Eindhoven University of Technology: The happy few on the campus count their blessings

While COVID-19 has sentenced the majority of us to the attic or kitchen table for more than year, a few individuals have been spared the need to miss the TU/e campus for barely a day. Their work on site had to go on, no two ways about it. Not that they would have had it any other way; receptionist Ülker Durusu, security guard Ruud de Graaf and facilities account manager Johan Lauwers count themselves downright lucky to have been able to carry on working in their ‘ghost town’ – where both literally and figuratively the grass is now greener than ever before.

Twenty-two years at the university but this he had never experienced, not even in the vacations: “At the end of March of last year, I stood here on the street and wherever I looked, even in the distance, there wasn’t a pedestrian to be seen, not a cyclist, no one. Just unreal,” recalls Lauwers. Durusu: “Scary actually. The campus was a total ghost town. It brought it home: this is something very big.” Security guard De Graaf speaks of a bizarre film scene, the one in which everyone has left their homes in a panic, too abruptly to take any personal belongings, “and then you catch sight of a chair still rocking back and forth,”

He continues: “At first, to be honest, there was a mild sense of relief. As the security team, we had just come to the end of a year with a fair amount of upheaval, with changes in our management, new staff needing to be shown the ropes, new systems we had to learn. For a moment, corona took the pressure off.”

Receptionist Ülker Durusu misses the buzz of life on campus. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Relief did not have the upper hand for long: “We were soon missing the action, the buzz that’s part and parcel of our work”. And then there were the many new and temporary tasks the pandemic brought with it, particularly early on. From staffing the telephone switchboard and responding to the most varied questions to reminding those who were in fact present about the 1m50 rule – a task that later passed chiefly to the ground stewards and corona coaches.

As one of the three receptionists in Atlas, originally the only TU/e building that stayed open, Durusu – now in her seventh year of employment at the university – had a similar helpdesk role for all and sundry. “Registering campus visitors, supervising service engineers, coordinating, delegating, a little surveillance; the initial period was very busy, but I like that. It kept us going.”

The pandemic, then in its infancy, and all the measures it entailed made a lot of people anxious, fearful, she observed. “Personally I wasn’t scared. More than anything, I felt grateful that I could go to work. It’s in my nature to keep active, I need a rhythm. At home, I’d fall into a black hole.”

“In the first few weeks, everything came our way, because, well – we were here”, says facilities account manager Johan Lauwers. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Similarly, facilities account manager Lauwers – whose roles include managing several campus buildings – and his colleagues were busier than ever during those first few weeks. “Everything came our way, everyone with a question came to us, because, well – we were here.” Checks were made – were all the buildings locked?, refrigerators were emptied and disinfected, VIP status was arranged for the people, the very few exceptions, still allowed into their building. Alongside all this, the enforced campus vacuum was seized upon as an opportunity to tackle a wide range of maintenance jobs, to be done by subcontractors. “Normally, you’ve got lectures, exams going on; it’s always a matter of finding a time slot, of compromising to keep any disruption to the education process to a minimum. But now these things could go ahead.”

In early May, the first labs re-opened: “Then we were really challenged,” says Lauwers. From organizing building access for a few hundred researchers to preparing these buildings for corona-proof use: “Ten thousand stickers we put up, from arrows on the floor to ‘please sit here’. Don’t think, just do; we need this ready now.” And he is ever so proud of the cooperation between all the facilities employees and Real Estate and Information Management and Services, the TU/e services involved. “That was super.” One thing that could have been done differently has struck him, but he voices it only after the interview. His brows knitted, he points at one of the blue arrows on the floor: “At some point they’ll all have to come off. That’s going to be a job and a half.”

Today, nearly fourteen months of corona restrictions on, TU/e has seen rules lightly relaxed in various ways, new restrictions, and much deliberation. The persistent lack of hustle and bustle, the unprecedented quiet – you get used to it, say the men. “You never get used to it,” disagrees receptionist Durusu. “This is not why I came to work here. When I applied, I was thrilled by the buzz of life here; the campus life keeps me young. I haven’t even seen the new intake of students yet. Normally, you do your bit to help mould them into adults; they push the limits, we rap them over the knuckles.” However irritating they might sometimes be: “I miss them so much.”

