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Cultural diversity reigns at VUB, but more inclusiveness is needed.

21 May is international day of cultural diversity. Almost 25% of the student body and some 12% of staff at VUB is non-Belgian, and this in a city that is anecdotally referred to the second most diverse city in the world after Dubai.

As a university we’re very proud of this diversity, but we thought we’d speak to three individuals for their viewpoint on cultural diversity at our university and in Brussels. We chatted with Tchouateu Cuttbert Watong from Cameroon, Gözdenur Ayyıldız from Turkey, and Juana Jiménez Alcántara from Peru.

The student rep

Cuttbert was recently elected to the VUB Student Council. His mandate will start in September 2021 and run till August 2022. He’s currently in the Multilingual Master in Literary Studies and Linguistics, and is enjoying the programme to the full. “Especially the neurolinguistics classes are amazing. They are the most challenging to me but equally the most interesting. I love my Master’s programme. The professors and all the administrative staff are so friendly and helpful; I’m enjoying every moment of it.” He chose to study in Brussels and at VUB because of the diversity the city has to offer, and also its multilingualism. He arrived here from Cameroon in September 2019, and hopes to find a job after his studies, or maybe continue on to do a PhD. One thing that stands out when you speak to Cuttbert is his motivation and energy. He’s had experience as a student representative since he was in secondary school, where he helped children who were being bullied by older kids. He was promptly elected as school representative, and made a difference: “The most significant thing I did was that I could stop a lot of student discomfort at school in terms of the bullying, and I liaised between the student body and the school authorities on punishment as well. Preventing bullying was my main drive then.”

He decided to run for VUB student council after he experienced some unfair treatment himself on campus from some local students. He also heard from fellow international students of a lack of cultural awareness from some staff. “It’s one thing to be a culturally diverse university. But you then need to have awareness among students and staff of this diversity, and the last step is to have inclusion. Not all of these steps are present across the university at the moment. From a student perspective, what I see at VUB is 2 student communities; a local one and an international one. I’d like to see more mixing and fluidity between the two.”

The intern and digibuddy

Gözdenur echoes these last points made by Cuttbert. She’s from Turkey and arrived at VUB in September 2020 to study in the Master’s programme on New Media. At the moment she’s doing her internship with the VUB’s International Relations office, helping out on marketing, recruitment and communication. She’s not had any negative experiences at VUB or in Brussels. On the contrary, she’s been pleasantly amazed by the diversity at VUB. “I was so surprised by the number of Turkish students on campus, while e.g. queueing for a coffee at the cafeteria. And my Italian and German friends say the same when they walk about on campus, about often hearing Italian and German spoken around them.” She’s also a digibuddy for her study programme, helping prospective students out with any questions they have. “This again really shows the attraction of VUB to students from across the world. I get questions from people in Turkey, numerous countries from across Africa, from China, Japan.. It’s very impressive, and speaks to VUB’s openness to all those from across the world.”

If there is one criticism it is indeed the two student communities. Gözdenur mentions that she has worked with local students, and they have been really helpful and nice, “but socially there isn’t as much mixing. The international students mix extremely well amongst themselves, among all the nationalities. But there are few locals joining us. It would be nice to have more interaction on that level with them.”

The researcher

The language difference is also something that jumped out at Juana, who is from Peru. In fact, she was pleasantly surprised at how many people in Brussels speak Spanish and want to practice their Spanish with her. “It feels very welcoming to experience that.” Juana arrived in Brussels in 2017 to study marine and lacustrine science, known as the Oceans & Lakes programme, and is currently a researcher in the programme at VUB working to enhance the South-North cooperation. “I discovered Belgium via my aunt’s husband who is Belgian, and found the study programme online. I was so impressed. Then I arrived here, and the welcome I received was amazing. We got so much help and support from the people behind the programme.” Juana explains how she wasn’t initially aware just how international VUB or Brussels were. “It took my breath away. You can tell a lot from a place by their food markets. Brussels has food markets from every corner of the world. You can get any food you want, although sometimes you might have to look a bit, and it might be more expensive than at home, but still.. it’s there. As international students we would cook for each other and bridge the gap between our nationalities and cultures. It was fun to do."

Life as an international researcher at VUB is a bit different from that as an international student. “For starters, The taxes come with lots of paperwork,” Juana says laughingly. “But also it is harder to mix with staff from different nationalities. You get a bit drawn into your own department, so you are less aware of the different nationalities among the other staff members.” She adds that there is indeed a gap sometimes between the local and international student communities, but that it is due to a cultural difference. Some people are more relaxed in hanging out with people from different backgrounds than others. “We are all different, and this is what makes our university, Brussels and the world so interesting.”

Brussels really struck Juana in terms of variety. She’d never seen a place so diverse in nationalities, cultures, languages. And she is impressed to hear that Brussels is considering adding English as an official language. Even just the thought of that makes it such a welcoming place; it creates inclusiveness. But, she adds, “it’s also important to respect the local communities and their languages when you arrive in a country. It’s a two-way relationship, opening each other’s mind and eyes to the new cultures and languages.” Juana hopes to stay on as a researcher, and to stay in Brussels, which she now considers home. She’s had the opportunity to travel to Kenya a bit too within her study programme and work, and she views Kenya as home now too. “This is what the VUB and my study programme did for me: they opened the door to the world for me”.