Student life today – and 60 years ago
KTH CAMPUS 100 YEARS
Cecilia Molinder will finish her degree project this summer. By then, 60 years will have elapsed since Sigvard Bahrke was awarded his degree. When the student of the 1950s meets the student of the 2010s, the conversation touches on everything from desperately looking for accommodation and exam stress to union work, cap buttons and a revolution.
Sigvard Bahrke began his studies in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in autumn 1952. He was one of 357 new engineering students at KTH Royal Institute of Technology that autumn. In 2011, when Cecilia Molinder started at the School of Biotechnology, there was a significantly greater number of new students – during that year 2,522 students embarked on one of KTH’s traditional programmes.
KTH was not an entirely obvious choice for either Sigvard Bahrke or Cecilia Molinder. Sigvard even considered becoming a doctor, and when Cecilia left upper-secondary school, she had no idea what she wanted to be.
“So I went up to Åre, in the mountains, worked as a ski instructor for three years and thought it would all become clear to me during that time.”
It didn’t. But as maths, chemistry and biology were the subjects she had been most interested in at upper-secondary school, she was leaning towards the sciences and was recommended to apply to KTH.
“I didn’t know very much about what an engineering graduate did, but people said to me that engineering was great, a very broad field and I’d be able to get a job.”
Lower pace in the 1950s
Cecilia would agree with this description but adds that the programme also requires a great deal of work. The pace is high, and you simply cannot afford to fall behind, she stresses. Personally, she thought that the best way was to join forces with some other students and help each other with their studies.
“My friends and I did an incredible amount of studying together. We needed each other, asked each other about different things all the time,” says Cecilia.
The study pace was perhaps somewhat lower in the 1950s. Sigvard remembers having to concentrate very hard indeed prior to exams but recalls that few students dropped out. He and some of his course mates also attended Stockholm School of Economics at the same time as KTH and the lectures sometimes clashed.
“But we studied together, helped each other and briefed those who had missed something,” says Sigvard.
Keeping a roof over your head is a recurring problem for most students new to the area. Cecilia comes from Gävle. She spent two years living with a friend’s cousin, but was subsequently able to get a student flat due to being in the queue before moving to Stockholm.
Sigvard, who grew up in Malmö, rented a room from a widow in Östermalm. Three engineering students lived in the grand apartment, sharing a toilet and a wash basin. Sigvard’s room was the former dining room.
Gradually, Sigvard also managed to find his own flat – a tiny studio without hot water or a shower.
“I kept myself clean at Sturebadet baths. And you could also shower at Kevlinge golf course.”
Make the most of student life
Campus isn’t just a place to get your head down and study or stress about exams – it’s also a place to meet people, as Cecilia and Sigvard point out. They both agree that making the most of your student days by enjoying yourself and making new contacts is also an important aspect.
Sigvard is still in touch with some of his course mates, and the week after the interview, he will be meeting up with some of those who began studying at Mechanical Engineering in 1952. Cecilia was part of the singing and humour group Musikaliska Direktoriet, one of the many student associations at KTH.
“I learned a lot from it. But above all, I’ve had an amazing amount of fun.”
Both Cecilia and Sigvard were also involved in the student union. Sigvard was president in 1955, Cecilia 2014–2015 and when they meet, they immediately start to compare their experiences.
As union president for more than 12,000 students in the 2010s, Cecilia was paid full-time and took a sabbatical during her year as president. In the 1950s, the position was entirely unpaid and had to be managed alongside studies.
“But there were only around 2,000 students at KTH at the time, so it wasn’t such a burden,” stresses Sigvard.
Sigvard can hardly remember any course mates who weren’t born in Sweden, and only a few women.
“I think there were 24 of us in my class in Mechanical Engineering, and only one of them was a girl. But there were a few more women in Chemical Engineering.”
One of them was called Birgitta and was appointed Master of Ceremonies (MC) the year after Sigvard was president. Her surname has long been Bahrke. The day before the spring ball, the year’s MC, who according to tradition was to hold a speech for the man, backed out. Birgitta offered her services as a stand-in but pointed out that there was hardly any time to write a speech.
“I can help you with that, I said, and so we sat through the night together and wrote that speech,” says Sigvard.
The Cap War
Another of his vivid memories of union work was the battle regarding cap buttons. Inspired by the union caps of Chalmers’ students, Sigvard wanted to introduce common headgear for the engineering students at KTH, too.
When he initially presented his proposal, as president, it was voted down. But he wasn’t one to give up so easily and immediately after his term of office had ended, Sigvard revisited the proposal as his own project, with the majority of the engineering students being in agreement that they wanted their own cap.
“It was a classic English cap in black velvet with a button on top. The buttons were made in different colours, denoting section affiliation. As it was our own private project, Birgitta and I also decided on which colours the various sections would have,” says Sigvard.
Lots of hats were sewn, and they were celebrated with a big party in the student union. But the buttons caused conflict. The electrical engineering students got very hot under the collar that they hadn’t been assigned the correct colour. They had been given white buttons, not yellow like an electron. In protest, the electrical engineers carried out a symbolic revolution, complete with the hanging of an effigy of Sigvard Bahrke.
“Apparently, a doll in my image still hangs at the annual meetings of the Electrical section,” says Sigvard with satisfaction.
Engineers as leaders
Cecilia, who is 28, was appointed Female Leader Engineer last year. So this autumn she will be embarking on a custom trainee programme at three major industrial companies: Astra Zeneca, Skanska and Fortum. This challenge also means that she will be working outside the realm of biotechnology.
“I’ll be using a great deal of my general engineering expertise, such as problem solving and the ability to take in large amounts of information. And I have experience of finances and leadership from my work in the union.”
Sigvard is now 86 years old and has a long career in corporate leadership in the forest and paper industry behind him. But he has never actually worked as an engineer, he explains.
“I was engaged at an early stage in more overarching tasks. But my degree gave me a certain amount of self-confidence and freed me from any exaggerated respect for other people’s academic achievements. And the contacts I made during my student days are ones that I’ve benefited from throughout my life.”
Text: Ursula Stigzelius