Comforting the elderly during in the height of the corona crisis. Playing games in a trailer park. Or taking classes with prisoners at Leuven Central. At KU Leuven, you’re not just learning in the lecture hall or the lab.
Sinologist Moira De Graef travelled to the Chinese countryside during her studies. She worked with children whose parents had moved to the city to work. Which was good for her Chinese, and it also gave her an insight into the human consequences of large-scale labour migration. The KU Leuven service learning team has now developed 25 courses, opportunities for students can make a difference in society whilst gaining academic knowledge and practical experience in one fell swoop. In doing so, they also experience personal growth, says Professor Nicolas Standaert, who introduced 'service learning' at KU Leuven, together with Maaike Mottart. Because students not only give but also learn from, they become aware of their own beliefs and prejudices. They learn to deal with ambiguity, complexity and diversity. The result is a growth in empathy and a willingness to show solidarity.
What’s evident for students of industrial engineering, electronics and ICT, is not evident for everyone. Maxim Beuselinck and Pieter-Jan Steeman learned this during a project for their web technology course at Campus De Nayer. They designed various games to teach how to use a mouse for Wai-Not, an online platform for children with disabilities. ‘Our first attempt turned out to be a bit too difficult for the children. A revised version, which included some special effects, was an immediate hit. It was nice to make something that’s actually used afterwards.’
The students also visited a special education school where the platform is being used. ‘That contact was very motivating,’ says Professor Joost Vennekens.
As a teacher, it’s important to keep in mind the diverse background of students, as Professor Ellen Claes and Katrien Kempeneers know. Students in the educational master’s programme participated this year in the city of Leuven’s Language Caravan project. Sara Vandersteen, Hannah De Wit and Yalina Truyers went to a trailer park on Wednesday afternoons to practice Dutch with young children in a playful way. The experience has broadened her horizons, says Sara. ‘I've learned to look beyond my prejudices.’ Yalina talked to the mother of the family she visited about the differences between the two cultures. But it wasn't always that easy to gain the parents' trust, says Hannah. ‘They are often sceptical about education. Hopefully this project gave them a more positive image.’
I’ve become richer and stronger as a person here.
Cake and skulls
Archaeology students Naomi Leunis and Alissa Monden also ended up in a world unknown to them via service learning. Their assignment: give workshops at a neighbourhood organisation for underprivileged children. It’s being built up slowly, says coordinator Marianne Toonen, always with a different target group with new challenges. ‘It’s sometimes a bit awkward at first, but you can really see the students grow. Their approach is also increasingly creative, like by using cakes to illustrate the layering of the soil.’ ‘I brought skulls to discuss evolution,’ says Alissa. ‘Beforehand, I was afraid that this subject would be a sensitive issue for children with a Muslim background, but it was a success. I was a bit shocked that I turned out to have such prejudices. In any case, I really enjoyed this experience.’ Naomi had a rather negative image of the neighbourhood activities beforehand, she says. ‘That’s completely changed and it was difficult to say goodbye to the children. I’ve gained more confidence and patience. It’s also developed my interest in working this way in my career in the future.’
We expect pharmacists to have empathy and good communication skills. In the service learning course ‘Bridge’, pharmacy students can devote themselves to vulnerable people who need special care. Katrien Schellekens started working in a residential care centre. ‘With corona, there were few activities that could take place. I mainly talked a lot with the residents. They missed their family. There were also many deaths and of course that weighed on everyone. At one point I was almost crying along with a resident. Of course, that wasn’t the intention. I learned to be much stronger if someone reacts emotionally. I also remember from this experience that you have to give people time to get used to you.’ For her Bridge project, fellow student Delphine Naessens went to a facility for adults with an intellectual disability. ‘I was a bit unsure beforehand. It took a while before I was accepted, but when the time came, it was really nice. It’s allowed me to grow richer and stronger as a person.'
That’s the intention, according to Professor Veerle Foulon and Amber Damiaens, who coordinate the project. ‘The idea is that the students grow as a person through Bridge, and get a better understanding of those people whom they will later take care of. To achieve that, we pay lots of attention to reflection.’
Out of the library
How do you teach social history in an original way? Professor Magaly Rodríguez García asked a number of organisations what historians can do for them. This resulted in a number of outstanding projects. For example, Simon Desmedt and Thomas Maes worked for a few days in an organisation in Brussels where homeless people can take a shower. They were able to interview a number of people and in so doing put oral history into practice. It resulted in very poignant stories from often very ordinary people, says Simon. ‘It’s changed my image of homelessness. A moment that stayed with me was when a visitor let us listen to his music on his headphones, as if we were just relaxing among friends.’
Els Vochten then went to the Brussels Reception Agency Office for Integration. There, newcomers are given lessons about Belgian history and taught by specially trained peers. Els was able to offer them a number of methodologies. ‘Our proposal was for them to teach less about data and facts, and to focus more on the big story and aspects that still have an impact today. Most of the teachers were completely on board! It was good to see how a historian can also contribute in practice. And it was very exciting to interact with people from all over the world.’ Professor Rodríguez knows that history students are pleased to get out of the archives and libraries. ‘At the same time, they also develop a wide range of other skills: organisational, creative and communicative.’ That’s also part of the power of service learning, emphasizes Professor Standaert. The team, led by Sara Vantournhout, has a dream to reach all KU Leuven students, and Association students, in the long term.’