment. UCU social life tends towards the extremes. Perhaps people feel a greater need to emphasize difference because of living so closely together, or because of always being in the social context in which this identity makes sense.”

Celebrating difference we maybe are, but how alternative are the UCU students of today?

Roeland van Beck, class of 2011, who has stayed living on campus, finds that students have changed. “In my year, there seemed to be more alternative people than there are currently. I’m speaking from a purely visual perspective here; I can’t think of anyone on campus with dreadlocks anymore.”

Sofia Afonasina, class of 2011, rejects the idea of presenting UCU as countering the mainstream: ‘I always found subcultures at UCU to be equally mainstream. Alternative is a paradoxical concept nowadays anyway.”

This sentiment is shared to an extent by teachers and tutors. Orr notices the lack of student activism. “UCU doesn’t make you radical. A big part of the student body comes from a relatively wealthy background; or if they don’t, they are able to study here and are satisfied with their lives. They lack the anger that is needed to protest and that’s perfectly okay – students are here to learn and develop, not to fight against the establishment.” 

How come though? Aren’t students on the frontlines of any revolution? International Relations instructor Gerard van der Ree, ascribes this attitude to a generation difference. “In this day and age, there is a gap with times like the 1970s and ‘80s.  Thirty years ago, individuality was a core part of identity and was expressed very strongly visually. Today this sensibility is gone.”

Alternative or not, UCu students shouldn’t worry. Van der Ree says that at UCU “people develop a joint understanding of the role that they need to fulfill in order to be ready for adulthood, thus they practice for it in the same way.”

Maybe we have created the perfect alternative society after all – one in which alternativism is the mainstream, but also one that feels like the real world. And even if it’s an illusion – let us live it, it’s only three years anyways.

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