We meet on the ninth floor of the U-Parkhotel. The ‘boardroom’ offers a phenomenal view of the campus. ‘Wow,’ he exclaims when he first looks out the window. ‘Isn't the campus beautiful?’
There aren't many students who get to stand next to King Willem-Alexander during the UT's Dies Natalis celebration while moderating the event at the same time. Likewise, there aren't many students who hold seats on the University Council and thirty-odd other committees, advisory boards and clubs. Or who do so much to stimulate technological development in the Netherlands or who preside over a staff meeting for UT managers and present everything in fluent English. For Hidde Zijlstra, it is business as usual. This blonde bloke is bursting with energy and possesses a remarkably joyful and eloquent personality. In short: he's an ideal candidate for many student jobs at the UT. How did this happen?
Perhaps his Frisian roots have something to do with it? Hidde was born in Dokkum, moved to Leeuwarden at the age of one and grew up in a typical ‘Vogelaarwijk.’ ‘My parents got divorced, I stayed with my mother and never really saw my father since,’ he says fairly calmly. At the same time, he doesn't want to delve too deep into the matter. ‘It's not a secret or anything, but I wonder who would care about all that. Growing up with just a mother has never been an issue for me. I am very close to her, in part because it was just the two of us for so long.’ When Hidde was nine years old, his mother found a new partner. After a while, he became like a father to Hidde. ‘I don't know what it is like to have a father, but he is the closest thing I have to one.’
In his younger years, he made countless trips from the mainland to Schiermonnikoog, where his mother worked as a cleaner. They did that every other week on weekends. ‘I just went with her and spent my time playing with sticks in the woods. I was a real boyish child.’ Later - when he had to go to school, a childminder watched over him. Hidde thrived in school. ‘I attended a multicultural school and knew that there was something different about me. Many of my fellow students had language difficulties, while I got on very well with language and arithmetic.’
Secondary school, the Stedelijk Gymnasium first and the Leeuwarder Lyceum later on, posed more of a challenge. ‘I really wanted to go to the gymnasium, but that was a mistake. I hated Latin.’ But also: ‘I didn't feel very good during that time and developed a fear of failure. I was quite a quirky child, just like my best friend. We often ate lunch together outside. I would usually try to avoid the rest of the group. I also wore a hat inside. That's a great way to put yourself out there.’ Even though he had thick skin - his own words - the remarks made about him did not leave him cold. ‘I didn't feel inferior, only different. That does something to you as a teenager.’
Hidde transferred to the technasium in Leeuwarden. A ‘fantastic school’ where he built solar boats and quickly joined the participation council. Even then? ‘Yes,’ he says wholeheartedly. He was elected to the participation council. That was where he learned to ‘negotiate and communicate’ with the school's administrators. ‘I don't know exactly why I have always felt drawn to that. I do not see myself as a visionary, someone out to improve the world or stand in the spotlight. I mostly do whatever I love.’
His love for technology, entrepreneurialism and project-based education ultimately brought him to the UT. ‘The Twente Education Model was a real eye-opener for me. I had to see for myself what that was like.’ He initially opted for the Business & IT programme, but that did not turn out as well as he'd hoped. ‘There was a bit too much math involved for my taste.’ After that first year, he switched to the International Business Administration programme.
‘I was absolutely ready to go to university,’ he says. ‘My parents supported me in that. I had also visited my stepbrother's student accommodation a few times, even though he is ten years older than I am. It all felt great, comfortable and familiar.’
‘I loved talking about the UT at secondary schools. I have a very vocal personality’
The transition from Leeuwarden to Enschede - in 2016 - went smoothly for the young student. He moved into Huize Grafzicht on the Olieslagweg and joined AEGEE. ‘That's where it all began,’ he laughs. ‘Via my do-group, I heard there was a job opening in the Study Information Centre. One thing led to another from there.’ His job had him visiting secondary schools to tell students about the UT. ‘It was a lot of fun and I was quite good at it. I think that's because I have a very vocal personality. At first, I didn't even know I would be getting paid for it.’
‘Can you see this?’ He points to his iPad. ‘I would be lost without this thing. My entire day is divided into blocks, that is how I stay on top of everything. I know exactly when I have to be where and I reserve enough hours to study.’
With his eloquence, Hidde stood out at the Study Information Centre, which forms part of the Marketing & Communication department. He was asked to take care of more and more ‘jobs.’ He was also invited to join the student party DAS, which is short for ‘De Ambitieuze Student’ (The Ambitious Student). Before long, he joined the university council where, he says, he learned ‘a whole lot.’ ‘Especially how careful you have to be when pursuing a goal. Playing the political game. There are so many interests at stake at a university and you have to take them all into account.’ His main focus as a council member was the university's language policy. According to Zijlstra, it was primarily ‘a discussion between the Executive Board and the University Council in response to the UT's internationalisation ambitions, which had gotten out of hand. ‘There were quite a few people in the University Council who felt that not everything was done correctly. That was a fascinating case, but also a troublesome one. In the end, it was a good decision to separate the theme of language policy from that of internationalisation.’
When asked if he likes his studies, he has to think about his answer. ‘I am looking for a tactful response.’ He then reiterates: ‘I find that what energises me is doing the things I love. Within my studies I have not yet found something I love.’ Still, he is about to complete his bachelor's and will certainly follow it up with a master's programme in Enschede. ‘I'm not sure yet what I'll choose. I find that I am someone who loves new experiences. For now, I mainly want to broaden my horizon. The time to focus on any one specific area will come later. That is what I want from my studies as well, but I haven't found it yet.’
His phone rings. ‘Sorry, I really have to take this.’ What follows is a discussion about artificial intelligence. Some time later, apologetically: ‘That was the local paper. In my role as promoter of technology (Aanjagers van Technologie) I get to ask Esther Ouwehand a question during the ‘Van Torentje naar Torentje’ election debate.
Finding his place
Anyway, Enschede is his home. ‘I can still grow here and try new things. Although I am in favour of Keeping Talent in Twente, I will probably be leaving town once I graduate. There are so many other amazing challenges out there!’ He quickly adds: ‘I already owe the UT so much. I think that is mainly because it is such an accessible institution. That helped me try new things and boost my self-confidence.’
How does he envision his own future, if there are challenges everywhere and he likes almost anything? Above all, Hidde wants to ‘find his place.’ ‘It has to be a busy and energetic place, with plenty of opportunities for me to seize. I trust that everything will work out one way or the other.’ What about the ideal picture? He says that he is not cut out for a wife, a dog and two kids. ‘Look,’ he says as he points to his rainbow-coloured watch strap. ‘I like men.’ That explains why he, as a member of the student party DAS, fought for more outspoken support from the UT for its LGBTIQ+ community. ‘My first step was to write a letter to express my views, but partly with help from other student members, there was a pride flag flying on campus less than a year later. I was truly happy about that.’ He notes that he is not particularly vocal about his sexual orientation, because ‘that's not me’ and ‘why would you?’
He glances at his rainbow watch again. It is time for his next appointment. He is taking part in a cooking contest with seven friends from his fraternity Kadmos. Even that has to be planned.
Let's circle back to that one question. How do you stand out so much as a UT student? His eagerness and ambition are plain to see. Above all, Hidde is simply his open, joyful and kind self. Perhaps that's the answer.