Student Perspectives: Shelsia Da Costa (VUB)

What does inclusion mean to you?

I’ve always let this Marcus Garvey quote lead me in all my endeavours around inclusion at university and life in general: ‘Do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.’ I feel as though this is exactly what we are doing in this project, by thinking critically, by deconstructing, by co-creating policy that will enable all students to feel included, and a celebrated part of Eutopia. I guess that’s my definition of inclusion: being able to be, without having to question one’s self-existence as such but constantly questioning the status quo surrounding us.

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

The first good practice I wanted to highlight is the RHEA Research Centre for Gender, Diversity, & Intersectionality. It’s allied to VUB and does a lot of research on gender-based violence, the concept of equality and what it means in geopolitical and intersectional terms. From this research centre, we got a Curriculum Scan to see how Euro-centric and western-centric the lectures and courses are. Professors can opt into this, and it's important to see it as a choice rather than something forced on them.

I also wanted to mention the buddy project at VUB: all students can participate in this, and it joins up new students with those who have already studied here. It means new students get help with orientation and finding facilities, which is especially helpful for first-generation students. Not everyone can find their way around the university, not everyone has parents who can help with this.

I really like the DecoloniseVUB Library: this is not part of the VUB structure, but a student project in partnership with an NGO. They run events on creating safe spaces, inclusion, and create opportunities for all students to learn about the status quo and intersectionality.

There’s also a student association that discusses ‘free research’: they talk about what it means to be free, in a free country, and you can talk about decolonisation, globalisation, and so on. It’s a good way to teach students about free thinking and critical thinking.

What new or improved practices would you like to see?

I wanted to talk about the transversal equality plan I’d like to see across the whole university. At VUB we have an equality mandate: the equality team drafts advice and then faculties have to work it out on their own. But it’s more important to have a clear transversal plan that’s streamlined across the whole university. We’re just students and we focus more on projects, but on a policy level the university can really make structural changes.

At the moment, because of certain rules and regulations, they say they can’t make big changes. When there are cases at VUB of transgressive behaviour, students ask for an external committee to deal with the reports that come in, because if it’s the university regulating the university that doesn’t make sense. But because of certain rules that were implemented in the past they can’t rely on an external committee right now.

So that’s my main point of critique: they’re not willing to make structural changes because of this codex of rules and regulations they already have. The codex can be accessed, but it’s very big so I don’t know the whole thing. There are some people who have a pretty good understanding of it.

To give one example of how the regulations prevent change: VUB has a lot of international students, including on the student council. Because we’re a Flemish university there’s a mandate that some things have to be handled in Flemish; and so the student council can only discuss international affairs because those issues can be handled in English.

Also, there’s always a new stream of first-year students coming into the council, and they can’t really take on the coordinatorship of the mandates because they’re first-years. So a really simple solution for that would be to assign the coordinatorship to two people: one who’s been on the council for a while could do this with a first-year international student. But there’s a rule that states that on the advisory board you can have a maximum of 10% of students, meaning that two students can’t be assigned the coordinatorship. And to change this small rule would take too many resources. That’s just one small thing that can’t be resolved, but obviously there are bigger issues too.

All suggested changes at the university have to go through the Student Council, so they do have a big voice, but they also need to be more diverse and inclusive. 48% of students have a migration background, so it’s a very diverse university. We need to create more motivation for all students to be part of those groups that create change. At the moment, these roles exist but no one is taking them on: students don’t know they exist or that they are paid roles, or they worry about joining a group where they wouldn’t be respected. So there need to be more resources to focus on visibility, so that people know these groups exist and they can be a part of them.