Aisha Hassan’s lifelong fascination for developing countries
Aisha Hassan came to the Netherlands when she was two months old. Her mother had fled Somalia and made a new home here. Aisha doesn't remember much about that time, but her mother’s stories about Somalia ignited a lifelong interest in developing countries. ‘Her stories have always fascinated me.’
For example, Aisha remembers lively discussions about politics at the kitchen table at home with her mother. ‘This stimulated my interest in politics.’ Hassan almost chose to study International Relations. However, at an open day the important position of culture in International Studies won her over. ‘I thought, this is actually a lot more fun, and culture plays a big role in politics and the global economies.’ As her region of specialisation, she chose Africa, and she picked Swahili as her language.
Microfinancing in Tanzania
The internship that Aisha did during International Studies in 2018 left the biggest impression. She chose to do an internship in Tanzania, where she participated in the Young Entrepreneurship Program of the Sengerema Foundation: an NGO that helps individuals to apply for microcredits and provides financial support to young entrepreneurs through coaching and training programmes. ‘The country and its politics had already been discussed a lot during my studies. At the time, I really felt the need to put all the theory I learned into practice and noticed that the culture courses I had taken were very important.’
For example, she charted the struggles of commercial microfinance institutions. ‘It was very difficult for them to get money back from the loans they extended to entrepreneurs. Oftentimes, the money that they borrowed had not been put into their companies but had gone to the family, for example because there was a funeral that needed to be paid for. In Tanzania there is no distinction between work and family.’ That made her think and motivated her to choose her master’s degree. ‘This provides me with opportunities to learn more about these phenomena.’
'Don't ignore nature when we talk about people'
In 2019, Aisha opted for the master's in International Development Studies at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), specifically for the track politics and government, which deals with the origins of specific development problems. There is also a focus on sustainability. ‘That really appealed to me. When we talk about people, we cannot ignore nature. I notice that these kinds of topics are not discussed in the international arena.’
Aisha has already noticed the benefits of International Studies during her time in Wageningen. For example, she worked on a project for the Wageningen Science Shop, the platform that collaborates with social organisations for research. She worked with biotechnology students on a report to get social organisations involved with research on genetically modified plants. ‘For me, the challenge was to come up with one idea together and to discuss different perspectives.’ That is exactly what she learned at International Studies. ‘You can see that there is a connection everywhere. History has an impact on politics, culture has an impact on the rest. You have to keep that in mind and keep making those connections.’
Currently, Aisha is finishing up her master’s degree. Afterwards, she would like to get into academics and research. She has already gotten a taste of that in Wageningen, when a teacher of a course on international political relations asked her to be his teaching assistant for the course. When the time came, the course had to be taught online because of the corona pandemic. That was hard, she recalls, at times she even had to act as a counsellor for students. ‘That gave me an idea of what it would be like to get into academics.’
'Develop extra knowledge on different subjects'
Hassan has tried to get the most out of her time as a student. She recommends other students to do the same. ‘Go to events, network and talk to people. Chase your interests. As a student, there is time to do that. Especially do it if you live in The Hague; you are surrounded by inspiring people and platforms you can make use of.’ Also develop more knowledge in areas you think might be useful, she says. ‘Especially when they fall outside of the regular curriculum. This is the way to learn new things but also to expand your network. After all, you are here to study, so why limit yourself and focus on things you already know?’
Photographer header: Thomas van Beek