‘The voice of TU Delft’ retires: ‘I sometimes cried with callers’

After 22 years, TU Delft telephonist Hetty van Rijt retires. She looks back at a time of special conversations, angry callers, crazy questions and pushy parents.

Hetty van Rijt: “I slept really badly for months after MH17.” (Photo: Justyna Botor)

“Good morning, this is the Technical University of Delft. Hetty speaking.” Anyone calling the general telephone number of TU Delft over the last 22 years will recognise the voice of telephonist Hetty van Rijt. She has not been ‘the voice of TU Delft’ since mid-November. After all these years she is retiring. Delta spoke to Van Rijt on her penultimate working day in her office.

A big bunch of flowers sparkles in the corner and gifts are spread all over her desk. Her colleagues from the Communications Department bid her farewell just before the interview. Student colleague Stef takes over the telephone during the interview, but every so often Van Rijt takes a call and puts the callers through. She does not need to look up any extension numbers. “I just about know all the TU Delft numbers by heart,” she says as though this is no big deal.  

What kind of questions, requests or things do people call TU Delft for?
“It can be anything. It may be someone that wants to sign up for an open day, someone looking for TU Delft employees, students who call about student affairs, a lonely person who calls for a chat, and sometimes someone that has a crazy question or anecdote.”

What kind of crazy questions have you had?
“Well one was a man who said ‘Do you have problems with it too? It may not be windy but as soon as you get on your bicycle, you suddenly have a lot of wind in your face’. I answered that by coincidence I experienced that just this morning. People like that usually just want to have a chat. It took a while before I learned how to end this kind of conversation decently without spending hours on the phone.”

You wrote about amusing and moving conversations in your farewell email. Is there one conversation that has stayed with you the most?
“The conversations with Mr van Kesteren. He phoned almost every week, each time with a different question. Why was the neighbour’s grass greener, for example. Or he wanted new TU Delft brochures because his had been stolen from his letterbox. They were pleasant conversations and we both usually hung up the phone with a smile. I imagine that telephonists at other universities knew him too. He once told me that the people at TU Eindhoven thought he was crazy. I once answered the phone and heard Congratulations, a song by Cliff Richard, really loud. Then he said “Do you hear that, girl? That song is specially for you.” Then one day the phonecalls stopped. I assume that he was admitted to an institution or had passed away. Apart from him, I still think back to the months after the MH17 plane crash.”

What was the MH17 period like for you?
“Heavy. We had a lot of sad people on the phone. Once in a while I cried with them. Such as when a grandmother phoned because she had received an issue of Delft Integraal (the former TU Delft alumni magazine, Eds.) at her son’s address. She phoned crying that her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren had all been killed in the crash. When this kind of thing happens I drop everything and ask my colleagues to take any phone calls that come in.”

That must be very intense. Can you take distance from this kind of thing or does it follow you home?
“I think about it at home. I find it hard to take distance from things. I’m even getting goosebumps now just talking about the grandmother. I slept really badly for months after MH17. I really want to help people and find it hard if I can’t. Luckily I usually can.”

How far did you go to help people? 
“Years ago – when internet was just starting – I was phoned by a young woman whose boyfriend was studying at TU Delft. She had fallen at home and could hardly move and could not get to the phone book. She knew TU Delft’s phone number so she phoned it. She asked if we could contact her boyfriend who was studying at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science. We tried to reach him through the Faculty staff to say that he had to go home as quickly as he could. She could also not phone her general practitioner. I phoned for her and pressed him to go to her as quickly as he could. I got the entire emergency response process going.”

Have you ever had unpleasant people on the phone?
“Yes, of course. We get calls from all sorts of people. Friendly and cheerful people, but rude and agressive people too. I then get an outburst in my face. A Belgian detective once called who thought ‘it was ridiculous’ that the TU Delft scientist that he wanted to speak to had a day off. People can also be very pushy. Especially parents. For instance they try to register their child for an open day while the registrations have been closed for a long time. ‘You can always do something,’ a father said once when I told him that his daughter really was too late to sign up. Other people phone four or fives times in the hope that someone else would answer the phone.”

How did you end up working at TU Delft?
“I had worked in shops for years. It was fun, but hard to combine with childcare for my children. So when my youngest son went to primary school, I did an LOI (an independent commercial educational institution, Eds.) course for telephonists/receptionists. I was interested in this. I came here through an employment agency. I started at Michiel de Ruyterweg 12, where the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment now is.”

How has your work changed?
“When I started in 2000, internet was hardly used. There were several telephonists who worked in shifts so that we were available early in the morning. At the time we also had to put TU Delft employees through if they needed to phone an international number or a mobile number, for example. Over time more communication went by email and fewer telephonists were needed. I went through three or four reorganisations. It was stressful each time. I didn’t know what would happen to me. The reduced phonecalls were replaced by administrative tasks. It was good to do this next to the telephone work.”

How does it feel to retire and can you let go of your work?
“It feels very strange. I have double feelings. On the one hand it is fine to not have the obligation to go to work anymore, but on the other hand, I will miss the work enormously. It is the end of one chapter of my life. My son said ‘Mum, you have worked since you were 12 years old. Enjoy your pension, you deserve it’. I am looking forward to all the free time. The time so that I can travel to my son and grandchildren in Germany, for instance. I think it will be the transition that will be most difficult.”

What will you miss the most about your work?
“My work as a telephonist is very varied. Each person who calls is different. I will miss my colleagues in the Library, but what I will miss the most is working with students. Actually, this should have been my last day. But I will still work tomorrow, Friday. My student colleague Jet – who should work on the Friday – said that she would like to work with me one more time. So there you have it. I could not say no.”


News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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