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Mariëlle Geelen (Beegden, 1968) left her position as director of HAS green academy, a university of applied sciences for agriculture, food, and the living environment in Venlo, effective January 1. However, she felt it was still too soon to stop working entirely. Her next stop? Brightlands Greenport Campus in Venlo. The goal? To get knowledge institutes even more involved in these activities.


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Her heart beats for education. In that sense, she was in the right place at HAS, with just under four thousand students enrolled in eighteen higher professional education programs. Those students work predominantly on current issues facing the sector, which is also how Geelen got to know the Brightlands Greenport Campus in Venlo so well. Just over half of the students at HAS in Venlo end up visiting the campus for one reason or another during their studies. When she was approached about her interest in bringing even more traffic to the campus, her response was: yes, please.

Mariëlle: “I didn’t really have a plan for the future, but I did think that I’m too young to do nothing at all, and I naturally have the expected baggage. And a dream: contributing to making the world a better place. This is a great place to make this happen.”

No insider knowledge

Before she went to work at HAS, she had almost no connection to the agri-food sector. “Except that both my grandfathers were farmers. When I became director at HAS, an uncle said to me, ‘But you don’t know anything about that!’ Haha, no, but I do know about education, of course.” Geelen has worked for Fontys University of Applied Science for more than 20 years.

Specific knowledge about the sector naturally came with the years. “One thing that quickly struck me was how many great things are happening here in the region. And this has a lot to do with entrepreneurship and innovative strength. What makes it a shame is that hardly anyone knows this. Limburgers can be so darn humble sometimes. People work hard in this sector, and often forget to show this to the outside world. I think the outside world stands to gain a lot here.”

Socially relevant

Ten years ago, HAS Den Bosch opened a second location in the city center of Venlo. The primary goal was to create connections with the horticultural sector based around the city. The idea was to enable students to connect with that regional business community. At the time, Frans van Leijden was the director; in 2015, he also became quartermaster at the Brightlands Greenport Campus. Geelen came to Venlo to act as duo director and take over some of his duties. When he passed away suddenly in 2020, she became director. “What appealed to me? The educational concept. We made sure students had a client to work with for each module; no case studies, but live assignments. They went on excursions at least once every two weeks. During the first year, I frequently went with them so I could get to know the industry better. We got the business community involved, and got the students out of the classroom. It’s great to develop educational programs that really matter. I also get this feeling at the campus. It’s socially relevant.”

Geelen does however know better than anyone how education and business are often not well matched.

“It just takes a very long time to develop new education. These days, I think: come on people, hurry up. You can’t say that you’re offering a program that won’t start producing its first graduates for another four years.

Mariëlle Geelen

Developments in technology move so fast that we can barely imagine what students will have to know how to do six years from now. Sometimes entrepreneurs will approach us with a challenge that students can work on, but then it turns out the module just ended. You can’t tell them that there will be another group of students next March. Entrepreneurs will stop coming if that’s the case.” 

Yes, I found my spot

Around three years ago, a partnership developed between knowledge institutes in the Venlo area as part of the Regiodeal. Geelen was involved in this partnership, representing HAS. “There are already so many benefits when these parties start meeting more often and working on projects together. This is also when you realize how unmanageable education can be. First, it’s because the senior education vocational education programs have time on Wednesday afternoons but for the universities of applied sciences, this is on Tuesdays. And then it takes another year to reorganize things. It’s all so complicated. The partnership has been split up into five field labs; these are workshops where professionals, entrepreneurs, and working people join forces with students to resolve issues on-site. I thought this was something we need to develop, and it should become part of the curriculum. The campus is the ultimate place for this. The campus then called to ask if I was interested in organizing this. I thought, ‘Yes! I found my spot!’”

