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Looking back at an inspiring symposium Buddies Breaking Barriers

24 February 2021
Looking back at an inspiring symposium ‘Buddies Breaking Barriers’ held on 16th February.

This picture shows a selection of participants’ reactions to the online symposium ‘Buddies Breaking Barriers’ held on 16th February. We look back on an exciting and inspiring symposium about peer-mentoring projects.

Buddies breaking barriers
Students are all different and not everyone finds their way to higher education with ease. There is an increasing focus on equal opportunities in education. Once students have gotten into higher education, new challenges await - especially, among others, first-generation students, students with a migration background and students with a disability. During the symposium we discussed how students can support other students to realise their academic ambitions and we showed some of the initiatives that already exist. This symposium was organised as part of the Comenius Teaching Fellow project “Buddies Breaking Barriers”. Dr. Anouk Wouters showed how her project was inspired by her PhD research which raised concerns about possible effects of selection procedures for the medical study on the diversity of the student population. The buddies (medical students) were trained to coach high school students (5 and 6 vwo) for whom studying (medicine) might not be self-evident with the study choice process, during the selection procedure, and throughout the medical study. In a festive ceremony the first batch of buddies received a certificate.

Inspirational talks
Two powerful inspirational talks successfully illustrated the importance of initiatives to promote equal opportunities in higher education. VU Vice Chancellor, Prof. Dr. Vinod Subramaniam, emphasized that the VU considers creating equal opportunities and a more inclusive, diverse and safe environment in higher education and research as its duty and responsibility. He says this because, “it’s the right thing to do”. Monaïm Benrida spoke about the Gelijke Kansen Alliantie of OCW, a governmental organization investing in equal opportunities on all levels of education. Zahraa Attar illustrated this story with her personal experiences as a refugee student which made a deep impression on the audience.
Dr. Marieke Slootman took the topic of peer-mentoring further by reflecting on the importance and impact of identity and the social, cultural, economic and symbolic types of educational ‘capital’ (introduced by Bourdieu) that contribute to how well we can navigate to and through higher education. What knowledge, skills, and mannerisms for example do people learn as  part of their home environment and how can this influence educational pathways? But also, how can peers be of help when one’s own capital does not match the new habitus and hinders a successful transition to higher education?

Showcasing best practices
In break-out rooms participants could get acquainted with a variety of other buddy projects:
•    Better Prepared (Loes Mulders – VU) – A programme aimed at first generation university students
•    Edu4U (Hussein Hajji Abdulsalam) – A project aimed at refugee students
•    Mentoring Urban Talent (Dr. Ismintha Waldring – VU) – A collaborative project between VU and EUR aimed at students in 3 vwo with a first generation higher education and/or migration background
•    Platform Onbeperkt Studeren (Renate Bosman – student UU) – A project for students with a disability
•    Tune In (Dr. Bas Agricola – HvA) – A programme aimed at first generation students at the university of applied sciences

Meaningful, fun, and full of energy
As one of the active elements in the symposium, Amrita Das illustrated an ice-breaker from the VU Mixed Classroom Educational Model. We played a quick game of ‘what do we share?’ that showed how easily we can find similarities between ourselves and others, and how easy and valuable it can be to connect with others.

To wrap up the symposium, some of the buddies and the audience provided some input for Dr. Anne de la Croix. She creatively put it all together and captured the key ingredients of buddy projects in a logo, a snack and a song, leaving the participants with “I’ll be there for you” (title song of the Friends series) stuck in their heads for the rest of the evening.

Anouk Wouters, Amsterdam UMC, Research in Education, Faculty of Medicine Vrije Universiteit VU