AEGEE-Leuven, Local of the Month of March: “Good teamwork and knowing each other’s strengths is our advantage”

These past days, The AEGEEan has got to know better the local that was elected as Local of the Month of March – AEGEE-Leuven! They organised a brilliant exchange between European and Palestinian students in the framework of the EuroArab Project last February, which was the reason for their nomination. 

The antenna, located in the famous Belgian student city, was founded in 1991 and resurrected around the year 2006. In the words of Heleen Yu, current president of AEGEE-Leuven: “We have always been a small local due to the oversaturated market of student organisations in Leuven”. At this moment, the local has around 50 members, of which 12-15 are active.

The School of Social Entrepreneurship

The School of Social Entrepreneurship (SSE) was an exchange between ten members of AEGEE-Leuven and ten Palestinian students from the West Bank, that AEGEE-Leuven organised in cooperation with the Palestinian NGO Sharek Youth Forum in the framework of AEGEE’s EuroArab-project. As Valérie Boiten, the coordinator of the exchange, explains, the ten Palestinians came to Leuven for a week, where the participants attended lectures, training activities and workshops concerning the idea of a social business.

Some of these workshops were provided by AEGEE members Wessel Reijers (AEGEE-Enschede) and Mathieu Soete (AEGEE-Leuven), but other organisations like JUB International, RootAbility and SPIT [ed. a local social business] were invited too. The participants also spent one day in Brussels to visit the European External Action Service headquarters where they could learn more about the European Neighbourhood Policy and the external actions of the EU, especially the ones concerning the situation between Israel and the West Bank. They also attended a session on quality jobs at the European Youth Forum headoffice. However, AEGEE-Leuven also offered a very rich social programme: dancing to traditional music and tasting Palestinian typical food, an ice-skating evening and a ‘Belgian night’ are only some of the highlights.

But, how did the adventure of the School of Social Entrepreneurship begin? The idea came up for the first time in June last year, during a study visit for youth workers where Valérie met Mahmoud, representative of Sharek Youth Forum, and the idea of organizing an exchange together started to grow. A few months later, Valérie and Dima (the project manager of Sharek) started to develop the plans of organizing SSE more concretely, and the application for the Youth in Action programme was sent to the National Agency in Brussels, which approved the project.

They agree that the challenge was pretty big for such a small local: “It was challenging to combine the multiplicity of tasks, but I guess this is something everyone who has ever organized an AEGEE event will recognize”, Valérie says. “Just when you think you’ve taken care of everything, something new pops up! There are literally a thousand things to think about and the Youth in Action procedures can be very exhausting”. Yet, in the words of the organisers, the biggest challenge was to ensure that the Palestians could get to Belgium in the first place! “We all know the hardship they face, and how their abilities to travel freely, even within their own country, are extremely reduced. It was very difficult to get through the visa procedures, they almost didn’t make it on time. Only two days before the project would start, the visas were granted. A huge relief!”, Valérie concludes.

AEGEE-Leuven, a small but active local

Only a few weeks after the SSE concluded, AEGEE-Leuven was already planning their new event, a local Y Vote 2014 conference. They invited Professor Christoph Crombez, who is an expert on European economics and politics, and Saïd El Khadraoui, a Leuven born and raised MEP. Both gave a short talk on the importance of the past European Parliament elections and the value of the vote of the youth. As Tom Etienne, current Treasurer, explains: “This was particularly interesting, because one point of view was clearly from an academic side, whilst the other one obviously came from a politician”. The event managed to gather a group of international students who asked about all kinds of issues, such as transparency and democracy in the EU, the financial crisis, the environment, and of course the results of the upcoming elections, and it concluded with a very active debate among the guest speakers and the young people.

AEGEE-Leuven is ackowledged for having organised many successful European events in the past couple of years, ranging from Travel Summer Universities, to a Network Meeting, and a thematic event in cooperation with the Human Rights Working Group. According to Heleen, “good teamwork and knowing each others’ strengths is I think in our case our advantage when it comes to organising exchanges. Almost everything is organised by the board, with a limited amount of help of volunteers, which we are grateful for”. Valérie adds that one of their biggest achievements has been “our growing rate of members over the past two years. From a small group of people we’ve seen our membership base evolve quite quickly, though of course we’re still quite small – but charming! On the other hand it is also nice that people seem to find us whenever it’s about European affairs or European organisations. We’ve been contacted quite a few times this year for projects, research and press articles”.

In fact, Leuven is widely-known as one of the biggest and most vibrant student cities in Europe. More than 40,000 students come to live there each year, and around 7,000 are international students coming from over 140 countries. As Heleen says: “It seems rather easy to reach international students since we are in the ‘international students organizations’ category. We are invited by the university to join the info fair for new incoming international students every semester”. However, she adds that, when it comes to reaching the Belgian students “it is more difficult, since there are not a lot of students who are particularly interested in meeting international people, as most people already have their “usual” group of friends and stick to this. But we see a change now, we think that more and more Belgians are open to their international fellows”.

The local has no future plans yet: there will be a new board elected at the start of the academic year which will surely surprise with new events and activities. Meanwhile, we wish AEGEE-Leuven the best and congratulate them once more for such a big achievement!

Written by Anna Gumbau,  AEGEE-Barcelona