“Humanitarian aid gives me a purpose in life”
Alum Alexandra Nizet crossed the Atlantic from the United States specially for the University College Maastricht. Here she became acquainted with the different facets of healthcare and developed a holistic approach to global health. “I enjoyed the many activist student organisations in Maastricht.”
Growing up in the US, she heard about UCM by chance. “I wanted to follow lectures, but we only have these massive courses with up to 500 students. And the curricula are often fixed in advance. My mother, who—like my father—comes from Belgium, happened to hear about UCM. That you have small classes of 11 people at most and can put together your own curriculum. I was immediately drawn to that.”
She opted for a concentration in Life Sciences despite being unsure whether she intended to continue in the field. “I saw that as an advantage. The bachelor’s was exciting because it left doors open. I loved that flexibility and the emphasis on exploring your options. You learned to think across disciplines, solve problems, design research and draw your own conclusions. Those are the skills you need to tackle new things, and I benefit from them to this day. I love new challenges.”
That freedom of choice at UCM exposed her to the multiple angles from which healthcare can be approached. The focus can also lie on economic, sociological or political and administrative aspects. After graduating, Nizet first worked in a refugee centre in Serbia and later for an environmental organisation in Brussels. She then opted for a master’s in Global Health and Development at University College London. “I took courses in political science, anthropology and public health, which helped me develop a holistic approach to wellbeing and health.”
She is now based in Berlin, working for Doctors of the World, a humanitarian organisation that provides medical care to vulnerable people worldwide. Her appointment reveals the importance of personal networks, she says. “I’d been applying for jobs without much success. But my mother is in a WhatsApp group of French-speaking women in New York, and one of them was looking for someone to come and help Doctors of the World. It’s the kind of organisation I dreamed of joining.”
Alexandra Nizet studied at University College Maastricht (with a concentration in Life Sciences) from 2014 to 2018. She volunteered in a refugee camp and with an environmental organisation before obtaining a master’s in Global Health at University College London. She currently works for the humanitarian organisation Doctors of the World. As a communications officer, she aims to foster a better understanding of the refugee crisis from a humanitarian perspective.
She is currently focused on assisting Ukrainian refugees, by writing articles, statements, and social media posts. Medical teams in Ukraine and at the borders of neighbouring countries are cooperating with the Ukrainian government to facilitate humanitarian corridors. “I do the communications and help build understanding from a humanitarian perspective. It’s a modest role, but for me even the smallest contribution makes a difference. Whether you donate, work as a translator or serve on the welcome team for refugees, anything is better than doing nothing. I want to show that you can be engaged in this terrible situation on a humanitarian level.”
Nizet intends to continue working in humanitarian aid, even if she does not yet have a clear career path in mind. “This work is more valuable than anything else, including a well-paid job. You’re helping people through the most difficult phases of their lives.” She does have professional ambitions, however. “First I want to gain knowledge of emergency response and then of the recovery of health systems that have collapsed or been disrupted by crises. Later I hope to use that knowledge to help develop and improve global and national health policies.”
Whether you donate, work as a translator or serve on the welcome team for refugees, anything is better than doing nothing. I want to show that you can be engaged in this terrible situation on a humanitarian level.
Looking back on her time in Maastricht, the first word that comes to mind is grateful. “It gave me a foundation on which to build my life. The education set me on the path towards a holistic approach to health. And I made friends there—many of my friends in Berlin are from that period or an extension of that network. It was a nice environment in which to discover myself.” Maastricht’s student culture helped a lot. “I enjoyed the many activist student organisations, such as the Green Office that I volunteered with. There was an open culture, where you could discuss issues and refine your views. Surprising, incidentally, when you consider that it’s quite a conservative region.”
Her advice for current UCM students? “When thinking about your future, try to break it up into smaller questions, a bit like Problem Based Learning. A dream job is nice, but not the most important thing. You have to think about the environment you want to work in. With whom and for whom? What topics excite you? What goals would you like to pursue? It’s about the total picture. Also think about the steps to take. They don’t have to be set in stone, as long as there’s a general direction. I didn’t know what I wanted for a long time, but I learned to think in small steps. Where would I want to find myself working and what influence do I want to have? Each little step adds up to a clear path. So start small and build your life up bit by bit.”
Text: Hans van Vinkeveen
Photography: Alexandra Nizet