18 December 2019

Mapping the city, and the college

Twice a year, University College Utrecht celebrates the graduation of students in a Commencement Ceremony. This December’s graduate and ceremony salutatorian Lorenzo Margiotta shares his experiences at the college and looks further to life after graduation.

‘In the beginning, the college was nothing short of a culture shock. The Netherlands in itself was that too. I spent my formative years in Nairobi and went to the British School there. This was something truly different’, Lorenzo tells. ‘In the first semester everything felt very new, in every respect. I was very much impressed with the campus culture and its insider terms and jokes. It took time to learn all the references.’

Navigating the city

After high school, Lorenzo felt that he wanted to acquire a broader knowledge base, instead of choosing to study just one specific subject. After a search through different university colleges in Europe, he decided on University College Utrecht.

‘I had a vague idea that I would be interested in urban planning, but mainly I wanted to explore many different subjects, and I am glad I did. Although I chose Human Geography as my major subject, I also studied Politics as a major, which I would not have expected to do. Now, at the end of the programme I am happy with my choice, as my plans for a future direction have become much more concrete.’

‘My interest in urban planning was fed by my experiences with navigating through the traffic and routes in Nairobi. I commuted to school by public transport and had to learn by trial and error. Nothing, not even bus routes, is fixed there. It was a very useful experience, and fed in my emerging interest in urban planning. What is more, by having to learn to handle the city’s infrastructure gave me the feeling that I belonged there. It also made me aware of the different worlds existing in the city.’

Culture shock

‘After that experience, coming to the Netherlands was a culture shock for me. I didn’t know much about the Netherlands, I had the idea that as a northern European country, here everything would be in place. It was a kind of utopia I had in mind.'

‘Somehow I thought that what I had learned about different kinds of environments in Nairobi would be applicable here as well. It turned out not to be the case. I gradually started to be aware of how people react differently to internationals, not so much on campus but in the city in general. First it felt rude, I thought people were holding back their reactions because I did not speak Dutch. But then I realised it was just their way of communication, of being neutral. I also realised that although the level of English is really high here, not everyone necessarily feels comfortable enough with the language to spontaneously switch to English.'

‘For new students, I would certainly recommend to get to know the country and to learn the language, at least so you can understand what people around you are saying. It helps to make you feel at home here, to belong.’

‘At University College Utrecht itself you naturally develop a network, while in a regular university programme I guess it would be more difficult. Here you meet people all the time, and it’s nice to have your friends around.’

‘My mistake in the beginning was to be overly hard on myself and work deep into the night, even if I couldn’t focus properly. Don’t be too harsh on yourself during your first semester, seek help if you are experiencing difficulties, and know that if you feel inadequate, your peers probably feel the same, so be open about it.'

 ‘I also worked part-time for the biggest part of my study. That needs some negotiation with one’s self too, as it is clear that you can’t do everything at the same time. Invest in your relationships, make friends and learn to belong. This is a nice place.’


‘Soon after graduation, I will travel to Rwanda and perhaps look for an internship there, before enrolling into a Master’s programme after the summer. I hope to study Urban Environmental Management at Wageningen University. My main interest is in African city planning, and Kigali is a case in point in that.’

‘Rwanda is fascinating. I am sure it is partly image-making, but I think that there might truly be a lot happening in terms of social and environmental projects in the country. They are really taking an effort to build a community; it has potential to become something quite big, and I would like to look more thoroughly into it.’

‘They have also been innovative with their new master plan for Kigali. I am writing my thesis about the effect of Nairobi’s city planning projects on the urban poor. Master plans are a growing trend in African cities that plan big for the future, though sometimes they are controversial and they make you wonder who the development is going to be for. The majority of African cities are made up of people in informal settlements, while the emphasis in planning is on becoming a metropolis and attracting international investors. In fact, in Nairobi international investments have had a catastrophic effect on local economy. Uber is a good example; it has ruled out the independent taxi drivers. In Rwanda there seems to be more attention on the development of the local economy and infrastructure.'