UvAWellBeing: When Students Need to Stand Up
The fight against Mental Health issues at the University of Amsterdam.
Imagine you travel abroad, hoping to forge new friendships and learn about a different culture. Imagine you are moving to Amsterdam for your studies, and can’t wait to stroll the city’s romantic canals and picturesque parks. But, all of a sudden, you find yourself sitting alone in a rainy Amsterdam, with the only people you meet sitting across your screen. Being an international student in times of social distancing and online schooling is not easy - but perhaps it could have been easier. It is out of this very consideration that the student-led organization, UvAWellBeing, has emerged. Today, they work to represent students’ mental health needs within the University of Amsterdam.
“The corona pandemic is a catalyst and it shows us that we weren’t prepared,” explains Dédé Kruisman from UvAWellBeing. In mid-March, UvA.Bios, UvAHappenings and 020 joined forces and created an Instagram account which asked students to share their experiences and opinions regarding this year’s online education. The initiative was greeted with a wave of positive feedback. Dédé described the support and the replies received as “very overwhelming”. Soon, some of the most pressing challenges being faced by students were identified, such as the difficulty in getting an appointment with the university’s psychologists, and the presence of physical location and nationality based discrimination within UvA’s support systems. It became clear that the UvA’s infrastructure was not ready to give its students the support they so urgently needed.
“I definitely think that if I would have been alone, I would have given up,” says Diana. Diana is a first-year student at the University of Amsterdam and, like many others, struggles with online schooling. Diana grew up in Brazil, but moved to the Netherlands with her family four years ago. This has allowed her to experience different educational systems. For Diana, the Brazilian system was characterised by a more rigid and structural schedule, while the Dutch educational system is build around the notions of autonomy and self-initiative. It is often up to student to decide how and when to study. In Diana’s mind, however, this notion of autonomy presents some serious disadvantages in pandemic times. “The self-studying is too much,” she explains. Diana, who only has one seminar a week, stresses just how “important the interaction with other students and teachers is”.
Naomi, a second-year Italian student who has been living in Amsterdam for almost three, shares Diana’s sentiments. According to Naomi, not only do students need more mental health support, but also more help in dealing with other implications brought about by the pandemic. “I have been waiting a whole year for the university to re-open, paying my rent in Amsterdam and working to make the bills,” she explains. Had clearer information been provided, Naomi would have returned home, thus avoiding this economic stress, which adds to the already high pressure brought about by online classes, bad internet connections and -for many- loneliness.
But now, with UvAWellBeing working to change the situation from within, change is in sight. Shortly after the initial Instagram account was launched, UvAWellBeing met with the University’s Board of Directors. The outcomes are worth of a note. To begin with, the university agreed to hire an additional psychologist, specialized in suicide, and pledged to immediately end all location-based discrimination. It also promised to act in favour of students facing technical issues, and started 24-hr exam pilots for people in different time zones.
In my conversation with Dédé Kruisman and Caroline Loher, a further member of UvAWellBeing, it emerges that “a big failure consists in the board pushing their responsibilities to the faculty, the faculty pushing its responsibilities to the department, and so on.” This vicious cycle slowed down previous attempts for change. As stressed by Carolina, UvAWellBeing is not about blaming the university, but rather about changing it for the better. In order to genuinely help the student body, UvAWellBeing and the UvA need to work hand-in-hand. UvAWellBeing has already planned new meetings with the University’s Board, to check up on the progress made in regards to the first promises, and discuss further shared goals for bettering students’ experiences.
But UvAWellBeing does not stop here. The organization is also working to establish Zoom ‘self-help’ groups, where fellow students can meet and help each other. They are also dedicated to spreading information and awareness through their Instagram page, on pressing issues such as men’s mental health and therapy, which for some remains a taboo. They are also launching the #YouOwnIt project, aimed at tackling sexual harassment cases. UvAWellBeing is truly doing its best to support students in these difficult and unusual times because, after all, we all sit in a similar boat as those of Naomi and Diana, and the time has come to act.