Who are you?
I am Onno van de Weg, I am from Oostkapelle and Serooskerke in Zeeland and deeply committed to our island, Walcheren. I am a free spirit, I guess. I don’t like to be bound by categories and I am always the outsider. I grew up close to the sea and I have always loved the sea. My father was a sailor, I am a surfer and a sailor. The sea is my home. After my death they can scatter my ashes on the right side of Berkenbosch beach, not the left side. The right side is where the waves are best.
Why did you come to UCR?
Before I worked here I was a lifeguard. I had done that for fifteen years. Then I met my wife. She’s from Poland, which was not part of the EU at the time. I had to get a steady job in order to be allowed to get her to the Netherlands. I accepted a job as a nurse at a hospital. I did that for a year. But it was not for me, it was just too emotional because I attached myself strongly to the patients. So I quit that job and went to the employment agency and registered as a job seeker. The very same day they called me and said, “We may have something for you. There is this new place, the Roosevelt Academy, can you go there now for an interview?” I said “OK, I will go.”
I went to the interview and I was told that while building up the new university no-one had actually thought of the need for a housemaster. So the managing director replaced light bulbs and was carrying around the video recorder. All of that was not really going well. So they gave me the job.
What does the housemaster do?
My best summary is that the housemaster does everything that the rest of the people don’t do. From light bulbs to checking whether the cleaning has been done; from first aid to organizing parts of events; from seeing to the opening of buildings to closing them: we do it. We work in a team of two. I work with Kemal Ali Mahmud, who you all know. We are a good team.
One of the things I like best here is the students. I used to have a desk at the reception and I would share that space with students. They work on their future and on themselves. That makes them interesting for me. They are all unique and different yet they maintain this incredibly good atmosphere together. You can learn a lot from them if you listen, and they can learn from you. And the same thing goes for the colleagues. I have very broad interests so I have many people to talk with about many different things. I love books. I read philosophy, history, and economics. I like to challenge myself and think a lot.
Well, maybe that leads nicely to the question what you greatest ambition is
Perhaps my greatest ambition is to have an ambition. If you have an ambition and it becomes a calling, then you don’t have an ambition anymore. You need a calling to work on now, and then you need an ambition that goes beyond that. That is not easy. I am currently preparing to cross the Atlantic Ocean with one of the smallest types of sailing boats that you can think of. It is only five meters. But I am already thinking beyond that, there always are new ambitions on the horizon — although I have to admit that I have not found it yet.
The crossing is scheduled for November 2020. I will be alone a lot. But that is good. There is an advice I want to give to students and colleagues: work hard on preparing and studying for whatever it is you want to reach in life. But dare to be alone with yourself and get your thoughts together every now and then. Theo de Boer, a Dutch philosopher, wrote a nice essay about it: Langs de gewesten van het zijn (Along the regions of being). You need time to stand still, to reflect on yourself. The big heroes in my life always did it.
Who, for instance?
Jesus. I am not very Christian in my beliefs, but he is an important example. Forty days in the desert. You need to go into the world, find your calling, and be alone with yourself, find your own thoughts.
When I was 19, I dropped out of school. I had just started my HAVO exams, the first was biology, and I thought: no, this is not for me. So I took my bicycle and my surfboard and off I went: I cycled to France. But I do not speak a single word of French so for six weeks I had no contact with anyone. I did some surfing and I did some cycling, sometimes over 200 kilometers a day with the surfboard behind my bike. A trip like that changes your way of thinking. I became one with nature, sleeping in the fields, watching the spiders, seeing how beautiful everything is. I became a vegetarian on that trip and have been ever since. Being alone with yourself will do these kinds of things to you. You are being taught by nature, by what you experienced and learned before, and most of all through your own thinking things through. I think we all need a little more of that.
Crossing the Ocean would give you an enormous amount of time to be with yourself. How long would it take?
Wouldn’t you be afraid in that small boat on the huge ocean?
Yes, I’d probably be afraid, but that will be part of the challenge. Face your fears, live your dreams, I guess.
Fall 2020 you’ll make the trip. From where will you leave?
I’ll start the trip in the South of Portugal. From there I’ll sail to Tenerife and then to Martinique in the Caribbean. The Passat winds will help me on my way and the trip is just a little bit safer down South. Less storms, less high seas.
Do you have a closing message for our community?
I was thinking about the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. It asks whether the world would miss your job if it weren’t there anymore. Many jobs do not contribute much to the world and this generates serious problems for those in them. With our jobs at UCR we deliver something of great value to the world. We should be very proud of that. You really should read that book.