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Community Service Learning at VU Amsterdam

Getting out there, going off into the real world! Community Service Learning (CSL) allows students of the VU to gain practical experience and apply their academic knowledge and skills to help find solutions to specific issues in society. With as a motto: "for more than just credit – in service of others too."

This programme moves away from traditional theoretical teaching methods employed at universities and applies a more practical approach that is in line with the VU’s mission to play a more prominent role in society. For example, some of the Health Sciences students went off campus for six weeks to survey the needs of Waterlandpleinbuurt area residents in Amsterdam North. Ymere and the District of Noord commissioned the survey and were able to use the findings from more than 80 interviews to conclude that residents experienced problems in three areas: nuisance caused by people, waste, and language barriers.

VU students are making a difference in the Netherlands and beyond. Students of the ICT for Development Master’s degree programme are working together to find solutions to practical issues facing farmers in Africa and Asia. VU researchers at the Network Institute are in contact with local farmers to find out more about their problems. The researchers pass this information on to students who then draw up a project plan, build a model and use this to create a prototype. As an example, students have developed a knowledge system to help diagnose animal diseases in Ghana and a weather app in the regional Ghanaian language. Anna Bon, one of the coordinators, says: “We have noticed that students become very motivated once they realise their work actually matters. It takes on a different meaning because they are no longer just in it for the credits, but also to help improve the lives of others.”

Community Service Learning ensures a positive interaction between students and society, as demonstrated through our new partnership with the Amsterdam district of Nieuw-West. This new partnership comes with a reading room at the Tuinstadhuis office building for students from Nieuw-West. District chairman Achmed Baâdoud sees the students as role models and hopes to find more ways to involve them in improving the lives of residents. The reading room is more than just a study location close to home – it’s also a meeting place for students, employees and neighbourhood residents. It is a place where they can work on social issues, including poverty and the integration of refugees and refugee status holders.

For students, Community Service Learning is about applying themselves to working on a social issue, forging partnerships with social partners and learning to reflect on their role as academics. Community Service Learning and volunteering are worlds apart. Professor Robert Bringle of the Centre of Service and Learning at Indiana University illustrated this with a great example during the Foundation Day celebrations on 20 October 2017.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is the first university in the Netherlands to integrate Community Service Learning into their educational programme. The ambition is to see its goals reflected in the learning objectives of study programmes and to ensure that students receive course credit for their hard work. Meanwhile, VU will continue to innovate and develop new and existing courses and programmes with a view to ensuring that society continues to benefit from the scientific knowledge shared by students.


Curious? Take a look at more good practices shared by the VU’s Community Service Learning programme.

“When I was asked to participate in the Meet Your Mentor pilot programme, my first answer was: I’m not sure I would benefit from something like that. The programme was designed to help students with a non-Western background make the transition from student life to working life. In the past, jobs usually found me, and I’ve never had to apply for anything.”

Although she had her doubts, Zozo El-Akabawy, Bachelor’s student of Anthropology at the time, decided to participate. Meet your Mentor matches students and professionals. Zozo used her conversations with mentor Irene Wolff-Kinneging to choose a Master’s degree programme. “She asked me to write a list of five pros and cons for the two Master’s programmes I was interested in and to come up with a plan B in case I decided to go for neither.”

Meet your Mentor, a programme for first-generation university students and students with a non-Western background is the result of our diversity policy. Research has shown that students with a non-Western background are 50% less likely to find a suitable job at their level than their fellow students with a Western background. They deserve a helping hand in choosing a study programme or career, or advice on how to write a cover letter because they are less likely to be surrounded by family and friends with experience in these areas. The programme is a The Future is Diversity taskforce project. In addition to VU Amsterdam, this partnership includes Erasmus University Rotterdam and Leiden University. All three are launching Meet Your Mentor programmes.

In VU Amsterdam’s DNA
The university’s unique focus on the emancipation of groups less likely to enrol or study successfully is and always has been, embedded in our DNA. Although creating an inclusive learning and working environment requires a long-term commitment and a consistently positive view of diversity, VU Chief Diversity Officer Karen van Oudenhoven is convinced these projects are a step in the right direction. A recent quote of hers in Advalvas: “It’s true that I’m impatient […], but our whole society is struggling with diversity. VU Amsterdam cannot offer a quick fix. There are lots of projects though, mostly small-scale, and progress has definitely been made.”

It’s true that I’m impatient […] but our whole society is struggling with diversity

While studying, Zozo discovered there were more hurdles to overcome as a result of her bicultural background than she had originally thought: “In my parents’ Egyptian culture you are expected to present yourself as modest and obliging. I’ve discovered that I have trouble being honest about what I want. When I had to decide between assisting with a professor’s research for my Master’s thesis or pick a topic that I was much more interested in, I struggled. Irene taught me that if I want something and I can clearly explain why I should always go for it.”

On a par with the above: Be Prepared
Imad Lotfi, who will be graduating from secondary school in Amsterdam next year, signed up for Be Prepared – one of our programmes that helps pupils choose the most appropriate course of study. The three-day course is offered by VU Amsterdam’s Pre-University College and is mostly taught by students. When Imad’s study coordinator told him about Be Prepared, he signed up with some of his friends from school. What did he gain from this experience?
“Personal insight. I was already aware of my strengths and I knew I enjoy taking the lead. I’m also very independent. But it wouldn’t hurt for me to take a more structured approach to my studies. When I give a presentation, I tend to improvise… I think it’s great that students teach the course. After all, they know what it’s like to study there. It helps that they’re our age, too, because it’s easier to relate to them.” Imad has not experienced any obstacles as a result of being the first in his family to attend university. “My parents are very supportive. The fact that I’m the first in the family to go to the university makes it even more special for them. I have always done really well in school. I’m also determined to get the most of out myself, so of course, I’m going to uni.”

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