Who is Matej Pop-Duchev?
From confession booth to campaign trail
Most recently, the sardonic-but-earnest international was the most famous RUG student no one actually knew – the anonymous admin behind the popular Facebook page, RUG Confessions. As the unofficial confessor for some 31,000 students, Matej has intimate insight into their lives. Below the ‘fun, party image’ of the university, he says, international RUG students are suffering. And he wants to fight for them.
Matej – a self-proclaimed ‘lazy existentialist’ who thinks life is meaningless and who seems always to be leaning on something even when he’s standing upright – may not seem like the natural choice to lead a student revolution. ‘Camus says I should make my own meaning out of a random existence, but that sounds like a lot of work. So I guess I’ll run for university council instead’, he laughs.
But jokes aside, Matej isn’t one to back down from a fight.
Before he left Macedonia for Groningen, the then-high-schooler joined his fellow students all around the country to take on a dictator who was making their lives ‘complete shit’. It was a bad time, he says: ‘There was no rule of order; journalists were being killed; students were being tormented.’ But when the government wanted to impose a state examination, young people staged a huge protest. ‘In the end, we changed the government successfully.’
In his ambitious manifesto for the International platform – which he says he wrote in one go in a ‘kind of anxiety fever’ – Matej calls bullshit on a university council that has used low student voting turnout as evidence that students aren’t motivated to change things.
‘Of course there will always be people who are apathetic. But that’s not an excuse to discourage those who aren’t. Motivation usually comes from a couple of focused centres and expands from there to capture the attention of everyone else. So if you see political initiative – even if it’s just from a few people – don’t kill it. It will spread.’
Five questions for Matej Pop-Duchev
Why do you think students don’t care about university politics?
Last year, the voter turnout among students was only twenty-three percent, which is crazy! That’s basically just the constituency of the existing parties; no one else is paying attention.
I think Dutch students are apathetic because the Netherlands makes it so comfortable to live here. The status quo is good enough.
International students, on the other hand, are too busy just trying to survive. They are really anxious, trying to find housing and juggle five hundred courses with very little support from the university. They don’t have the emotional energy to cause a political commotion or draw attention to themselves. The first rule of integration is to fit in, right?
International students are too busy trying to survive
I am a member of that part of the student body that needs representation. Most of the issues I talk about are derived from my personal experience.
How did your work behind the scenes of the RUG confessions page inspire a political campaign?
What has struck me the most is that students – internationals in particular – are struggling so much with mental health and loneliness. I get a lot of confessions about it and only post about twenty percent of them. It always poses a moral dilemma for me: these problems need visibility, but sharing them the right way is also a big responsibility. I worry about it a lot.
Now that I’ve seen the problem for myself, it makes sense: internationals don’t have the support system that Dutch students have built just by living here all their lives. They don’t speak the language, don’t have access to the same resources or even the same health insurance. If the few options they do have fail them, where do they go? They end up on my Confessions page – which is a weird mental-health safety net, you have to admit.
I’m not optimistic. I’m just one guy
I don’t think it’s radical to suggest that the University provide something more. Just having someone available to talk to in your own language can be enough to prevent situations from becoming urgent.
Are you optimistic about your chances to win a seat on the U-Raad?
Not at all optimistic. I’m just one guy; most student parties are these establishment operations with long histories and an entire support cast of students. And a ten page manifesto is asking a lot, especially because it’s not a populist agenda. There’s no ‘I will give you things’ anywhere in it.
Above all, I wanted to make a statement about what I think the elections should look like: long, exhaustive proposals; high-level discourse; vision-casting. But it’s harder to get behind a vision than a promise. Vision requires individual commitment to what happens next.
Do you worry that your proposals as an international student on the u-raad won’t actually be taken seriously?
I realise that’s a possibility, but I’m not worried. Students don’t really have the power to change things right now, but more importantly we aren’t in the position to give ourselves the power to change things. We’re stuck, partly because there is overarching legislation to prevent us from doing much.
But the council does have the right to consent. That’s only as powerful as the people in council who are determined to use it. If people are driven enough, there is a lot of good they can do.
I’m pragmatic; if I weren’t, I’d just be DAG
Formal powers aside, once you’re a member of council the board has a responsibility to hear you out. The council is a link between the common student and power – if you want to change anything, you have to target that link.
You call this a revolution, but some students might argue that trying to work with a broken system is a half-assed kind of revolution. What would you say to that?
I can see that. And pure idealism is admirable. But I’m pragmatic – if I weren’t, I’d just be DAG. If you want to get shit done, you have to get your hands dirty inside the system – especially since you only get a year to do it.
Frankly, what I’m proposing doesn’t seem revolutionary to me, but here it’s considered radical. Some of my proposals – like health care services in English for international students, or that admissions should not exceed housing capacity in the city, or that the university should actively lobby to change admissions policies at the national level – are apparently controversial. They sound really big; really new. But to me, they sound like common sense.