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Maastricht still home to Yuri Michielsen

In Alumni
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Thursday, 15 October 2015 14:24

Yuri Michielsen is a man of many talents. A brilliant legal scholar. Graduate of Maastricht University’s (UM) European Law School, winner of the Best Speaker Award at the European Law Moot Court, and holder of a master’s degree from Harvard and a PhD cum laude from Maastricht. Now, this champion of the Limburgish language is about to receive a second PhD, this time in clinical psychology, in San Francisco.


Switching from law to psychology may seem like quite a leap. “But the decision made perfect sense to me”, Michielsen says via Skype from his home office in the heart of San Francisco. “The fields have more in common than you might think. Law school piqued my interest in regional languages. I started to think about how they’re enshrined in the legal system. Should a language like Limburgish be compulsory in schools, as the Council of Europe is currently insisting to the Dutch government? One thing led to another, and I found myself wondering whether dialect-speaking students who are taught in the official language wind up performing differently. How do they react when they get comments about their accents? And why? That’s how you end up in psychology.”

The question remains why, in 2009, Michielsen chose to pursue this seven-year degree in Berkeley, San Francisco. The straightforward answer: love. “I met my now-husband during my master’s at Harvard, 17 years ago. We got married and spent several years alternating between the Netherlands and the US, but ultimately we wanted to settle here. Partly because Steven, my husband, was needed in the US permanently for his job. I wanted to come with him, but California didn’t recognise gay marriage yet, so I wasn’t eligible for a Green Card. Studying here was the only option, as international students have the right to a visa. Because I was captivated by language and psychology, I decided on this degree.”

Last summer, for the practical part of his research, Michielsen spent three months in Maastricht. “I wanted to find out whether the official working language of a university affects the performance of students whose first language is a regional dialect. I contacted UM and immediately received full support from Gerjo Kok. We sent out 600 questionnaires and eventually surveyed and tested 160 students. It was already known that in some cases, speakers of Limburgish make greater use of their right hemisphere. My research dovetails nicely with this finding. I don’t have conclusions for you yet; we’re currently in the analysis phase. But I expect to defend my thesis this academic year. I’m also not ruling out the idea of doing more studies in Maastricht, in which case I’d commute between Maastricht and San Francisco.”

With this, the Maastricht native would be adding a new chapter to a very versatile career – one in which the keyword seems to be ‘chance’. “It does look to be that way, doesn’t it?”, he laughs. “I’m not much of a planner. After high school, I was keen to go to university, and I decided on law. The real fun started when the European Law School was established. In my last year, our team won the final of the Moot Court in Luxembourg and I was named Best Speaker. This was the key to being accepted for the master’s degree at Harvard in 1998. It was a great opportunity – the only problem was funding. They expected me to transfer 50,000 dollars to the US.”

Thanks to a few scholarships and some creative thinking by UM, everything worked out. “UM gave me a loan of 25 grand that would be turned into a gift if I were to complete my PhD research in Maastricht. After two years in the US, I returned to Maastricht. Quite happily, I must say. I grew up there, I know its every nook and cranny, and it’s a great student city, of course.

“My partner enjoyed living in Maastricht as well. There’s a huge difference between the two cultures. The pace of life is much slower in Maastricht. There you can go have a drink at a sidewalk cafe; that doesn’t happen in the US. And San Francisco is irresistible in its own way, for completely different reasons. I love both cities.”

In 2004, his PhD on the role of the courts in the Benelux countries during and following the Second World War resulted in a wave of publicity. He published many papers based on his thesis, and received a number of prizes and nominations.

He had made it as a legal scholar, but to Michielsen himself, his PhD served as a springboard to a different field. During the interviews and archival research, he became fascinated by the role of the Limburgish language. Back in the US, he was invited to write four dictionaries, including an English–Limburgish one. He also translated children’s books and poems into the dialect, authored a Limburgish adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and co-founded the Limburgish Academy Foundation in 2007. “The aim is to keep the Limburgish language alive and accessible to a wide audience, including scholars. I can see how it might all appear to be rather unconnected. But in my eyes, everything has converged quite nicely. In my current thesis, I’ve been able to weave together law, language and psychology. Now I want to focus on becoming a full professor, somehow combining San Francisco and Maastricht. That would be wonderful.”

Yuri Michielsen (1970) studied European Law at UM (1994–1998), obtained his master’s degree from Harvard (2000) and received his PhD cum laude from UM on the Nazification and denazification of the courts in the Benelux countries. This year, he will graduate as a clinical psychologist from the Wright Institute at Berkeley. Michielsen is the chair of the Limburgish Academy Foundation (www.limburgs.org).

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