• ‘I love this city’

    Friending  Jessica

    Jessica Winters, the outgoing head of the RUG’s marketing department, has been the brains and heart behind how the university presents itself to the outside world for eight years. ‘I love this university, all the good things and bad things.’
    in short

    Jessica Winters is leaving the RUG after 18 years of working at the university – she is also an alumnus of the American Studies department. She has been the head of the marketing department for eight years.

    During her tenure, she was behind several high-profile projects promoting the university, from a popular lip sync video to a film for the university’s 400th anniversary.

    She also took it upon herself to set up the RUG’s Facebook page, which was one of the first for a Dutch university.

    She considers Groningen her home, but she felt that she needed to kick herself out of her comfort zone and will be starting in a similar position at the University of Utrecht in May.

    Although she is leaving Groningen behind, she has high hopes for her department. ‘I think we have a great team, and at the same time, things can go better, and I think it’s good that someone new will come in and take it to the next level.’

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    After getting seated at espresso bar Black & Bloom, she cuts straight to the chase: ‘So, why do you want to do this article? I feel like I’m either dying or retiring.’

    It’s neither: the reason for dragging her into the spotlight is the fact that she is leaving Groningen. In May, she will become the new head of the student marketing department at the University of Utrecht.

    She says that she prefers to remain behind the scenes, even as she acknowledges that being a lanky loudmouth with a ready smile works against any attempts not to attract attention. Yet she has been deliberately just out of view for many highly visible projects promoting the RUG over the past decade.

    She was central to the campaign to come up with the RUG’s latest slogan, ‘Think Bold’, and she was the one to get Stranger Things Have Happened involved in the ever-larger welcoming ceremonies for international students. The university’s elaborately choreographed lip sync performance of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ by Electric Light Orchestra in the University Library, which has more than 330,000 views, was her idea, together with Frank den Hollander. ‘I’m there, I’m behind the camera, and there’s one point where I’m just around the corner, but you can’t see me, and that’s the way I like it.’

    The film in honour of the RUG’s 400th anniversary, ‘For Infinity’ was a spin off of the lip sync performance, and it was another brainchild of Winters and Den Hollander. It was inspired by similar projects from Harvard and Yale. ‘It’s totally corny, it’s not cool at all – it’s horrible’, she says with a grin. ‘But it’s so horrible that it is kind of funny.’


    She started out as a student at the RUG herself in the American Studies department in 1991. But her connection to America existed even before that: she was a foreign exchange student in Texas in high school. ‘I got my high school diploma there. I had the hat and everything, it was all very cute.’

    She lived with a second generation Mexican family while she was in Texas, which was where she says she first truly appreciated what international education can mean. The family had six children with a seventh on the way, and Winters knew that she was just another mouth to feed for them. She asked the parents why they had made their home open to her. They said, ‘We can’t send all of our kids abroad, but we do want them to see the world. So we decided to get abroad here. You’re the international experience for our kids.’

    Winters attributes her choice to work in higher education to that formative experience. ‘I’m a pragmatic idealist, and I honestly do believe that international education makes the world a better place.’

    Even before she eventually graduated from the RUG – she readily admits that she was more interested in her social life and took advantage of endless resits – she began working in the American Studies department as a student assistant, which translated into a position as a study advisor later on. ‘I knew the academic side a bit better, and I liked working with students. You see them grow up, that’s kinda cool.’ She stayed in the department for ten years before making the transition to the marketing department in 2008.

    Uphill battle

    Although having a Facebook page for a university seems like a no brainer nowadays, when Winters set up the RUG’s page in April 2008 – which now has more than 65,500 likes – it was one of the very first for a Dutch institution of higher education. ‘I set it up when I wasn’t supposed to and it went really well’, Winters says. Now that she is leaving, letting go of her ‘baby’ was hard. ‘I was crying. I was thinking, I set up this Facebook page, it’s my Facebook page! But they’re going to take good care of it’, she says, reassuringly.

    ‘When we wanted to develop an app everyone got upset’

    Convincing those around her that change is good was an uphill battle. That goes not only for Facebook, but also for creating online brochures for the RUG. ‘Initially, everyone said, ‘we don’t want something online, we want it in our hands’. And I was like, ‘yeah, but you’re 50 years old. We’re not selling to you.’

    Winters says that although she is not a big fan of change herself, she does love innovation and new things. ‘I love figuring out problems, even though it sometimes blows up in my face.’ One such blow up was Winters’ fledgling app for the university. Her department began working on it, but the Centre for Information Technology staff was also looking into it around the same time. ‘They felt that we couldn’t develop an app, and then everyone got upset’, she says. ‘I think our initial idea was very good for prospective students, but then there are other parties coming in and they want other things. You lose your goal and target group, and then it just becomes this bland crap thing.’


