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‘Pretend student’? Tell others and get help

In the documentary ‘Pretend Student’, former students talk about why they let everyone believe they were still studying. How can you make sure you don’t end up in such an impossible situation? Four questions for Leiden Student Dean, Romke Biagioni, who worked on the documentary.

Some ‘ghost’ students keep up the charade for years. They pretend they are attending lectures and taking exams and spend hours wandering around the city until they can go home again. They tell family and friends that their studies are going well when actually, they dropped out long ago. Since the tragic death of a medicine student who died by suicide in January 2020 because she didn’t want to live the lie anymore, the phenomenon has received much attention. The documentary Pretend Student, which the EO broadcasting association aired on 30 August, includes the story of a history student from Leiden. Student Dean, Romke Biagioni, hopes that the documentary will encourage students with problems to ask for help sooner. 

A clip from the documentary

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Can you estimate how many ghost students there are?

‘That’s very difficult, because if students have dropped out, we don’t always know what they have told those close to them. And we don’t have a good picture of this group because they tend to avoid contact with their degree programme. In the first year, student counsellors invite students who have failed to earn enough credits for the BSA (binding study advice) for an interview but not all students respond, so they don’t talk about it.’ 

Why do some of them keep up the appearance of being a student for so long?

‘Finding your way and coping with all the responsibilities can be difficult. Not every student is capable of solving and organising everything alone. Sometimes, the degree programme isn’t right for a student but they expect to be able to succeed and don’t want to disappoint others. It often starts with concealing the fact that they haven’t taken an exam, and at a certain point, lying takes over from concealing in order to maintain that image. A lot of young people derive their raison d'être from being students. It gives them an identity and they are ashamed if they don’t succeed at studying. They are often also already attached to student life and don’t want to give up their room in their student accommodation, for example. And since they can’t see any alternative, they keep up appearances and an unintentional lie is born.’

What would you advise someone who is in such a situation to do?

‘Know that you’re not alone (see information at the end of the article, ed.). The University is keen to help these students. We have a whole network of study advisers, student deans, mentors and psychologists and of course lecturers, all of whom can help. And if that’s still a step too far: share your story with someone close to you. There’s no need to be ashamed. There’s nothing new about studying being difficult or impossible. Confide in a room mate, family member or friend or an acquaintance with a bit more distance. And if it’s hard, you don’t have to tell the whole story at once. Start by talking about how things are not going well; that will make it easier to discuss the problem. You won’t get the negative response you’re expecting. Then you can work on solutions and let study advisers help you with that. Honestly, there is a way out of this situation; it’s just that you may not yet be able to see it yourself.’

How can this kind of problem be avoided?

‘The most important thing is that students dare to discuss problems on time and to indicate that they’re not managing with their studies. Let’s all just admit that organising student life isn’t that easy and that getting help with that is perfectly normal. We want to create an environment in which people look out for each other. If everyone is alert, from the receptionist who helps an insecure student to the room mates who keep an eye on things, these students will feel less lost. So take care of each other. Initiate the discussion, ask how things are really going. I was once approached by a couple of students who were worried about their room mate. I got in touch with the student concerned and it turned out that he had been stuck in this situation for a long time. The discussion was a huge relief and in the end he completed his degree successfully. So the intervention by the room mates was an important turning point.’ 

Ask for help

Are you having problems? The first thing to do isget in touch with your study adviser or study coordinator. SThey will sit down with you and help decide the best way to avoid falling behind and/or getting a negative BSA. So always get in touch so you can prevent the situation from getting worse. In many cases, it also helps if you turn to people that are close to you for support. 

Where to get urgent help for mental health

get in touch with your own doctor. Outside office hours, you can go to the huisartsenposten (out-of-hours medical centre) in Leiden and The Hague. And if you are having suicidal thoughts,  call 0800-113 or chat on 113.nl

Things you can do for yourself

There are also things you can undertake yourself to get more control of your situation. We have a number of options that can help. The University’s Healthy University @Home website has tips and suggestions for improving and safeguarding your mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Text: Linda van Putten

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