Karen Hennessy-Massaro joined the BSN in 1987 as a Year 9 student at Senior School Voorschoten (SSV). She and her family (Karen is the oldest of four) moved from Ireland, which was a very different country when she was growing up. “Thinking back, it was a huge culture shock. You wouldn’t think it would be coming from Ireland to a British School. One of the reasons my parents chose the BSN was they thought it would be an easier transition for us.”
Learning off by Heart
Coming from an all-girls convent school in Ireland, Karen was used to a strict school environment that included prayer five times a day. Classes were large, and students were expected to be reserved, completely respectful of authority and questions were not encouraged (maybe even discouraged).
“We were taught in Ireland to learn things off by heart. We did study languages, but the way we studied Irish, for example, was we learned pages and pages of poetry. Even in Maths, we would learn formulae from a very young age, but you wouldn’t know how to apply them. There was lots of testing and pressure.”
The Opportunities at the BSN
When Karen describes her move to the Netherlands and the BSN, there is a lightness in her voice even years later. “It felt like an environment where I could breathe.”
There were obvious differences when she started at the BSN: it was a co-ed school, classes were smaller, the uniform was more relaxed, and the school community was made up of many different nationalities. But it was the approach to teaching and learning, the mutual respect between the students and staff, and how creativity was supported and stimulated that made the difference for Karen.
”You could ask teachers questions, and they were interested in what you were saying; you always felt that your opinion was valued. You were allowed to be yourself, encouraged to be curious, and it was okay to be wrong.
She describes being impressed by how well-behaved the students were, even without the strict rules she had experienced in her previous school. “I realised it was because there was so much mutual respect between the teachers and kids.”
When asked about her favourite teachers, Karen recalls how incredible all of her teachers were.
She was most passionate about English, and she remembers one teacher from when she studied A-Level English particularly fondly.
“Mr Donnan was absolutely incredible. When I was applying to university, he put in loads of extra time to help me prepare for the interviews. I remember how kind he was and how encouraging. He was one of these exceptional teachers who was so into his subject that he completely brought it to life. He was an incredible and inspiring teacher—an unassuming kind of person but quietly encouraging and special.”
Returning to the BSN as a Parent
After graduating in 1991, Karen returned to the Netherlands and the BSN in 2015. Today, her connection to her alma mater is stronger than ever; she has one child in the school (and two who have now graduated), and her brother is also a BSN parent.
Even though many things have changed since 1991, her children occasionally find reminders of their family’s legacy at the school.
“My son is in Year 9, studying Animal Farm. The book he was given has a name slip inside the front cover, where previous Year 9s signed out the book. The book that he has goes back to 1991. My sister Anita was in the same class as the girl whose book my son got; two years later, my brother had the book. My siblings were so touched when my son sent them a photo of the name slip (which they shared with old friends). His teacher was also very touched to hear about the connection!”
The Lasting Significance of an International Education
Karen reflected on the role the BSN has played in her life and feels privileged to continue to be part of the BSN community.
”I’m so positive about the BSN. I had so many opportunities that came from being a BSN student, and it absolutely changed my life.
“Now I’m an international person; my kids are international. My parents were brave enough to make the move, but it was also about being at the BSN. You always felt that you could do anything. It opened so many doors for me.”
Karen is a lawyer by profession and has wide experience working in international organisations such as the European Patent Office, Europol, and the European Central Bank. She is an Irish citizen, and the BSN Family Association’s International Representative for Ireland and, more recently, as BSN Governor for Parental Interests. Karen has regularly supported the school since graduating from the BSN in 1991, including as a member of the Bursary Fund Committee. Karen has three boys who all attended BSN; only one is still at SSV.