Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
23 June 2024

Campus
& Culture

‘I am hopeful about the new generation of students’

When she was a student herself, Marleen Blootens (40) was searching for a purpose. As a students’ chaplain she now holds space for students who are seeking answers to the big questions in life.

You are a vicar of the Protestant church. Does your religious conviction define your attitude towards students? “No, I am here with an open mind for every student, no matter what their religious background is. As NewConnective we are not here to provide answers, but to guide students in finding out what is important to them and to connect them to others.”

Marleen Blootens (40)
2012 – now
Minister at the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN)
2008 – 2011
Master theology and religious studies at VU

The church hasn’t had much good press these last decades. Many people have chosen to leave the church. Can you understand why young people don’t want to have anything to do with the church? I understand very well why people are leaving the church – a bit too well maybe. When I was working as a pastor in Amsterdam and Rotterdam I would sometimes speak with people who were struggling with the church as an institute. At times I felt the best advice for them was to leave the church for a while.

Yet, Christianity is so much more than the church. I feel sorry that as a culture we are losing our knowledge of the Christian tradition so fast and at such a massive scale. Nowadays, many people are attracted to Buddhism but know so little about their own tradition anymore.”

Can you mention an example of a Christian ritual that could help us in modern day life? “Singing hymns could be one of them. Singing together is deeply connecting, relaxing and meditative. It connects you with your own body, and with others. I am looking for ways to bring singing back, also at VU.”

Meditation and mourning groups
NewConnective has several meditation groups in Buddhist, Christian and mindfulness meditation. They also run two mourning groups in English and in Dutch for students who have lost someone and in their monthly podcast they lead conversations between students and staff about the ‘big questions in life’. An overview of their activities can be found on their Instagram.

What kind of student were you yourself? I started out with psychology here at VU, but I was missing something. When I did a minor in theology I discovered it was the focus on the big existential questions that I was missing. I switched to theology. I was seeking purpose, wrestling with issues like female vicars. In the church I grew up with, the vicars were all male. I had to find my own way, but luckily there was time to do so.”

What do you observe in student life nowadays? Many students are stressed out and I can totally understand why. They are under so much pressure: to succeed, to finish their education in time, to build a resume, to find a place to live, to earn enough money. Almost every student experiences stress. And they don’t have enough time to build meaningful connections and reflect on life questions.”

Has that led to a self-absorbed generation? “On the contrary: considering the new generation of students, I am hopeful. They have more dedication to change the world than the generation of millennials before them, to which I belong. Millennials often focus more on looking inward for personal growth and there’s nothing wrong with that, but in our highly individualized society we have lost connection with others.
The urgency of the problems we are facing now, like global warming, might be a reason why the next generation of young people is taking more action in the world. And I think that is a very good development.”

While we were in the process of doing this interview, you heard that from May on, you will have a new job as hospital chaplain at the Erasmus University Medical Centre. Why are you leaving VU Amsterdam? “The most important reason is that the VU is too far away. I live in Delft and have two small children. It is important for me to work closer to home.
And second: in my new function I can do more of what’s important to me. I want to be a pastor and a sparring partner in the existential questions that people face, especially in times of sickness and grief. I think spiritual and moral counseling should be an integrated part of institutions like the VU. As NewConnective we have a small budget that is partly externally funded. We try to do what we can, but our capacity is small. Another limitation is that we are there for students only, whilst we know also employees can experience a lot of stress, especially at the beginning of their scientific career. I hope the university chaplain comes back into the heart of the VU one day, as an integrated part of campus life.

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