Student Perspectives: Rita Afonso (VUB)

What does inclusion mean to you?

The terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are very broad, and EUTOPIA needs to define what they mean within this alliance – they will be implemented differently by different kinds of organisation.

To give a specific example, if you talk about gender equality, how are you defining gender? Because in the time we live in, gender is very broad, it is not just ‘man or woman’ anymore, it’s also non-binary people. Are we closing the gender pay gap between men and women, or a broader spectrum of genders? And are we focusing primarily on European women, excluding Muslim women, black women, or disabled women? I also think we should shift the focus from why women are underrepresented to why men are overrepresented.

What new or improved practices would you like to see?

I think we need to shift the power dynamic, and shift the mentality within higher education away from professors being ‘above students’, towards more of a mentorship mentality where professors are mentoring and encouraging students. This could help to break down the barriers caused by hierarchies. Those barriers were a problem recently when there were complaints about sexual harassment by professors, and women were afraid to complain because the professors were above them. If you shift the power dynamic, there will be more space for people to speak up.

Are there aspects of life at university that you think are not inclusive?

Sometimes you have to prove things that you can’t prove, but you know they are true. That can be very embarrassing and sometimes even impossible. There was a case at university of a person who was ‘sans papier’, she was homeless. In order for her to get funds from the university, she had to prove she was homeless, but because she was homeless she didn’t have the tools to prove it... So there are frameworks and regulations that need to be changed, to be more accessible to the people that need it.

Are there any inclusive practices at your university that you would like to highlight?

They recently set up the VUB Equality Network (VEN). I would’ve liked to have this sooner because it has helped me a lot. It’s a network where we come together to talk about structural barriers in the university, and the person who leads the meeting then talks to policy-makers to see what can be implemented.

I’m a student with a migration background: my mom was a single mom with a disability, so she couldn’t help us much and we needed to help her. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore things or get to know the university culture like other students do, because we were so busy with our mom and school work.

Now, the VEN personally send us a weekly newsletter with opportunities, invitations, and information on how to get funding for different kinds of projects. I never got this information during my bachelor’s degree: I wasn’t aware of all the help I could get. It’s really accessible, and I know if I need help I can write them an email and get an answer within two working days.