Mariëlle Geelen

In practice, no one showed up

The concrete challenge was to get the knowledge institutes more actively involved with the campus. Geelen has 12 hours a week for this task. “It would be great if students could walk around here for six months,” she fantasizes. “Getting the space to take on projects that might last three weeks, while others last ten. And that’s another issue; it also has to fit into a ten-week period in education. Almost all of the knowledge institutes have a ‘box’ or other space at the campus, but not enough is happening there. My assessment as director was that students wouldn’t use it enough and, of course, it costs money. So yes, there is a gap between great ideas and the practice. You create a space, send students there, ask entrepreneurs to join, but it has to be a match. In practice, no one showed up.”

This describes the problem in a nutshell. So much has been achieved here in terms of infrastructure, but not enough is happening. How will she tackle this? “First, I’m going to focus on the field labs for future farming, food and health, and the circular transition. I want to try to create connections between entrepreneurs and students through a series of small steps. What is called CHILL at the Chemelot Campus in Geleen is going to be called GRILL here: GReenport Innovation Learning Lab. The goal is to bring knowledge institutes and entrepreneurs together to foster the innovation necessary to develop new knowledge and products. It has to involve more than just a project machine that will shut down when the subsidy ends. Just last week I spoke with Peter Korsten of Botany. What he and other entrepreneurs don’t want is to be jumping from one individual project to another. And then we have to renegotiate every time about that what the outcome should or should not be. I think we need to focus on very small yet very concrete subthemes and do this in a long-term program.”


One example. “Obesity among young people. This is already pretty concrete. Maastricht University is already has a chair here, and the HAS has a program in Food Innovation & Healthy Living. Gilde is working on a training program. Fontys has the Bachelor of Health here. If you get companies or an initiative like Kokkerelli involved in a long-term program, we can make progress. I haven’t been here that long, but these are the areas I have to be looking at. Just make a start. Or try to create connections with what is already here. And cause a bit of a stir.”

Geelen has ideas about how to tackle this. “To create a place where anyone who comes here for any reason can just drop in. Just because, or if they have a question, one they can’t find the time to explore on their own, or get ideas here.” 

Mariëlle Geelen believes this can also be important for the knowledge institutes. “Education may award diplomas. However, if you’re not careful, all sorts of private initiatives start popping up. Particularly if the shortages on the job market remain the way they are, diplomas will soon be of no interest at all. In cases like these, it’s more interesting for a company to hire someone who is able to offer the right qualities. I think entrepreneurs and employees are perfectly capable of selecting the right people if they have spent some time with these students. An employee is obviously not an examiner but at the same time, education needs a very clear definition of who contributes what. Sometimes, the student can be the expert for an employee, and at others, the lecturer or the entrepreneur is the expert. There has to be interaction in a practical environment. These roles are going to change and at the same time, you have to be very clear about who has which responsibilities; what they bring and what they take away. This is what needs to happen as far as I’m concerned.”

“If we could get the entire vocational and educational category together at this campus — from secondary vocational to university — we would have something unique to offer in the Netherlands, but certainly also internationally, which would be very unusual.”

Mariëlle Geelen

Not just young talent

Even though she will do her best to get the knowledge institutes involved at the Greenport Campus, it isn’t just about young people. “Everyone talks about attracting, retaining and developing talent, but before you know it, it’s all about young people and full-time educational programs. I would like for us to see everyone as being talented, and provide opportunities for continued development. The work is changing, also because of technology. This means a lot for those currently working in the sector. We will also be in desperate need of lateral entrants and newcomers in order to get all the work done.”

No matter how attractive the atmosphere or great the location and decor is at the Greenport Campus is, for full-time students the campus is still far away. “This means you have to make it very appealing for them to come here and sometimes even apply a little bit of pressure and coercion.”

Inventing the future

Don’t a lot of people wonder what they’re all doing over there at that campus? Are you just putting your cuttings in the ground, because this is how we’ve been doing it for years? “Definitely. But I also think there are a lot of young people who know that they will soon be taking over their parents’ business. And they also already know that they will or should do things differently. There are also many farmers and growers who are fully aware (and have seen) that the Earth is warming up. We must make the urgency clear and contribute to this sector through innovation. This is where we invent the future.”

Mariëlle Geelen


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