'My focus is on people who are feeling low, but who are not so unwell that they need to see a psychologist.'

Made in Maastricht: Joep van Agteren

All of his jobs on the side while he was a UM student brought Joep van Agteren (30) a reward. Without a doubt, the most valuable of these is his girlfriend Nicola, who he met while working for the Erasmus Student Network (now the International Student Network). At the end of her sojourn at UM, in late 2014, he decided to join her in her homeland of Australia. He now lives and works in Adelaide, which he describes as 'Maastricht on a larger scale'. We spoke to him by telephone about the value of 'intervention mapping', visa red tape and 'shit sandwiches'.


As Joep van Agteren informs us halfway through the conversation, the labour market in Adelaide is rather tight. In the early days, before he had found his first 'real' job, he had to make ends meet by taking on a number of sidelines, such as working behind a bar and cleaning up at festivals. 'I worked for two years as a researcher on the pulmonary medicine ward of a hospital. As a Psychology student, I used to struggle to understand the difference in research methods between medical science and psychology.' Although the experience proved instructive, he decided to look for a job that was a closer match with the expertise in mental health care he had acquired during his studies.

Combination of research and application
Since June 2017, he has been employed at the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), where he is currently leading a small team of young researchers at its Wellbeing & Resilience Centre. 'Our focus is on people who are feeling low, but who are not so unwell that they need to see a psychologist. This covers a large part of the population. We investigate their symptoms and the psychological constructs that underpin them, and we develop training programmes that people can take at the centre. What appealed to me most was the combination of carrying out research and developing applications.'

A more complete world view
As a native of Geleen, Joep chose to study at UM because it would allow him to continue his intensive handball practice at his old club. 'I also liked that lectures were not the only teaching method.' When his handball days ended, he started investigating other hobbies, 'because I like to stay busy.' A girl friend introduced him to the student exchange organisation ESN. He even served as national chairman for two years. 'I've always enjoyed mixing with people from other cultures. They often have a completely different outlook on life, which has helped me obtain a more complete world view.'

Enjoying your down time
In spite of his ample exposure to other cultures, the transition to Australia has not always been easy. 'Although Australia is often regarded as a Western outpost in an Asian part of the world, there are significant cultural differences compared to the Netherlands. As a Limburger, I am naturally more introverted than people from the Randstad, but over here, I am perceived as extremely direct. By consequence, I've had to adjust my communication style to keep everything going smoothly and avoid being seen as someone who always wants to get his on way.' According to Joep, the best method for giving feedback in Australia is the 'shit sandwich': 'You start off by saying something positive before you utter your criticism, and end on a positive note again.' Then again, he is happy to conform and enjoys spending time with his many Australian friends. 'They have taught me to take things easier after work. They really know how to enjoy their down time over here.'

Demonstrating that your relationship is genuine
He only received his permanent residence permit a month ago. The many years of red tape that preceded, it were not so much difficult as they were hard work. 'This can go as far as creating photo montages of your social life – so if you receive an invite to a wedding, for example, you take a picture of the envelope addressed to yourself and your partner as proof that your relationship is genuine.' Although he is now fully at ease in beautiful Adelaide, he still feels completely Dutch. 'Nu.nl has become my best friend,' he jokes. 'If anything big is about to break in the world of politics, I'll be messaging back and forth with my Dutch friends.' Additionally, he regularly enjoys a bite to eat with a Dutch colleague who is also a UM alumnus. 'We catch up on news from the home front and each other's families. It’s nice to keep up with what's happening back home.'

A wonderful time in Maastricht
Between 2006 and 2014, he had what he describes as a 'wonderful time' in Maastricht. Aside from his work for ESN, he was active for the Student Services Centre and the Maastricht Students blog. 'That taught me how a university works. I reap the rewards of my studies to this day. The Intervention Mapping course taught by Professor Gerjo Kok didn't appeal to me much back then, but my work has made me realise the importance of staging interventions in this way. That's the sort of knowledge that is really prized over here.' While Nicola and Joep are keen to see more of the world and are glad to consider other options, growing old together while living the good life in Adelaide certainly appeals. With vineyards and beaches half an hour's drive away, you can’t blame them.

By Femke Kools, September 2018