‘I can now hold my own with the best’

Donna Namujju (28) arrived in the Netherlands in 2007 on a scholarship to study for an MSc degree in Engineering & Policy Analysis. Born in Uganda, the second of eight children, Namujju, previously worked as a telecommunications engineer for MTN Uganda.

Last week the university honored her for having graduated cum laude.

Why did you initially decide to study at TU Delft?
“Someone had told me the Dutch are the best engineers in the world, and I had also long been fascinated by the concept of how the Dutch reclaim land from the sea and live below sea level. Once I received a scholarship from TU Delft, the decision to come here was easy.”

Why did you choose to study Engineering & Policy Analysis?
“My work at MTN Uganda as a VAS platform engineer was so ‘micro’ in nature, focused on the technical details of a particular server, platform or service. But I wanted to effect change on a larger scale. This policy analysis course offered me the chance to increase my knowledge beyond the technical, to include complementary fields of policy analysis, economics, socio-technical systems modeling and management – fields especially critical in Uganda, because it’s a developing country. Now I can apply
myself to planning and solving problems on a more macro level; most specifically, policy analysis for large-scale energy systems.”

How would you describe your experience here?
“It was difficult at first. I’m from a large family and had never been really alone. The loneliness hit me hard. Lucky for me, my course was with mostly other international students who felt like I did. We became quite good friends. The first semester was a real eye-opener. The pace with which we went over courses was pretty fast – in just seven weeks – so that before I knew it I had exams. Somehow I was expecting a longer study period over many months with exams at the end. Needless to say, those first semester exams didn’t go very well. But I learned from the experience, and subsequent exams found me ready.”

What was your social life at TU Delft like?
“I am to some extent an introvert, but I found so many opportunities to have fun and meet new people here. I enjoyed fun outings organized by my classmates and also foreign travel with friends. The latter was especially novel for my family back home, hearing about Belgium, Italy, France and Spain.”

Were you satisfied with your DUWO housing arrangements?
“I lived in a space box; it was small, completely private and two minutes from my faculty. For the first time I had my own bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom – I loved it so much!”

How was your experience as an international among the Dutch?
“A very good experience. The Dutch are very friendly and welcoming. They’re curious about the world around them, and, most importantly, the majority speaks English, which makes communication very easy.”

What challenges or ‘shocks’ about Dutch life did you overcome while living here?
“The Dutch are very frank; not given to saying things just for the sake of it. If they didn’t like something, you knew about it in no uncertain terms. Coming from a culture that strives to avoid giving offence, this was jarring at first, but I later came to appreciate it. You can trust them to give it to you straight. What I had to get used to was the fact that al-though they’re polite and friendly in the official setting, they don’t easily let you into their personal lives. Back home, working closely with someone for months qualifies them as close friends whom you can invite home, share drinks with. I didn’t find that to be the case here.”

What did you learn from the Dutch way of doing things, which you have now also incorporated into your own life?
“I appreciated how organized they are. Every Dutch person I knew had an agenda filled with appointments and activities planned  months into the future. It always shocked me that they always seemed to know when they’d have free time available and when not, weeks in advance, whereas I tended to take things as they came. I barely knew what I’d be doing tomorrow much less the week after, which is probably a result of growing up in a more uncertain environment where the most predictable thing is ‘change’ itself. My time in Holland changed me greatly, although it’s still a work in progress. I certainly can now appreciate the value of a weekly agenda.”

So you graduated cum laude. What are some of your secrets of academic success?
“No particular secrets. I just loved what I was doing. The courses and lectures were full of lively debates and discussions, applying concepts to problems picked directly from everyday life. The practicality of the courses meant that there was no need for detailed memorizing for exams.”
Any tips for our student readers?
“I found the lecturers’ ‘open door’ policy quite useful. Rather than struggle with problems for weeks on end, ask for an appointment to get help and advice. I stress this because I have friends who struggled silently without asking for help, until the stress got too much that they stopped school altogether. Until you ask for help, people will tend not to volunteer it.”

What next?
“I’d love to hone my skills in the field of policy analysis, getting practical work experience, but then again I’d also love a chance at further research in the field of policy analysis in developing economies. But I only graduated last week, so I’m still making up my mind.”

Where does your future lie, back home or in Holland?
“I’d like to think both. I’d welcome future research opportunities and a chance to develop my skills more in Holland under the guidance of people who’ve been doing this for centuries. But then I would want to apply those developed skills back home, especially in the planning and implementation of government projects.”

How has your time at the TU Delft prepared you for that future?
“From TU Delft I obtained the tools to analyze and solve complex problems. The interaction with people from different backgrounds and cultures has added a multi-cultural dimension that I lacked before. The inter-cultural and social skills obtained at TU Delft are quite critical in the solution of complex socio-technical systems that involve diverse sets of stakeholders with differing world views.”

How does it feel to be honored for graduating cum laude?
“Pretty good. TU Delft’s a world-renowned technological university and Dutch professors set and expect only the highest standard of work. To have excelled in such an environment makes me believe I can now hold my own with the best engineers anywhere in the world.”

Who have you dedicated your academic honors to?
“To my mother, who has loved me, cheered me on and gradually made her dreams for me my own – she wouldn’t let me settle for the BSc alone, but instead pushed for this MSc and is now pushing for a PhD. A big part of me pushes on to make her proud.”

The grandfather of Santa Claus
The year 2009 has been declared ‘Year of the Traditions’ in the Netherlands, and number one on the list of ‘Top 100’ Dutch traditions is the annual Sinterklaas or ‘Pakjesavond’ holiday on December 5. Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) is like the grandfather of Santa Claus, as other nations call the white-bearded guy. Sinterklaas arrives in Holland by boat from Spain, and his arrival – some two weeks before December 5 – is broadcast live on Dutch TV. On ‘Pakjesavond’ (Present’s evening), Sinterklaas and his little Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) helpers, ride around the country giving presents to the kids who behaved throughout the year. The Zwarte Pieten, somewhat controversially, have black painted faces and big red Negroid lips. Some say Zwarte Pieten represent slaves serving a white master, while others say they’re just Italian chimney cleaners with dirty faces, although the swollen lips, curly hair and golden earrings are left unexplained. A couple years ago, Pieten of all colors were shown on TV arriving with Sinterklaas. A storm of protest followed, forcing the government to deny trying to politically correct the Zwarte Pieten, while instead retrospectively claiming that Sint’s boat had in fact sailed through a rainbow!
Originally a children’s event, nowadays adults give each other ‘Pakjesavond’ presents as well. These presents are accompanied by a rhyming poem that gently pokes fun at the person receiving the poem and present. Students also have their own Sinterklaas traditions. Starting on the morning of December 5, students dressed as Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten will roam through the TU faculties giving employees chocolate letters and shots of gin. By noon, Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten, rather drunk themselves, as they drink the shots too, will start bursting into lecture halls singing Sinterklaas songs.
This year a new term has been introduced into the tradition – ‘Sinterklaas-stress’, because kids stress out about all the Sinterklaas sweets displayed in shops, and adults stress out about buying gifts, organising parties and writing poems. Last year, as a newbie, my Dutch friends helped me write my Sinterklaas poem. But this year I’m on my own. So now I am ‘Sinterklaas-stressed’, which must make me officially Dutch!

Michael Afanasyev, MSC from Israel

Editor Redactie

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.