Security guard Ruud de Graaf: “Things are much quieter now”. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke
Security guard De Graaf misses the bar nights and events, “these would normally be the highlights of our work. Things are much quieter now, but fortunately we have our regular duties, like our camera monitoring, surveillance and inspection rounds. And this past year, partly because there is a good deal less social control, homeless seasonal workers have given us a lot of work. They have been hanging around in our buildings and on the campus. They tend to be familiar faces, and we keep it as personal and friendly as we can, but now and then it does drain your energy.”

Keep it friendly is also Lauwers’ motto, for example when he sees yet another knot of seated people without face masks. “It’s easy to see that it’s dragging on, that people are fed up of it all. I always do my best to put myself in the other person’s shoes and to keep my tone light, upbeat. But as long as people are here, there are rules. From a distance, I can’t see that two people are a couple. So: masks on.”

His days – and those of his colleagues – continue to fill themselves effortlessly, says Lauwers. “There’s a comfortable rhythm to my work and I never need to think: what now? My diary was empty yesterday, but from seven fifteen in the morning I was on the go the whole time. There is always plenty to do.”

When they will be back to doing their work under normal circumstances is a topic the three hardly dare to broach. “Corona isn’t going away anytime soon, that much you can say, not even if everyone is vaccinated,” Lauwers thinks. “I think we’re looking at an annual jab, so we might as well get used to the idea.”

By her own account, Durusu has stopping expecting a change for the better, “And I don’t watch the news any more”. But dreaming aloud about being back at an outdoor cafe with girlfriends, a meal out with colleagues, paying a visit to her mother in Turkey, yes, this she does now and again. “I hope all these things return, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back entirely to the old normal. I can’t help feeling that a certain kind of fear will stay with people, of hugs, of overly large groups. We have been a little scarred, don’t you think?”

At the same time she is aware of the good things, despite all the challenges, restrictions, disruption and sadness, the pandemic has brought. The shared meals every day, the games she, her husband and adult children play together, the latter now living back at home since the first lockdown. The closer connections with colleagues, the cleaners, security guards, with service engineers – most of which came about in the early weeks and months, when they got to know each other better. “It has made a real difference to how we greet each other now.”

De Graaf is observing the same thing in his team. “Suddenly you’ve got a huge topic in common, you find yourself having different kinds of conversations; not only about the work, but about your private life, about the measures, what everyone thinks of them.” He himself is finding the situation “pretty tough”, being told by authorities what he should and should not do doesn’t come easily to him. “Of course, I go with the stream when it comes to the guidelines, but I find it difficult that we are now living in a world in which everyone is keeping an eye on each other, and criticizing each other. I hope this tension eases a little in the coming months, that people are happy to offer a smile or compliment more often. These are gestures we all need.”

Enjoyable chances to let off steam are provided by the walks and cycle trips with his four-year-old daughter, the conversations he values with his girlfriend and friends, being able to work on the campus. “I have a huge amount of respect for everyone who is working from home, in many cases sharing cramped quarters with a partner and children.”

Walking is also a hobby enjoyed by Lauwers and his wife. “We are fervent walkers of the Pieterpad, a long-distance route, and we like to set off with our caravan, that’s when I’m completely in my element.” The campus – which returns the conversation to his beloved work – is another place where he is in his element. As he says, “If need be, I can work from home just fine, but I’ve always appreciated that I can come here; that I can be here, can go about my work, can help people get on with their work.”

As well as paying more attention than ever to people, De Graaf has found himself noticing other things on campus. The flora and fauna, for example, which this past year have been able to blossom as never before. “The young foxes played with abandon; there was no one about and hardly any litter to be seen. And the grass on the Groene Loper has never stood so tall or been so lush.”

‘We may be caught up in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.’ This has been said often enough during the corona crisis. Confronted with all manner of personal challenges, in both their work and private lives, people having been finding their own way of responding – with resilience, by trial and error.

The TU/e organization is well aware that its students and employees have also demonstrated resilience during the pandemic; that they are keeping not only themselves, but also each other and the university, afloat in times that are often uncertain. And this makes the lustrum theme of the 65-year-old university, ‘Heroes like You’, more appropriate than we could ever have imagined. So, every month in this spot the university is putting a group of its own heroes in the limelight in recognition of their ‘heroic deeds’, however great or small they may appear.

The Heroes of April are the TU/e employees who stayed on campus, even through the worst of the battle against corona. “I am proud of all the men and women who held the fort, who kept vital processes running at the campus”, says Executive Board President Robert-Jan Smits. “They kept watch in otherwise abandoned buildings and worked many lonely hours to keep the campus safe and to keep TU/e facilities running. I am impressed by the dedication and resilience they have shown.”