Student James*, 25 years old, explains how the covid19 pandemic has hit him hard financially and how the VUB Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund supports him.

Finding the money to fund your dreams

25-year-old James is a bright engineering student from India who came to Belgium in 2019 to obtain his Master’s in engineering. Before his move to Belgium, he obtained his bachelor’s in India and started working there to earn the budget to continue his education abroad. He knew the VUB was a top-ranked public university with a tuition fee he could afford. So now James is near the end of his second year at the VUB. But that’s about the only thing that went as planned…

Without a job

James comes from a low middle class family in India. His family does not have the means to pay for his education, so he had to take a loan to fund his first year. Working as a student in India is virtually impossible since normal employment is very low. However, James knew it would be possible to support his education in Belgium with the income provided by a student job in Brussels. He had everything planned out: ‘First I took a loan from the bank. I even managed to cut some expenses and save a little bit of money for next year. Finally, my friends helped me to get the necessary funds to pay for another year at the university.’ James found himself paying off debt to the bank, to his friends and to his family in India. And then covid19 struck and James could not get that parttime job he was planning on to make his monthly payments.

Missed internship opportunities

Last year I wanted to do an internship in Germany. But at that time, the covid19 pandemic was at peak level so travel outside of Belgium was restricted and I was forced to reject my internship’, James explains with disappointment. Finding a new internship in Belgium proved to be very difficult for him because most companies demand that interns speak either French or Dutch.

Spending savings to cover medical expenses

But the worst was yet to come. ‘Last September my father got covid19. It was very serious, he was struggling, and I could not return to India because of the travel restrictions’, James explains. Unfortunately, his family could not afford medical insurance to cover the expenses of his father’s care. This was an impossible expense for James’ family. They had to use all their savings to pay for medical bills. This money would have been used to pay for James’ education.

Getting support from the university

For international students it’s very tough. James had never left India before. None of his relatives had traveled outside of India, so this experience at the VUB was completely new for James. He learned about the VUB Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund for students and applied for financial help. They conducted an interview, and he had the chance to explain the whole scenario that got him in trouble. ‘Getting this support from the university is something very rare and if you get it, it’s like a real push’, James says, ‘Last month I got a follow up call from the VUB that was also very good, it helps that we can express ourselves and to know someone is actually listening.

Extended social isolation

The first semester was on campus. But then the lockdown started, and it was a new situation for everybody. Students were stuck in their dorms. Being an international student is difficult if you don’t know the language to interact with local people. But even more so because of the lockdown and the restrictions everyone had to respect. James explains: ‘We are in a professional situation, so we hardly discuss any personal things. Some of my friends know about my life because I had to ask them for money.’ James did recommend the Relief Fund to his friend. He told her to not be afraid, to ask for help which she also received from the VUB. ‘This is really a good initiative by the VUB. Without their support I would not be able to continue my education. Now my plan is to learn Dutch and to try to get a job in Belgium or The Netherlands’, he says.

*James is pseudonym to protect the student’s privacy.

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