From studying History to working in development cooperation

Two history alumni on the significance of their study to their career
Alumni Helma Maas and Bob van Dillen posing in meeting room at Save the Children

Our history alumni prove that as a Historian you can do much more than working in education or science. For example, Helma Maas and Bob van Dillen, who graduated from the sub-faculty of Social History in 1991 (as ESHCC was called those days), both ended up in development cooperation.

Helma has been working as a press officer at Save the Children since March 2021 and Bob is working as a Consortium Coordinator WeAreAble! at ZOA, a Christian relief and reconstruction organization for people in crisis areas. In this duo interview, they reflect on their study time at Erasmus University and share what significance their studies in history have had for their subsequent careers.

In 1984 you started studying Social History (Maatschappijgeschiedenis). Why did you choose this study in Rotterdam?

Helma: "I actually wanted to study journalism but got rejected. Then I suddenly had to think of a plan B. My high school teacher in history suggested: why don't you study social history? I liked history and the study in Rotterdam had a major in communication and information. Besides, Rotterdam was close by; I could easily take the train from my hometown Dordrecht. In the end, it turned out to be such a fun first year that I decided to finish the degree."

Bob found history and social studies his two most enjoyable subjects in high school in Apeldoorn. He started looking at different universities to see what programs matched with these subjects. "At the time I hesitated between Social Sciences in Utrecht and Social History in Rotterdam." It was precisely the combination of history and social sciences, and the possibility to combine economics with economic history, that Bob choses to study in Rotterdam.

What is your best memory of your college days? 

Bob: "That are a lot of things. First, I was very interested in Latin American politics. That's why I took some electives in Leiden and Amsterdam on this subject. Especially Michiel Baud, professor of Latin American Studies and director of the Center for the Study and Documentation of Latin America (CEDLA), could tell stories and enthuse people about the developments on that continent. My interest in Latin America later subsided completely and was replaced by Africa: I became a true Africanist. But also the fact that I had the opportunity to do an internship in the House of Representatives - the heart of Dutch decision-making - is a fond memory. I was able to participate daily in a parliamentary group that included politicians like Jan Pronk and Eveline Herfkens." 

For Helma, the seminars of Willem Schendel were particularly inspiring. These led her to decide to spend a year studying in India between her third and fourth years. Another highlight during her studies was making a historical documentary. "Within the Communication and Information major I made my first real own film with 6 fellow students, I loved that!" Helma tells proudly. 

What happened to the documentary? "It was unfortunately destroyed: clips had been used from the Polygoon news and they were too expensive for the university to pay for," explains Helma. 

Can you tell us about your first professional job. How did you end up here?

Helma: "At the graduation ceremony I was very happy, satisfied and proud with my diploma. But I also thought: now the evil world is waiting, now we have to find a job." This turned out to be not that easy. After her studies, Helma spent some time on welfare, worked as a temporary agency worker at the international department of the Dutch post (PTT), attended a job training through the employment office and wrote hundreds of application letters. After returning from her studies in India, she joined the national India working group. The network she built here proved very valuable: through a contact in the India working group, she eventually found her first real job in development cooperation, at Cordaid.    

Bob: "For me, it was a different story. I was going to do my alternative civilian service, which partly overlapped with my final year of study. I really experienced that as a huge bonus. The 1.5 years of work experience I gained allowed me to take next steps. Soon after I graduated, I was hired as an intern at the European Commission in Brussels."

Soon after starting her first job at Cordaid, Helma received another job offer. She was able to get a job as a Junior Professional Officer with Unesco in Namibia. "I spent years looking for a job, now I have two," she says. It did not take long for her to make up her mind; the fact that she could work in a country she had never been before sealed the deal.

How do you look back on this period?

"Unesco was a huge setback, so that same year I switched to UNICEF, because I really liked the country of Namibia." Helma looks back on that time with pride because she was really able to make a difference. "My job was to get journalists to write about HIV/Aids in a less stigmatising way, so that people started talking about it more positively and would dare to come out openly for their HIV status. This led to better prevention and care. So you see how important it is for a UN organisation to have an actual presence in a country to give an extra push to certain topics, in this case HIV/Aids."

Bob, how did you get into development cooperation? 

"After my internship, I continued working at the European Commission on a temporary contract, and then also worked some time at the European Parliament." He then tried to become a Junior Professional Officer at the European Commission, but that turned out differently. "I didn't get through the procedure, because candidates were pushed from their countries and we weren't used to that in the Netherlands," Bob says. This got him thinking about whether he wanted to continue working in such a bureaucratic environment at all. After some consulting work, he decided in 1998 to make a permanent transition to the NGO sector.

Bob has been working as Consortium Coordinator WeAreAble since October. In this position, for the first time in years, he does not have an independent role in lobbying and advocacy. "I am now more coordinating and helping and facilitating partners in six African countries to do their lobbying independently at the local, district and national level to ensure that people with disabilities have access to land, water and food." This is a project of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs that falls under the Power of Voices programme. Through this programme, the government seeks to increase the voices of local civil society.

Alumni Helma Maas and Bob van Dillen posing in corridor of Save the Children
Helma Maas en Bob van Dillen - Geschiedenis alumni (1991)

What role does your history study play in your career in development cooperation?

"The advantage of having studied social history, Bob explains, is that it's easier to have the longer-term perspective in mind. Especially since results in the work we do are not always immediately visible, it is good to see the long-term progress." Bob points to a few Our World in Data studies that clearly show that poverty and hunger were a much bigger problem decades ago. Swedish researcher Hans Rosling*, showed how developments in different countries and continents have turned for the better over a period of many decades.

Helma recognises the benefit of the long-term perspective. "Save the Children, for instance, is now very busy to talk and educate about the situation of hunger in South Sudan and Somalia. I was doing that 20 years ago, too. Some colleagues - who haven't studied history - sometimes think the situation is very bad now. I got that longer perspective already from my studies. It's just each time in a different way." With good policies and a little help from outside, you can see that there is improvement. According to Helma, this is why international cooperation is indeed necessary. "Although there are occasional small setbacks in some parts of the world, it's not like it's a bottomless pit where nothing ever happens."

Finally, what advice would you give current history students or recent history graduates?

Helma: "That you have to persevere. That it is not always easy to find your dream job right away, but that above all you have to keep trying to do the things you like. And yes, sometimes you have to create things yourself. And try to build up as much relevant work experience as possible."

Bob: "The global perspective I would like to recommend to everyone, even if you don't end up in development cooperation." On the one hand, by gaining an experience abroad during college. "I myself regret not having lived or worked abroad during my studies. Especially in the current time, I do think this is essential for people who want to work in development cooperation." On the other hand, by thinking about what needs to change here in the Netherlands, in our own society. "We don't always have the solution here in our country, but we often have the cause of the problem, think for example about arms exports, trade barriers and CO2 emissions."

*In Memoriam: This is how Hans Rosling conquered the world with statistics - De Correspondent (NL)

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