Ruard van Workum was 15 when he started studying at TU Delft. Last week, at 18, he was the youngest student ever to receive a degree in Molecular Science & Technology.
Ruard van Workum skipped lessons in the second and third year of his bachelor degree. (Photo: Ruard van Workum)

Ruard van Workum was 15 when he started studying at TU Delft. Last week, at 18, he was the youngest student ever to receive a degree in Molecular Science & Technology.

Lees in het Nederlands

“Yeah, thanks.” Ruard van Workum did not exactly sound enthusiastic when I congratulated him on his new degree. “Doing a course is well-trodden path in which you don’t need to think about what you’re doing for three years. It’s not that admirable,” he says, frowning. We have barely spoken for one minute and one thing is already clear: this will not be a run-of-the-mill interview.

I had intended to chat with Van Workum about various things, such as his future. If you have a bachelor degree in your pocket at such a young age, isn’t the world your oyster? “Nope,” he answers firmly. And he would rather not talk about his age at all. Okay, can he do everything he wants? Absolutely not, he says. He feels a lot of pressure to do the right things, make the right choices. “I have more ability to learn than other people and I feel obliged to bring it to fruition.” So he has not started working or gone travelling this year. And he also won’t do a master’s. Van Workum is now studying at the CODE University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, a private educational institution founded (in German) by the German whizz-kid, Thomas Bachem. The University is funded by companies such as Facebook and Amazon. It does not have a full set curriculum and does not do written exams. Students learn in their own way, are given subjects designed for self-development and launch innovative start-ups along the way. “I have learned more in the last two months than in three years at TU Delft,” he says, gesturing emphatically.

Learning fewer facts
So what has he learned? He finds it hard to express in words. He takes a breath, starts saying something and changes his mind. “It’s really a feeling.” I ask him to compare his new course with his Molecular Science & Technology bachelor. Why does he not think his degree is that special? “People usually think that university is more difficult than secondary school. But in reality, it’s only a continuation of the same process,” he answers. “Bigger books from which you need to extract facts and apply them to an exam. It’s about having the ability to abstract and analyse, without it really being fundamentally more difficult. But at Code you need to work with 12 people to find solutions to a problem.” And he believes that this gives an extra dimension. “You don’t only dissect the problem itself, but you need to convince other people and really communicate well.”

He is taking a bachelor on programming in Germany. “The information era has only just started.” He is thinking about doing something on the interface of chemistry and digitisation in the future. Everything is related to chemistry, he says. “I would like to do something like make chemical 3D visuals to show people that chemistry is not that complicated. Chemistry is still the domain of pharmaceutical giants and if my visuals can draw more people into chemistry, I may be able to instigate a social movement. In other words, a democratisation of chemistry instead of the agenda being driven by supply and demand.”

Always reflecting
Halfway through the conversation Van Workum asks me how I will write up his story. I answer that it will be a personal interview. He frowns. “Will anyone learn anything from it? An interview with me?” What a question. I don’t have a meaningful answer, so instead I return a question. We had heard from his bachelor degree programme that week that he would enjoy being interviewed. Why? His answer: “I hope that this conversation helps me reflect on my choices.”

Reflection. He says that he does this ‘non-stop’. “A few minutes every hour perhaps. I always look for a three level meta-analysis behind everything.” He has done this since he was a small child. Even with his parents when they wanted him to do what he was told. “Then I wondered if children were simply born into a slavish obedience relationship?” This caused friction from time to time. While he did have friends, he couldn’t always connect with everyone at school. In the first year of secondary school for example, which he started in advance because he was allowed to do the Cito final exams in group seven instead of group eight and got the highest score. “Nobody understood everything I said in that year.” He felt socially isolated and decided to completely go his own way in terms of learning. At secondary school he asked if he could do the second and third year in one year. He would go through all the material himself. He was allowed to do it and it worked for him. When he had to follow the regular syllabus in the fourth year, as in the first year, it did not go well. “I did not want to always adapt to the norm.” In the end, he also did the fifth and sixth years in one year.

And so he ended up at university when he was 15. That is, he attended in name only. “When I was in the second year I stopped going to lectures and did all the learning myself.” He read books about all sorts of subjects. He looked up information about entrepreneurship and set up his own companies. “You know, the usual things.” While scrolling on Instagram one day he saw an advertisement for the CODE University of Applied Sciences. It appealed to him immediately. “I wrote a ‘position paper’ with a friend when I was 12 on what education should be like. CODE meets about 90% of our criteria.” He finally feels that he is in the right place. “I am really happy for the first time.” His smile soon gives way to a thoughtful look. “Anyone can follow their own path, just like I did in the end. I think that’s the most important message in this interview.”