Social Legal and Financial Support and Student Jobs: it’s quite a mouthful. Supporting our students’ welfare is an important task, and it’s become even more so during the pandemic. Financial worries and poverty are often not visible, but Winnie Nys and her team are helping students on our campuses to make ends meet.

Our conversation turns out to be a double interview. Winnie Nys, head of Social Legal and Financial Support and Student Jobs at VUB, is expecting her first child. The pandemic has turned out to be a fruitful period for her team of six: in 2021, the team are welcoming three lockdown babies.

At work, too, it’s been all hands on deck. At VUB, 18% of students are on a scholarship, and 1,262 students have come to Winnie’s team for support. Covid-19 has affected many families and students financially. In 2020, every allowance was increased, except for the foreign exchange allowance. A total of 97 laptops and 40 webcams were bought. The number of student jobs offered in the VUB job database fell by 38%. However, Winnie expects that the social and financial impact of the coronavirus will only really become clear in 2021 and 2022. VUB is preparing to cope with that impact. The Caroline Pauwels Emergency Fund for Students is a much-needed support.

Financial worries among students

“Personally, I was shocked at how many students still used the computers on campus. Sometimes students did have a laptop, but it was too outdated for digital learning. Strong internet at home and webcams also proved to be a problem. Immediately after the coronavirus outbreak, we received lots of practical requests. Students can now borrow a laptop for six months.

“Our support figures increased in 2020, but we assume that many people initially still had a reserve and so didn’t immediately apply for study financing. Dutch- or French-speaking students used to be able to find a nice student job within their field of interest or study, or opted for a random job to guarantee some financial security. Now, that offer has also plummeted, especially in the hospitality industry. Students who were self-supporting got into trouble. Those who could normally make ends meet easily now had money worries too. Student loans can be quantified in figures, but poverty and financial worries are also a matter of feelings. You are worried about your financial situation and have to impose restrictions on yourself. The number of VUB students in this situation will be somewhere between the number who come to us and the number of scholarship students: between one in 12 and one in six.

“The study situation for students from vulnerable families also had a big impact. It hasn’t been easy for parents having to telework and having several children at home in a small space. The study places on the campus for vulnerable students offered by our colleagues from Study Guidance provided a solution here. Loneliness in student rooms was also a problem, and VUB started working on that with the support of Jelle, the dorm coach.

“Our most important message to students is: contact us, talk about it. We notice that students sometimes don’t dare take the step until it’s too late, thus depriving themselves of opportunities. At the start of the academic year, there is so much information, and people in poverty are often harder to reach because of their worries. That’s why we try to tell people about our existence as often as possible. We also ask VUB to mention our details on invoices, such as for sports courses at the Faculty of Physical Education & Physiotherapy. We can never guarantee worry-free studying, but we can make a difference with an allowance, a job, a laptop, a loan to spread payments or help in a sudden emergency.”

Looking forward to the baby

“I can indeed say that my purpose is currently in my job. By taking away young people’s financial worries, I hope to contribute to their chances in life. The job is in line with my social work studies, but also in what I did during my free time. I have always been active in the youth and play movement. I was also on the youth council of my municipality. Outside of the job, the focus in the coming years will mainly be on the family.

“I have been with the team since 2016, and shortly after I started as head of service in 2019, the coronavirus broke out. That was tough. Initially, there was only work. Everywhere, all the time. Becoming pregnant during the pandemic did change the perspective, and in a way it also brought balance. In a year of restrictions and human suffering, baby news was a ray of hope for many people.

“It was also a luxury to be able to work at home while pregnant. I’m eight months along now, and the times when I had to hoist myself on the bus to VUB have been few and far between. In the old work situation, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

We wish Winnie much success, and look forward to the new VUB baby.

Would you like to find your purpose as well and fight injustice? Then take a look at The World Needs You under Prosperity.