When you are at a crossroads, above all follow your own path

As Senior Advisor at SDSN, Freerk Boedeltje, Human Geography alumnus, maps concrete policy actions of countries and advises what countries can and should do to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. Hopeful work and fitting his ideal as a world citizen. As a child, he already dared to dream and was touched by the lights on the Champs-Élysées. He has always relied on that stream of light. He now lives in Paris and looks back on his student days and career.

Portret Freerk Boedeltje


Freerk Boedeltje

Current position

Senior Advisor at United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)

Previous education

Master in Human Geography

What did you want to be as a child?

'I am quite a late bloomer. As a child I often lagged behind and was insecure. I once sat down at primary school in Lochem. I was a shy boy observing in the schoolyard during the break. I didn't know what I wanted to become later, but dreaming went well. Especially during holidays with my parents and sister, these came to life. In the backseat, I looked my eyes out, the landscape slipping past me like a film. I remember it like yesterday. The lights on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the beautiful greyness of Berlin in November. The smell of freshly cut grass in summer.'

'Music also made me dream. The albums at our house took me on a journey. Paul Simon, Neil Young sang about America, and in my teenage years posters of the Beastie Boys, REM, and the Cranberries hung above my bed. I saw myself singing the songs but didn't have the talent.'

'But my confidence grew. Not necessarily in myself, but that things would work out. Just before my 20th birthday, I failed my VWO exam. Right then, a boyhood dream came true. My parents gave me the opportunity to go abroad for a year. The belief in the future had begun.'

Why did you choose to study Human Geography?

'Maybe the study chose me. I was in England, where my adventure abroad had begun. I was lucky enough to be accepted to study geography at Cambridge. I am hopeless with numbers, but history and geography were my best subjects at school. It allowed me to express my curiosity in the world and my fascination with world cities and culture. After two years in England, I found myself in a difficult period. Everything came to a halt for a while and again I had to trust that things would work out.'

'I remember it well. It was November and I knocked on the door of Jackie van der Walle (lecturer in Geography, Planning and Environment). She is a student advisor in addition to being a lecturer and gave me the confidence that I had arrived at the right place. I was able to join in January and felt right at home. Henk van Houtum (professor of Political Geography and Geopolitics) and sadly deceased Leon Wecke (polemologist and columnist) inspired me to think beyond borders, think transversely.'

I actually did not have the traditional background for this but the diversity of my experiences helped.

How did this study add value to your career?

'Human geography is a broad study. That was good for me. The years in England tasted like more and I was keen to explore more of the world. My first job was at Nijmegen School of Management. Together with Henk van Houtum, I worked on two large-scale European projects on European Integration. We visited many places and I then continued my path in Finland where I worked on my PhD for two years.'

'My boyhood dream about America was still very much alive. At the end of my PhD at Joensuu, I got the chance to go to San Diego as a visiting researcher for 3 months. Those few months turned into more than eight years. I was affiliated to San Diego State University but mainly did policy consulting for the State of California and the US federal government on cross-border cooperation with Mexico. It was an important period in my life. When Trump came to power in 2017, the projects dried up. A return to Europe beckoned. It became Paris, the city of lights.'

'In 2018, I was lucky enough to join an International Organisation, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). There, I worked with member states on the challenges of our time such as development issues, climate change and sustainability. Human Geography fits these challenges very well. After two years, I got the opportunity to work as an advisor to the ambassador at the Dutch Embassy in Paris. I actually did not have the traditional background for this but the diversity of my experiences helped. Since last year, I have been working for the United Nations. The organisation that fits my ideal as a global citizen.'

Freerk Boedeltje omhoog kijkend

What do you do as a Senior Advisor at United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)?

'In 2015, all 193 member countries of the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. The world faces enormous challenges. Geopolitical landslides, migration, climate change and the biodiversity crisis are just some of the problems. The Sustainable Development Goals were developed to achieve a more sustainable world for all by 2030. We are hopelessly behind and moving backwards rather than forwards. My job is to work with my team to identify concrete policy actions of countries and advise where more can and should be done so as not to lose sight of the goals.'

What do you enjoy most about your work and in what ways do you make an impact?

'We are under no illusion that our impact will be visible in the short term. Multilateralism is under pressure. Existing partnerships are falling apart into multiple competing power blocs. We know we cannot solve the problems alone, but everyone is looking at each other and no one dares to be the first to step up for fear of losing economic or political influence. That is frustrating. But it is also hopeful work. If only to keep the big problems we face as a world on the agenda. That may sound modest, but it's about keeping the belief in a more sustainable, fairer world in mind amid the seemingly endless feed of bad news.'

Do you have any advice for today's students?

'Keep having faith that things will work out. There are no wrong choices. When you are at a crossroads, above all follow your own path and not what everyone else is doing. Precisely your path, the diversions, is beautiful and valuable. When I look back, I am glad I was not able to predict my life. Above all, keep an open mind and invite coincidence. I sound incredibly old now, yet I try to let things touch me as much as possible. No matter how difficult that is sometimes. There is no need to be afraid. Trust the flow, the light always comes back.'

I would like to thank Ellen Hulskorte for this opportunity. It was she who also always welcomed me into the then secretariat of Geography, Planning and Environment.