Who are you?
My name is Ruben van den Akker. I am sometimes referred to as the most Dutch guy around. It is probably because of my height, my blue eyes, my blond hair, and my accent. Personally, I do not really know what Dutch characteristics are though, but being a bit down to earth may be part of it.
Where are you from?
I was born in Heenvliet, a small village near Rotterdam. I grew up in Zoetermeer and lived there for fourteen years. Zoetermeer may well be the second ugliest city in the Netherlands after Almere, but it is big and it has everything. I didn’t mind living there.
Why did you come to UCR?
I had applied to University College Utrecht, I got an interview, and I got accepted. But my mum said, “you cannot just go to one place, you have to look around.” So she took me here. I was wowed by the open day: it was really good and I really liked the city. If you come from Zoetermeer, where nothing is more than fifty years old, and you then cross a bridge over the canal here, look at the houses, see the Lange Jan, City Hall, the Burgerzaal — well, the city and the great atmosphere at the open day just drew me in. At Utrecht, it just was not the same. It felt a bit — elitist. At UCR things felt cosy.
What is your major?
I major in economics and political science.
How is it to engage in these fields in a Liberal Arts and Sciences context?
I took all the courses in economics and almost all courses in politics. I wouldn’t mind taking a couple more courses in these fields. That said, I also took a minor in stats and in my first semester I took world history with Prof. Van Dixhoorn. I would never have taken that course in a more narrowly focused program. For me, it was all about critical thinking. I also took some mathematics and computer science. So, I looked around and that brought me good and unexpected things. Maybe that is a true liberal arts experience.
The critical thinking in world history, how did that come about?
We did not have a textbook that stood for just one approach. We just read different texts and I was quickly able to understand that these texts were not necessarily the whole truth. You could engage with them critically, pit works by different authors against each other and develop your own ideas. Something similar happens in political theory, but world history was the eye opener for me. And the way Prof. Van Dixhoorn taught the class mattered a lot: he let us speak to the texts and engage with them.
Now for something completely different: what is your greatest ambition?
In the end, I think that the most important thing for me is to be able to help people. Right now, I help people with small things like economics, stats, or I take a lot of bar team shifts at Elliott. I recently signed up as a mensa volunteer, too.
What is good about helping other people?
It’s a win-win. Because the person who helps will feel better afterwards and if all goes well the same should go for the one who is being helped.
So helping others is about maximizing happiness?
Maybe it is, or perhaps that is just a positive by-product of helping. There was a guest lecture once by a UCR alumna who is in investment banking now. At some point I asked her “What do investment bankers contribute to society?” She completely misunderstood my question and she started talking about her salary and how much money she earned. Investment banking was actually a career path I had considered but she made it seem like something you only do for yourself and not for other people.
You did an internship this summer in Washington DC. Was that about helping people?
To an extent it was. I was interning for the American Financial Services Association Education Foundation (AFSAEF). They developed an online curriculum in personal finance, which they distributed for free. It is mostly used by high school teachers and people in community colleges. I spent a lot of time updating their curriculum materials. I would say that it helped people somewhat. Money management is especially important in the US, where people buy a car before they leave high school; where there are huge credit card debts; where we currently see a combined $1.6 trillion in student debts.
Do you have a message for our community?
Maybe this is cheesy, but I think that there is a lot to learn outside the classroom. I saw that in an earlier interview you did with Arta Starova she had a message about going outside the bubble. I could have done more of that I think. But inside the bubble I feel that there are those who have their even smaller very own bubbles within the bubble. They go to classes, and then back home, where they study. But there is so much more. I learned so much from being in RASA, in Elliott, in the Christmas Gala team; being chair of the Council, and the head bartender. My internship in Washington was bursting the bubble. The idea is: do something!
My second message would be: make the most of your summer. Sitting at home in your underwear playing PlayStation for three months is just not that fulfilling. Travel, study, do an internship. UCR’s academic calendar gives you this opportunity so find something that you like and do it. Living with nineteen Americans in a dorm in the US for three months is very different from hanging around with the same six Dutch people and two French people in Bagijnhof.
My third message would be: enjoy and cherish the very special bond you can have with professors here. Because of the small class sizes and the IRPs or senior projects we all spend a lot of one-on-one time with our professors. It is amazing to see how much most of them are willing to invest in us. I have come to respect them more because of this. It has become difficult for me to skip a class or not put all my effort in a paper. All of this makes UCR really very special and perhaps we should be more aware of that than we sometimes are.
Do you look forward to graduating and going someplace else?
Yes! I love Middelburg, it is one of the reasons I came here. But during my third year I started to feel like I’ve seen most of it. I am in my seventh semester now and am looking to move on. I was looking at graduate programs this week. I looked at a double Master’s degree in Paris and London, at Sciences-Po, in European Affairs, and then Political Economy of Europe at the London School of Economics.
Any idea about a future career?
I was thinking about working for the European Commission in Brussels, in economics, in one of their Directorate Generals. I am intrigued by the European Commission and the European Union. I took the course on European Union Politics by Prof. Lelieveldt and I think that a lot of Europeans do not realize how big Europe’s role in their lives really is. I do not necessarily think that I will be able to make all of them more aware of that, but I would like to be part of that apparatus for a while.