    ‘I hate projects that have too many parties involved, and that’s also one of the reasons that it’s good I’m going to do something else, I think’, she says. ‘I’m good at the first part: the pioneering part, the setting things up. It may not be completely according to regulations, but the result counts, and it works, so it’s all good.’

    She does not labour under any illusions that her new workplace will be a politics-free utopia, though. ‘It’s going be the same in Utrecht, it’s just going to be new politics that I don’t have 18 years of experience with.’

    She still thinks it is important to kick herself out of the comfortable bubble of Groningen, in spite of how much the university community has changed around her a lot in that time. ‘Now, if you walk around the city, you hear so many different languages’, Winters says. And while that has been a gradual process, Winters knows that the rest of the city beyond the university has not necessarily kept pace with that change.

    She recalls overhearing a pair of stadjers ‘bitching about’ all the foreigners in Groningen. ‘I started telling them, ‘I’m sorry, but did you know these kids are students? Did you know that they’re bringing in 25,000 euros per year in tax money? They’re not costing you money, they’re giving you money. Look around the city, look around at all these international students and how lively this city is compared to Assen or Leeuwarden. Even Amsterdam has a different atmosphere. So I had a really nice chat with them about the benefits of having international students, and in the end, they said, ‘thank you very much for sharing this with us. We had no idea.’


    She does not attempt to hide her love for the city, the university or her job here. Yet a couple of years ago, Winters found herself feeling the need to make a big change in her life. Having worked here for several decades, she has seen people in departments and faculties across the RUG who have clearly remained in the same position for so long that they have grown set in their ways and bitter, and she did not want that for herself.

    ‘Poppema is the first president that I feel free to walk into his office, and I like that’

    She was considering getting away – far away. The UK, Sweden, Finland: even Canada and the United States were possibilities. But when she let her department know she was on the verge of leaving, it was RUG president Sibrand Poppema who personally told the department not to let her go.

    ‘Poppema is the first president that I feel free to walk into his office, and I like that’, she says. ‘I like that I can walk in, and he knows who I am. I like him. I think he likes what I do, he seems to like it when someone is a bit ballsy. It’s also what I like about him. You can agree and disagree, but you’re not mistaken about what he wants.’

    And so she stayed. But then she met the love of her life, who happens to live in Amsterdam, so the idea of leaving Groningen came up once more. And then came the new head of the communications department, who was gone a mere six weeks later due to his inability to work alongside his staff. ‘He was the nail in the coffin that made me look at a job website on Christmas eve’, Winters says. ‘I decided I needed a plan B.’

    ‘I can’t say no’

    That plan B looked like it was going to be a position at Van Hall Larenstein, an applied sciences university in Leeuwarden, as the head of communication and marketing – until Utrecht called. ‘I thought, oh, shit. This is the only job that shouldn’t call. I can’t say no. This is the number one university in Holland and in the top 50 in the world.’

    Utrecht has a lot going for it, but there is one crucial thing that Groningen has that Utrecht doesn’t: ‘The RUG has the coolest buildings of any university I know. They’re old, they’re new. Now I’m going to the Uithof, that is where my office is, which is basically like Zernike was ten years ago.’

    But how attractive a university’s property is is far from the thing that matters most when trying to catch new students’ eyes. ‘It’s not just about your brand, it’s more about showing who you are without constantly saying we’re the best, which obviously we have to say every now and then, but I like the smaller things. It’s great when we go up in the rankings, but things like when the Ganymedes students had a float during the gay pride in Amsterdam, I was so proud. I thought that was the coolest thing.’

    ‘Blow everybody away

    Although she is leaving Groningen behind, she has high hopes for her department. ‘I think we have a great team, and at the same time, things can go better, and I think it’s good that someone new will come in and take it to the next level.’

    And the future here is certainly not without challenges for the marketing department, from the branch campus in Yantai (‘How are we going to deal with a student in China being arrested for blogging about the Chinese president? I honestly think we need to think about that!’) to the University College in Friesland (‘The number of students who go to university in Friesland is much lower than in other provinces, so if there is a university there, I think more kids will go.’) to marketing to international students (‘Splitting up our marketing into international and national just seems like the weirdest thing ever. It needs to be one voice.’) and housing and even employing those students once they are here (‘We have to improve on those things. If we don’t do that, we will lose the race. Simple as that.).

    But now, Winters is moving on to version 2.0 with a familiar and welcome task.Utrecht is at that point in internationalisation that I love: that pioneering phase. They are lagging behind the other universities, and that is what I like. I like the underdog part, and then I like to blow everybody away.’