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    A message from our rector

    Dear students,  

    I hope you were able to enjoy  the so-called spring break. Of course, “enjoy” is relative these days, as we are all being asked to do so much. To persevere, to observe restrictions on our freedom, to attend digital classes, to take exams, to postpone parties. 

    I admire your sense of responsibility. I really do. Those who fail to remember to protect their fellow citizens, their parents or grandparents; they are the exceptions. A lot is being asked of you today, I do not underestimate that. I have two students in higher education at home, so I know your frustration, but I also see the creativity, the humour and the perseverance that you always demonstrate. 

    Working with our psychology master’s students, we set up a telephone campaign, to try to contact every student. Many, thankfully, let us know that they were doing OK, and some even doing well. But we also heard that some are having a much harder time and are at risk of dropping out or are really going through a hard time. That is why we are investing even more in psychological counselling and are reorganising what we offer. Unfortunately, there was a group of students we could not reach by phone. So we don't know how they are doing: are they totally OK, are they fundamentally angry, have they completely dropped off the radar? That's a concern for me.

    I think we all alternate between good days and bad days. And sometimes our feelings even change within the same day. A bit like seasonal changes during the first days of April:  warm first, then rain, followed even by hail and snow. Confusing, exhausting, because we all long  for light and sunshine so much. 

    Socially speaking, too, these are confusing times, which raise fundamental questions. About the kind of society we want to be, about the university we want to become. Together – the faculties, the support staff and you, the students – we need to think about how we can make the world and this university better places. 

    I feel  for the first-years, who, after a surreal end to their schooldays, have still not been able to discover what a university really is or can do for them. In an equal manner, I feel   for the students whose last two years, just before graduation, have been defined by this insidious virus. And I sympathise with all those in between. This is not what you expect from your twenties: you should be able to spread your wings, make new friends, go on Erasmus exchanges, question yourself, and put your life on the path you choose. The virus makes our lives seem temporarily side-tracked; for some, even on a track that seems to be a dead end. 

    I shudder when I hear people suggest that perhaps this is “a lost generation of students”. When I hear that, every fibre of my body aches. I just see a lot of strength and resilience in you. I think that we, the older people, will learn a lot from you. Because you, more than my generation, know what it is to waver, what it means to live with uncertainty. Your generation no longer sees things as self-evident. You realise what is essential. And these are not necessarily perpetual growth or material progress, but friendship, social contact, solidarity, intellectual enrichment, a life in balance. 

    I believe that intergenerationally we can benefit from each other and learn a lot from each other. We will therefore have to fight together to push society in a balanced and fair direction. A society that is more in line with the values we as VUB stand for: freedom, equality and connectedness. Together we will have to tackle the great challenges of this century: nature and climate, identity and diversity, the great geopolitical transitions. Together we will also have to shape the university of the 21st century. In any case, a university, drawing on the lessons of the past and the present, must always commit to the future: to yours and to those of each new generation of students. 

    We are now entering the final stretch  of this long, sterile and distant academic year. You will take exams and, like many, look forward to your vaccine. As a result, the pressure on healthcare services will ease. Life will resume, just as spring has finally begun again. We are moving forward. Even if it is too slow and we are all suffering from isolation. This virus will probably define our lives for some time, but will no longer dominate. 

    A human life has many stages, our identity many layers, and our human feelings many shades. People are, as we have seen in the past year again, capable of the worst and the most beautiful things. But, as the Dutch author Rutger Bregman states: most people are OK. As long as they are close to each other, respect and care for each other.  

    Believe me: you are all dear to me. We, as an institution, are doing our best to deal with this fundamental crisis as best we can. Do we make mistakes? Yes, we do. Do we know that? Yes, you and others regularly tell us about it. Do we learn from them? Yes we do. Can we always get it done? No, unfortunately not always. This is a learning process for us. But it also shakes us up. And yes, just like you, we will have to make use of the summer to regain our strength and recharge our batteries. It has been tough for everyone.

    Dear students, I thank you for what you have already achieved this year. For all that you have been able to accomplish. For the times, when things got tough, that you got back on your feet. For how humour has always remained a part of us. For how you have taken care of each other. 

    I wish you every success in the final straight to the end of the academic year. With 20% presence on campus, but 100% presence in my heart.

    Kind regards,

    Caroline Pauwels