Stress Stories: Matthias de Visser on "Driving Ambition"

Matthias de Visser on "Driving Ambition"

By Siem Jacobs

On the 8th of January, right after 2023 had stepped out the door and left it unlocked for 2024, Matthias welcomed me into his office with a smile and a chair was pulled up for me to sit down.

Dr. Matthias de Visser is assistant professor at the UT, owner of a Decentral Education Prize and a Best Paper Award, but our acquaintance stems from the first module of the IBA bachelor.

“Driving ambition” was the topic for today, a recording phone is placed on the table, and the words start flowing.

As an icebreaker I asked the question “Do you agree that students should be made braindead, without ambition?”
Matthias: “I really hope that we cherish the ambitions of our students when they arrive, that we do not destroy it”. To him, the system within the UT should be careful not to squash ambition, but instead nurture and stimulate it. He agrees that there are moments where the UT could be doing a better job, but is also able to come up with an often underestimated advantage:

“One of the greatest assets you build up during your time studying is your network, the connections you make here will fan out over the world and you will end up with a group of people that share a connection and know each other, which provides unique opportunities to realize ambitions in the future”

“Do you think the UT offers enough room for people to be ambitious? How does UT restrict ambition?”
Matthias: “I think so, in the end I am convinced ambition is something intrinsic, but you can feed it by inspiring with role models - with us that would concretely mean guest speakers or the hackathons we organise with companies or being inspired by the dynamics of the campus itself.” Whilst it’s hard to come up with a solid example as to where the UT is restricting, he recognises the conversation between himself and colleagues about whether our curriculum is flexible enough to drive ambition. After a short think: “Some bureaucritisation of education is necessary to provide education that is recognised and standardised to an extent, sometimes it would be great to provide more room for students to chase their own learning goals instead of sticking to the original course plan.” He does believe that when it comes to things like theses, IBA is less restricting than other business studies in the Netherlands.

Matthias: “When a teacher is able to present with enthusiasm, it will spark enthusiasm in the students as well”. I ‘hmmhmm’ in agreement, and enthusiastically tell an anecdote about the perspective of a student being inspired by a teacher.

“Do you have a solid example of ambition being stimulated by the UT and colleagues?” Matthias: “We recently organised an event in our DesignLab, kicked off by guest lectures by IT consultancy CGI and their client AS Watson, with the theme of ‘Future of retail’.”
Inspired by the tv show Dragon’s Den, students developed business propositions for the Metaverse which they pitched to a jury of IT consultants and retail professionals. The best ideas were awarded with a graduation internship. “I think that was an awesome way to connect the theoretical with the practical, so follow your interests and you could very well be rewarded if you have a creative idea. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would like to organize this event again.”

“Are there places in the interaction between faculty, university, student, where you feel there are real shortcomings in promoting ambition?”
A momentary pause is required as Matthias is thinking about an example, and finds it easier to begin to answer the question with a hopeful look in the future rather than a comment on the current state: “I think, though this is more of a plan for the future, that it would be interesting to invite student to make a mindmap in which they visualize their understanding of a business, identify gaps and highlight where the things lie that bring them excitement and energy, so that we can link it to the expertise we have at our university, and more effectively engage in what students find interesting.” He realises this is essentially a call to get better acquainted with all the students, and that with the volume of students joining IBA each year this would be a difficult endeavour. This however, does not stop him from hoping that the UT would be less inclined to leave the ball of ambition-chasing in the court of the student. I tell him I think the idea is fun but hard, “ambitious” even, to which we share a laugh.

Then I ask him how he feels about the current ambition levels of not only the students, but also his colleagues.
“Ambition comes in many forms. I have students that come to me in the first weeks asking if I can help them set up a company, but there are also students who like to master a particular skillset. I also see students who don’t really know what they want yet, and are just happy to pass their subjects, and that’s okay too. You’re only 18 and 19, there’s so many different things coming at you, go ahead and try to choose from such a big menu. I think sometimes people are a bit blocked because of that.”

His colleagues also show ambition in many ways, some devoting their time to innovating their teaching and others putting their hours into research, but they all seem to have a good baseline of ambition and spirit. “They don’t come here to clock in and clock out.” Me being one of their students and Matthias one of their colleagues, agree that this is a good thing.

I pick up my phone again to check if it is, in fact, recording, because first timers make mistakes and accidentally not recording 20+ minutes of interview would have been a sad turn of events.

It’s time to go a bit deeper; “This next one is introspective” I say, to which Matthias lets out an “Ooh”.

“Are there aspects where you yourself think you can improve in driving ambition in students?”

“A lot of things”, followed by a sizeable pause.
“I think I’m just going to fire off a couple random things. I think in the limited time I give lectures and tutorials there should be more opportunities to showcase what we do; students do not need to all become researchers, but it would be nice to better highlight the research origins of what we talk about. I sometimes meet students who, only upon starting their thesis, realise that we do a lot more than just stand in front of classes giving lectures, that we also conduct research to discover that knowledge. I think for ambition’s sake, it would be nice to tell them more often about the industry collaborations that led to the findings we discuss in class.”
He harkens back to the mindmap, and mentions how it would very much help here. Switching subjects, he says he would like to be able to better understand what students are processing and absorbing during a big plenary lecture. “You ask questions and there are conversations during the break, but in such a big setting it is not always easy to capture what students really think about the content.” He’s unsure of how to get a better understanding of this, but would really like to. He ends his answer with saying that to him, the brain of a student sometimes remains a bit of a  ‘black box’ mystery. Luckily, at UT there are plenty small-scale settings that allow for dialogue.

To end things off, I ask him if he has any words of encouragement for students reading this interview?
For the first time in the interview he takes a peek over to his screen filled with notes and answers to the question for the interview that I sent him beforehand, but barely followed.
“It’s going to sound a bit cliche╠ü, but I really believe that students should grant themselves some time to figure out what they are good at, what they enjoy, and how they can turn that into something valuable for a company. Stick true to yourself and don’t let others decide what’s important to you. Be honest with yourself and discover what your strengths are and what gives you enjoyment. Even if sometimes what you enjoy is not your strength, you can become better at it. I think when you find that for yourself, which is very closely related to ambition, when you find what keeps you moving, the rest sort of follows.”

“I also think it makes you lead a more fun life” I blurt out, unwavering in my personal strength of not keeping my mouth shut. The remark is met with laughter, thankfully.

I stop the recording, thank him dearly for his time and hurry to exit as there is only 2 minutes left before Matthias’ has his next online meeting.
I told him it would be quick, and to be fair, it wasn’t really, but I close the door behind me being very thankful for Matthias de Visser’s perspective on driving ambition.

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