"You want students to feel strong enough to cope with the difficult parts of life as well."
Frieda Schaufeli has served as Student Wellbeing Officer and project lead of the Student Wellbeing Project within the Department of Student Development (SOZ) since April 2021. The first project assignment, establishing the VU-wide vision on student wellbeing, was completed last summer. Frieda explains what else is on the agenda.
Why was this vision needed?
"Especially during the corona crisis, we noticed that more staff and students wanted to contribute to the improvement of student wellbeing, but it also became clear that an integrated approach was lacking, leading to all kinds of separate initiatives. On the question of what exactly we mean by student wellbeing, we did not yet have an unambiguous answer. We have now established this in the Vision on Student Wellbeing."
Who are in this project group?
"The project group consists of a broad representation of VU employees who have a lot to do with the topic of wellbeing, such as student psychologists, deans and student advisors. The team also includes the Diversity Office, the International Office, the Student Engagement Team and several teachers from the mentorship and tutorship. The vision, a guideline for student wellbeing, was written together with student assistants and former USC members and went through a long process until its adoption by the Executive Board. It first had to pass various bodies, including the OPO, BOVU and USC, to create as much support as possible beforehand. The document emphasises the VU-wide importance of this topic and outlines where we want to go."
Can you describe what direction VU Amsterdam is going?
"Student wellbeing is about creating and monitoring a healthy balance between positive and negative aspects of student life. We see this as a shared responsibility. It's not just the usual suspects such as the student dean, psychologist or student advisor who are responsible for this, it's up to all of us- including students themselves- to contribute to this. Many already do this or would like to, but sometimes don't know how. It is up to my project group to provide support. Furthermore, we want to raise collective awareness even more within the various layers of the organisation. From department to faculty. At the same time, I notice that everyone I talk to sees and recognises the importance of this theme and the consequences of not paying attention. That is a wonderful starting point to build on."
"That co-creation is crucial to connect with students' wants and needs."
What are the next steps after this milestone- the adoption of the vision?
“I have been engaged in a roadshow along faculties presenting the vision to, for example, the faculty student council and the faculty board, to collect and ask questions. How can we act together and how do we best reach students and teachers in particular? What I often emphasise is that we do not want to impose additional tasks on teachers. Above all, we want to provide them with more tools so that they can refer effectively and transfer certain student problems earlier.
We also work on very concrete (sub)projects to bring the vision to life within VU Amsterdam. One example is the Health & Wellbeing Week for students. A week full of workshops and lectures focusing on topics such as physical and mental wellbeing, social safety and community building. We plan to offer this every year.
Another example: we are working on increasingly integrating the theme of student wellbeing into, for example, the introduction programme for students and within the Basic Teaching Qualification programme (BKO) for teachers. These last two examples fall under what we call focus on prevention; activities aimed at recognising certain problems among students earlier as a VU staff member (early signalling) and - which so far has received little attention - developing (present) energy sources of students, such as resilience, autonomy and self-reliance. This also includes strengthening connections."
What are you advocating for in the context of student wellbeing?
"I advocate that even when this project is over, the topic of student wellbeing should be well established in the organisation. I also think it is very important that we continue to actively involve students in this process, as we did from the beginning. That co-creation is crucial to connect with students' wants and needs. After all, you want them to feel strong enough to cope with even the difficult parts of life. Everyone faces setbacks, that's part of the game. It's normal for some things to be difficult, but students need to feel that there are ways to cope with that."
Soukaina Abouhssen - Master student Management, Policy Analysis and Entrepreneurship in the Health & Life Sciences and project group member Student Wellbeing
"Just before the corona pandemic hit, I was USC member at the time, I came up with the idea together with a fellow student to organise a Health & Wellbeing Week for VU students. This was to be a week of light-hearted and more serious activities to draw attention to student wellbeing. A week where we could work on awareness regarding mental health. We noticed that, at the time, very little was being said about this within the university, even though the topic was really important among students.
This idea eventually evolved into the long-term VU Student Wellbeing Project with associated budget, of which the Health & Wellbeing Week became a concrete elaboration. This is great, because we want to permanently embed this theme in the university, even after our batch of students has left VU Amsterdam. It has always been the goal. I really enjoy my work as a project group member, because it is so rewarding, and I learn a lot. I’m grateful that I can help fellow students with my efforts and the great thing is that it also contributes to my own wellbeing. Last November, the second Health & Wellbeing Week took place, which generated a thousand student registrations, almost three times as many as the previous year. When I see students joining a workshop one minute and attending another course two hours later, it confirms to me that interest in this subject is very high."
Welcome to Campus Online: our virtual VU Amsterdam
In collaboration with external agency Total Design, the Department of Communication & Marketing (C&M) developed a virtual campus called Campus Online. A shell over vu.nl and an extension of the physical campus, where prospective students, VU students, staff and alumni can meet and participate in online activities of interest to them. Social interaction and experience are important keywords. Campus Online creates an extra dimension that makes it easy to connect and exchange experiences within VU Amsterdam. Stefan Titus, Social Campus lead: "It is important for the Social Campus ambition that our campus is physically and socially accessible, without any barriers. Campus Online fills the space between the physical campus and our online landscape and also enables spontaneous encounters."
Last year, Campus Online was opened for the first time during the Bachelor's Days in November and Master's Days in December. Prospective students and representatives of study programmes were enthusiastic. Pilot groups are now starting, with the aim of bringing colleagues, students and other interested parties together in a community to engage in activities and get a network going.
Fun fact: Campus Online was awarded at the annual International Design Awards 2022 (US), read more (in Dutch).
If you’d like more information about Campus Online or like to contribute to the pilot groups, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.