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Karen Celis

“The VUB offers opportunities for people with passion. It’s also how we put our focus on gender and diversity into practice.”

On gender and diversity at the VUB.

"Karen Celis is, as she puts herself, one of the ‘lucky few’: a research professor. Her primary activity at the VUB is research, specifically on equality issues for marginalised groups. But gender and ethnicity are not only a key motivator for Karen in her research. She also helps to shape policy at the VUB. For example, she is involved in an equality action plan through which she intends to launch concrete actions in the coming two years. “The VUB is a place where thinking and doing go hand in hand.”

How would you say that the VUB approaches diversity and equality?

“I would describe it as ‘academic activism’, something that I think is very typical of the VUB. We have played a pioneering role in terms of gender and diversity: the VUB is involved in the Master in Gender and Diversity, was one of the first Belgian universities to have an expertise centre on gender and has had a policy on diversity and gender equality in place for many years.

This year, the VUB participated, together with the ULB in the Belgium Gay Pride in Brussels, a clear signal that diversity is important and celebrated here. But this commitment could be broadened in the future. By involving other groups and inequalities in the VUB equality action plan, for example.

The VUB also encourages its professors to take part in the societal debate, for example, by writing opinion articles in the media or offering advice and expertise to companies and organisations. Ultimately, I think it would be better if people could develop a career here with an emphasis on education, research and service to society. The flexibility to enable people to fully develop their potential in the field that suits them best is already here, to some degree. And that only benefits the VUB and its academics.”

 

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Pieter-Jan Pauwelyn

“Freedom requires a lot of discipline”

On how job freedom goes hand-in-hand with taking responsibility.

As a doctoral student and a teaching assistant in the faculty of Economic Sciences (ES), Pieter-Jan Pauwelyn combines research with teaching. At the same time, he’s careful to maintain a healthy work-life balance. In this interview, he talks about how he does it.

Pieter-Jan, you’re teaching at the same time as writing a dissertation: how do you combine that?

“I distribute my activities throughout the year. I arranged it so that I taught 20 hours a week in the first semester, which then allows me to focus completely on my research in the second semester.”

Isn't it lonely working on a dissertation?

“I share an office with five or six colleagues, so I'm never alone. We have different backgrounds and are often critical of each other's work, but we have a lot of fun too. On some days, too much of it, even: then there's more joking around than work going on, and we have to catch up on another day. Fortunately, that's perfectly possible.”

How do you plan your work days at the VUB?

“We actually have a lot of freedom in how we organise our day. I happen to be a morning person so I usually start early. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I go to the campus gym in the morning as well. It's a chance to clear your head and then walk to work through the green campus: it's a great feeling. Other colleagues are more productive in the evening or have to take a family into account. They organise their day differently. That's the advantage of working with flexible hours: you don't have to squeeze into the constraints of a schedule imposed by someone else.”

Are there disadvantages to that freedom?

“It does take a bit of self-discipline. You’re personally responsible for the work that you deliver, but you still have to ensure that your promoter remains satisfied and that your work is completed on time. It’s the only way to make progress. Since there are always lots of fun events going on here, it can be difficult to keep the focus on my research.”

Do you already have an idea of what you want to do after your PhD?

“I’ll finish my doctorate in 2020. Where I want to go next, I don't know yet. I realise that not all doctoral students have the chance to advance within the university world. That's why I'm also considering other possibilities. My experience as a researcher and teaching assistant at the VUB is certainly a major asset there.”

 

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Rica Ciriaco

“I'm proud to be able to contribute to this warm environment”

On how the VUB aims to stimulate its employees' personal growth with special attention for well-being.

If you receive training as a member of the VUB staff, then there's a good chance that Rica Ciriaco will have something to do with it. Aside from helping to develop competencies, her job is also partly about well-being. In other words: ensuring that the VUB is a pleasant place to work. Something that’s especially important to Rica herself.

What does the VUB mean to you personally?

“The warm, human environment. I felt it from my very first day as a student. I'm personally very proud to be able to contribute to that human focus through my job as HR advisor. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping to contribute every day to the well-being policy at our university. The VUB is relatively young, so we still have a lot to organise and refine, but it's a challenge I'm happy to take on!

Sometimes well-being is about little things that have a big impact. Think of ergonomic adjustments, diversity campaigns for bringing together a wide range of people, or campaigns that help with more efficient communication. In fact, our team created a training on this theme, when it became clear that there was a need for it. That’s a very good illustration of our training policy: we like to let things grow from the ground up. All suggestions and ideas are valuable. Being able to help colleagues with their development in this way gives meaning to my job.

Besides, I have really great co-workers. We often go for lunch together or have drinks after work. You might say that we've become friends. In short, I’ve fallen in love with the VUB. Which is why I don't mind the daily commute from Leuven one bit.”

 

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Luc Deliens

“Having the space to conduct research that is free from dogma”

On how, at the VUB, you can freely conduct groundbreaking research, even on sensitive ethical issues.

