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Photo: Frank Ruiter

If anyone knows how challenging it can be for first-generation students to navigate university life, it's Milio van de Kamp himself. Not only was he the first in his family to go beyond high school, but he also grew up in poverty, in a house without gas and electricity. His educational journey was tumultuous, navigating through various layers of the school system to eventually reach university—a place where he didn't feel at home for a long time. Now as a lecturer, he wants to do better for the current group of first-generation students. 

If you had complete control, what would you do to reduce educational inequality? 

'I would overhaul the entire education system. Currently, in addition to the CITO score, parents' educational levels are also considered in school advice. This shouldn't be the case. I would dismantle the entire division of students into educational levels and implement more cultural and class competencies for teachers so they can connect well with every student. And at the university itself, I would ensure more diversity in the staff. There are many good intentions to achieve that, but not enough is changing. There are too many temporary contracts (I have one myself) that hinder actual steps to change structures.' 

Copyright: Frank Ruiter
'For many first-generation students, it's challenging to connect with many classmates and teachers, who often come from stable middle-class backgrounds.' Milio van de Kamp

Can you explain why it's more challenging for a first-generation student to navigate university life?  

'This has everything to do with cultural capital, as studies and my own experiences show. You speak differently, think differently, come from a completely different environment, and have read different books. This makes it difficult to connect with many classmates and teachers, who often come from the stable middle class. You quickly feel like an outsider or inferior because you deviate from the norm. This disrupts the learning process, and that's so unfortunate.' 

How are you trying to bring about change in that regard?  

'For example, we started the Baanbrekers project, where we give first-generation students an extra soft landing and actively focus on talent development. They can get to know each other and exchange experiences about their backgrounds in their own group. This provides so much recognition and confidence – "there are more people like me," that feeling.' 

Your students praise your ability to create a "safe environment." What do you mean by that?  

'When I'm going to address a sensitive topic like racism or sexism, I establish the rules together with the group first – there is absolutely no room for exclusion. I encourage asking questions, of course, but I want students to think about how they ask questions – not derogatory but open and respectful. Students really appreciate that. Additionally, I like to divide my group into smaller groups so that even the less vocal students dare to participate in discussions – it's easier in a small group than in a full hall.' 

For first-generation students, you are a role model. Did you also have a teacher who played that role for you? 

'Certainly, that was Anouk Kootstra (known for the essay Een jas die past about the role of class in our society). I studied Interdisciplinary Social Science and had written a blog with the theme "Why do I not fit in here?" Anouk approached me to say she had read my piece and found it very relatable – she turned out to be a first-generation student herself. Only then did I truly believe that I could actually complete the program; that it was indeed a possibility for people like me.'