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Historian Nadia Bouras: ‘I wanted to succeed, for my parents and myself’

In the Pioneers of Leiden University series, we talk to past and present students who were the first in their family to go to university. In this second instalment: historian and university lecturer Nadia Bouras (1981). ‘Although I only found out later that was my mother’s dream, it was as though I already knew unconsciously and was chasing her dream.’

Mohammed El Baroudi (1995) is a trainee at Leiden University and was himself a first-generation student. He is tracking down the stories of pioneers at Leiden University. This is his second article in the series.

The green of the courtyard garden at the Johan Huizinga building on Doelensteeg in Leiden greets everyone who pops by for a breath of fresh air. A necessity rather than a luxury on this hot Friday afternoon, despite the dark clouds that are looming overhead. ‘There isn’t much in the way of shelter here, but let’s take our chances,’ says Bouras as we sit down on two benches facing each other.

Perhaps a sign of her fearless approach to the unknown: ‘I had no idea what it entailed, but from the start of secondary school I knew I wanted to study history. No one could persuade me otherwise.’ What started as an interest in reading books about the Greeks and Romans at primary school took root with the inspiration provided by an enthusiastic history teacher at secondary school. Reading and telling stories: both interested her.

‘History? You’re capable of much more...’

Bouras proved to be a diligent pupil and joined in all sorts of activities, from the school newspaper and school council to the drama club. Her active life as a pupil, in combination with her decision to study history, led to an argument with the school head in her final year: ‘You’re capable of more than history. You ought to study public administration,’ she told Bouras.

‘She saw my decision as me not fulfilling my potential. She meant well, but I thought, “Sod off! I’ll decide for myself,”’ she laughs.

Her twin sister had started a programme at a university of applied sciences a year earlier, and Bouras decided to go ahead with her plan to study history, starting at VU Amsterdam in 2000. Pioneering was something that cropped up sooner rather than later as a first-year there. ‘I wasn’t just the first one in our family to go to university, but I was also doing history, virtually the first Moroccan on the programme at the time.’ Whereas her father was an illiterate farm worker from Sidi Ifni in Morocco, who spent 40 years working in old people’s home in Amsterdam, Bouras’s mother had gone to secondary school and worked as a cook in the same home. ‘She came from the big city of Casablanca and apparently had the same dream of studying history. It was only much later that I discovered she had given up on the dream when she married and moved to the Netherlands just before her school-leaving exam.’

Mother’s dream

Bouras found herself in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions when she first started university: on the one hand, she wanted to succeed, to tackle the hardest challenges and never give up. But on the other, she froze because she just couldn’t fail. Her parents were proud of her for what she had achieved and supported her: ‘I wanted to succeed for them and for myself.’ She admits she put too much pressure on herself. ‘Although I only found out later that was my mother’s dream, it was as though I already knew unconsciously and was chasing her dream.’

Fear of failure

She accidentally booked her driving test at the same time as her first exams at university, and promptly failed. This caused her to develop a fear of failure, mainly with regard to her studies: ‘Not something I would advise,’ she jokes. ‘I got palpitations as I cycled towards the university building.’ Panic, anxiety attacks, crying at her textbooks: the fear of failure had taken root and lasted at least two years. That is not to say she didn’t pass her exams. Because she did, with flying colours even, but with a large dose of stress and tears: ‘Studying was no fun,’ she says. ‘And it meant I missed the student experience: immersing myself in student life, excelling and being a good, active student.’ But she knew she would never give up. It was her ambitions that finally pulled her out of the hole: ‘The situation felt untenable, so I took the rigorous decision to chase one more dream: studying in America.’

Nadia’s American Dream

In popular culture the American Dream is about achieving prosperity through your own hard work, but for Bouras it was more about the typical American campus life from TV. ‘Campus life, Beverly Hills 90210, cheering for the university basketball team, everyone wearing the same jacket: that picture.’ A stroke of insight made her realise that the fear of failure had her trapped in a hole, but that this may be the best reason to give it a try. ‘It sounds paradoxical: thinking you won’t succeed but wanting to get the most out of everything. An experience abroad was part of that most.’

It wouldn’t be easy, making arrangements for her foreign adventure: ‘I was told there wasn’t much experience of American exchanges, so I’d have to find out a lot myself. The Erasmus programme made it really easy to study in another European country, but that was by no means the case for the US.’ Bouras set to reading books, making notes and navigating the paths of the young internet and she succeeded. ‘I went to a university in New Jersey in 2003, close to Manhattan. Everything was new. I had no one to talk things through with and that made it exciting too.’

‘Where are you really from?’

In her year in the US Bouras let go of her perfectionism. Her new goal was to discover the joy of studying. The environment was unfamiliar to her, but her appearance was perhaps even more unfamiliar to those around her. ‘Where are you really from?’ she was often asked when she said she came from Amsterdam. ‘I was suddenly the Moroccan there. I felt more Moroccan there than ever, which was strange because I felt like a normal Amsterdammer. But it was fun too. It got me reflecting on myself and my identity. On my return to the Netherlands, I noticed that students from the same background stood out more to me.’ Bouras found peers, like-minded people who were also discovering where they belonged. ‘Before I felt like an outsider at the university. Now I befriended an Orthodox Jewish student, simply because we recognised that feeling of otherness in each other.’


Bouras embraced her otherness and now recognises the same in other students who also have to pioneer: ‘There are students whose parents or grandparents were already a member of a student society, but that’s not necessarily the norm.’ She sees enough students who don’t have a classic migration history, but who come from outside Leiden and have to find their way in the university and life there. ‘They too have to adapt to the culture and codes there. You don’t necessarily have to have a migration history for that. It’s good to talk about it with one another and for nothing to be taboo.’ Bouras has worked at Leiden University since 2006, and received her PhD in 2021 for her dissertation: Het Land van Herkomst, Perspectieven op verbondenheid met Marokko, 1960-2010 (The Land of Origin, Perspectives of Ties to Morocco, 1960-2010): ‘The best thing was the realisation that I was allowed to look at my own history for my studies. It made me realise that as a researcher I have one foot in the university and the other in society.’

Self-awareness and recognition

Today Bouras is more aware than ever of who she is and her role as a female academic of Moroccan heritage. ‘I once gave a guest lecture to about 300 first-year students and noticed that when I first looked around the lecture hall my eyes stopped at a student wearing a headscarf. We had a moment of eye contact, of recognition. It was heart-warming because she even came to me during the break to tell me that she hadn’t known there could be someone like me in that environment.’

‘Role models are essential and recognition brings us together.’

People often turn to the familiar out of fear of uncertainty and doubt, but Bouras did the exact opposite and sought out the unknown. And in doing so she learned that it was possible to research and study her own background, the migration history of her parents’ generation. She now asks new students the same difficult questions in her lectures. Who they are and where they come from, so that they can recognise themselves in others: ‘Because role models are essential and recognition brings us together.’

Share your story

Are you a pioneer or do you know others who would like to share their experiences in an interview? Mail the editor

In the first instalment of this series, we spoke to novelist and columnist Christiaan Weijts, who was also the first in his family to go to university.

Text: Mohammed El Baroudi
Photos: Melissa Schriek

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