Student life

Humans of the OWee: Max van der Laan (86) was Chair of the OWee for 36 years

Much about the OWee has changed in 50 years, but much has remained the same, says former Chair Max van der Laan. Even at 86 years of age, the introduction week is part of him.

Former chairman of the OWee Max van der Laan on his balcony in Delft. (photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

You were the Chair of the first ever OWee in 1974. How did it start?
“In 1973 the University of Applied Sciences’ Council (TU Delft was called the Technical University of Applied Sciences at the time) decided that the introduction period for new students should be expanded. Previously it consisted of two days that included a speech by the Rector Magnificus and collecting your student card and timetable. The new introduction was for students and organised by students. Eight students were appointed to organise it and I was asked to be chair. I was 36 years old at the time and Secretary of Applied Physics.

I was only supposed to act as chair for a month, but when the OWee was over a delegation visited me. They thought that it had gone well under my chairmanship and they asked me if I would be interested in completing the year. It was a huge compliment, and certainly so at the time. The following year another delegation with the same request knocked at my door. In the end, I was Chair for 36 years. Hans de Knegt, who was originally appointed Secretary, also remained throughout that period.

On average I spent about half a day a week working on the OWee. I bore the responsibility towards the Executive Board. It was handy that I knew people there personally as it helped get things done. There was always a Vice Chair, and later a student Chair. I did not really want to be involved in the student world and thought it would be better if a student would take this on.”

‘You wanted the students to feel at home in Delft

Now, in 2023, the OWee attracts around 3,000 attendees and turns Delft upside down for a week. What was the OWee like in 1974?
“The OWee then lasted four days too and its main ideas have not changed. You wanted the students to get to know TU Delft and its student associations, and to feel at home in Delft. At the time the students had to do find all this out for themselves. About 800 first year students joined in in 1974.

Then too the OWee started with an opening meeting. The evening meals at the student associations were there from the start too. As were the mentor groups with their group members and a mentor from the same course. This was based on the philosophy that the mentor could explain the course, the University of Applied Sciences, and student life so that when you attended a lecture, at least there was a group of people that you had already met.  

At the time, the more leftish students were vociferously against student associations. The student associations wanted to talk to students every evening at the OWee, but the left opposition was not in agreement. So we, in our role as the OWee Committee, held a big party in the Aula on the last evening. But of course, the student associations did not like this at all.’’

In 2009, well after retiring, you stopped working as the Chair but were still involved as an advisor. Even now at 86 you still regularly phone the Committee. What makes you so dedicated?
“The OWee has become a part of me. It’s unavoidable after 36 years as Chair. It became a unique part of my life. I realise that I will have to let go at some point as I will not be able to continue physically.

People often ask me if I do not find it boring as I have been involved so long. But it is a different group of students every year and the atmosphere is different every year. I have always enjoyed being with young people. It has kept me young.”

Science editor Kim Bakker

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