For decades, professor Luc Deliens has been conducting research on palliative care and euthanasia. His goal? To improve the quality of end-of-life for thousands of patients who suffer unbearably each day. An ethical question that clearly highlights the importance of the values of free inquiry. At the VUB, Luc found both the necessary support and the right mindset to further develop his groundbreaking work around the end-of-life.

“When I started my research in the mid-1990s, euthanasia was still strictly illegal in Belgium, so finding the right support was not easy. However, at the VUB I found the necessary space and resources to do truly groundbreaking work.”

Transparent, value-neutral research

“The reason for that was of course the VUB’s focus on free inquiry, that is, research free from all dogma. Personally, I’m very much a secular humanist, but that doesn't mean that I have not remained objective and critical. And you have to be: with an ideologically charged subject like euthanasia, there are inevitably going to be personal values and drivers. Researchers have to be transparent about this. That makes it possible to verify and objectify.”

Plenty of input, good access

 "The VUB has long been a highly democratic institution, where students, assistants and staff have plenty of input. I personally experienced this when I was still a teaching assistant. The secular humanist values are still very much present, but over the years, the focus on quality has significantly increased. Scientists are selected first and foremost because of their work and professional qualities, and not because they are secular humanists.”

“At the same time, despite the strong growth in recent years, the VUB has stayed relatively small-scale. That has allowed the lines of communication between students and professors, for example, to remain fairly open, which can only benefit the quality of education and research.”

 

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Heleen van Schooneveld

“The VUB is a world of its own, where you can develop your full potential”

On how, with the right drive and mindset, you can make a difference.

As communications manager for student recruitment, Heleen van Schooneveld is constantly inhabiting two worlds: on the one hand, staying on top of all that’s going on at the university, while at the same time keeping a finger on the pulse of young people looking for a new programme of studies. This is how she keeps both sides – and herself – in balance. 

With every new academic year, the VUB hopes to attract thousands of new students. Convincing them takes plenty of marketing and communication. Heleen is therefore a member of a 24-person communications team that regularly organises events, launches campaigns, creates websites and publishes attractive brochures to showcase the VUB.

Room for growth

“The greatest challenge is to effectively translate our sometimes rather traditional world into the fast-moving, dynamic culture of young people”, says Heleen. “How can we properly convey those things that are very important internally? And how can we detect trends among young people and translate them to the university? That takes a lot of creativity.”

For Heleen, the university is a world of its own, with its own rules that you have to learn to handle creatively. “But alongside the rules that have grown historically over the years, there’s a great deal of freedom. You have to know where to find that space, and look for what is feasible. Furthermore, it's often better to ask for forgiveness than permission. If you’re able to sense where that kind of leeway is available, you can develop your full potential here. For example, I’m very interested in making presentations for large audiences. I'm perfectly able to fit that kind of responsibility into my range of tasks, which allows me to continue to grow.”

Work hard, play hard

Heleen’s view, that dynamic aspect is directly linked to the location of the VUB. “Choosing the VUB means choosing Brussels: a large, international city, where people with highly diverse backgrounds come together. Just like in my job, that tension between different worlds is both a challenge and an endless source of creativity.”

Dealing with tension naturally calls for blowing off steam. “The run-up to an event or a looming publication deadline can get pretty stressy. We’re quite a bunch, but we never miss an opportunity to have some fun, at the university and beyond.”

 

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Aushim Koumar

“A unique, close bond with people throughout the entire organisation”

On how the VUB offers its students the opportunity to develop a professional career.

Growing up near the University, later studying there, building a career and ultimately becoming co-founder of a highly promising spin-off: it doesn't happen to everyone. From an early age, the VUB has played a key role in Aushim Koumar’s life, both personally and professionally.

Why did you choose for the VUB?

“I grew up just a stone’s throw from the VUB. As a kid, I spent a lot of time walking and biking on the university grounds. The campus has been modernised a lot since then.

The fact that I grew up near the VUB played an important role in my decision to enrol there, and I ended up staying for the next eleven years. For the first two years as a Bachelor student, then a three-year Master, then four years working on my doctoral research and finally, two years as a postdoc researcher, setting up a VUB spin-off.

What sets the VUB apart?

What's so unique about the VUB is the close bond that you have as a student and a colleague with people throughout the entire organisation: from professors and teaching assistants to administrative staff. That closeness is crucial for your development and it creates a unique atmosphere in which to study and work.

My promoters Niels De Temmerman and Tine Tysmans, for example, have always been a huge inspiration to me, both professionally and personally. They taught me everything about the secular and humanist values of the VUB; about critical thinking, without prejudice or superstition. There was also always time for fun: for example, I have vivid memories of the teambuilding days from that era.

Niels also convinced me to do my doctorate on constructions based on scissor technology. That ultimately led to the founding of the VUB-spin-off Konligo, together with Niels, Tine and a business developer, Baudouin Hubert. Our goal is to apply our knowledge and experience to create things such as efficient emergency solutions; so it's very much in line with the humanist spirit of the VUB.

Of course the launch of Konligo means that I will be spending less time at the VUB. But I still hope to be able to drop in once in a while to impress upon engineering students that they can make a difference. The VUB is such an important part of my life; I definitely want to keep it that way.”

 

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