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‘Connect to at least one other person’

At the Faculty of Science, forty per cent of the employees are of a non-Dutch nationality. Amongst PhDs that is even sixty per cent. How are they doing in a time of working at home in a different culture, when travelling is not possible? Astronomer Yamila Miguel is the first in this series to tell her story.

Outside the street lights have switched on while Yamila Miguel shuts down her computer for today. She takes of her jacket and changes into a sweater. In the kitchen she grabs some rocket and feta cheese from the fridge. Tonight two friends join her for dinner. ‘Your friends are your family when you live abroad.’


We know Argentinean Yamila to be a successful and ambitious assistant professor at the Leiden Observatory. Since corona measures changed the way we live and work, she is consciously organising what she needs to be happy and effective. But her most important learning dates from her early days as an international employee, long before Covid-19.

‘People in The Netherlands are generally open and direct and they speak English well’

Local friends

‘Moving from Buenos Aires ten years ago has definitely shaped me to who I am today. My academic career has taken me to Germany, France and now the Netherlands. I was very curious to experience other places and cultures. At first everything feels new and exciting. But like with other things, after a while you also start noticing what you miss, or what you don’t like.’

‘The internal world of an internationally renowned Observatory is actually quite universal regardless of where it is located. But in Leiden, my husband and I for the first time have local friends outside the international bubble. I suppose we made more of an effort, knowing that we are not here temporarily. Also connecting on a personal level to the Dutch is easier I think. People here are generally open and direct and they speak English well. But the food culture here is different. I can get anything I want, sure, but the appreciation of food is just not the same.’

Little conversations

The effects of the coronavirus, though difficult enough, have not been so different for her as an international employee, she feels. ‘I can work on a computer from home and conferences and meetings have continued. But I miss the coming and going of many different people and the little conversations. Those informal meetings simply cannot be replaced with online coffee breaks. The impact on science of that lack of exchange of ideas we will learn only in time.’ 

Three quick tips from Yamila

  1. Start working in the morning at a set hour
  2. Dress as you would for a day at work
  3. Keep free time for relaxing and doing activities

Painting and sports

She has arranged her working life to cope with the changes. Besides putting up a comfortable workstation at home, she has learned to keep specific working hours. ‘I find things that separate work from home help me stay sane,’ Yamila says. Her secret? ‘Start working in the morning at a set hour. Dress as you would for a day at work. And keep free time for relaxing and doing activities. Even if they cannot be social and are just on the other side of your studio. I paint and practise cycling, running and yoga.’

Yamila Miguel is a member of Young Academy Leiden

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Being an optimist

Her private life is affected, but Yamila is able to see the silver lining. ‘I see my family online at least once a week ever since I lived abroad. Keeping in touch with friends from Argentina has actually become easier this year. Now everyone is used to keeping in contact online.’ In Leiden, she has limited the number of friends she meets. ‘There are two friends that we meet as a mutual contact in these times. I miss seeing others. But I also find that it has brought us closer together and deepened our friendship. My husband and I had to cancel our trip to Argentina for the holidays to see my family. We will spend Christmas with these friends instead.’

‘Connect to at least one other person. Share what’s happening to you’


On the question what her main advice is to other international colleagues, especially PhDs, she is clear. ‘Connect to at least one other person. Share what’s happening to you.’ Yamila learned a decade ago how important making friends is when you live abroad. But how do you do that now? ‘There may even be pressure from worried family members who find that the autonomous Dutch society makes going out here dangerous.’ She worries that people that are feeling the worst are not asking for help. ‘Reach out to your institute for help. This past year has shown me how important the quality of contact is. And when you are having a hard time, quality might be even more important than quantity.’

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