Communication key to creating university community

The issue is clear for Rector Magnificus Jacob Fokkema: TU Delft must create a community that allows both Dutch and international students to discuss issues that matter most to them.

Without such a community, the university can never truly become international. Rector Fokkema, students and university communication officers gathered to discuss how such a community should be built.

In a former monastery on the Oude Delft, now the headquarters of Delft’s largest student association Virgiel, some forty people met to discuss a key issue for TU Delft’s future. If the university is to become a top international university, it must, once and for all, break down the walls between the different student groups and promote debate about issues that transcend specific student domains.
That this issue matters to the university was manifest in the presence of TU Delft’s Rector Jacob Fokkema. “Studying isn’t only about studying, nor does it imply that one should study alone. It’s about coming together and engaging in discussion and debate to find answers to problems that matter,” Fokkema said, while seated at a makeshift desk in the Virgiel barroom where the event was held. He then added: “Tonight we are here because studying at TU Delft is also about creating such a society.”
The objective of the evening, which included presentations and workshop sessions, was to discern which communication model could be employed to better inform students and stimulate debate. The general consensus among those present was that it should be the students who decide which model is best.
Joost van Putten presented one such possible communication model: the TU Delft campuswiki, a site aimed at informing students about virtually everything related to TU Delft, including, for example, information about where students can find an affordable party center for hosting a graduation party or even where to get a bicycle fixed.
Throughout the presentations, the participants’ attention occasionally waned, especially at one point when it seemed as if the ceiling would come crashing down, thanks to some rowdy Virgiel society students on the floor above who began jumping up and down while celebrating Sinterklaas.
Van Putten went on to explain that the campuswiki offers a more hybrid and intuitive way to find relevant information, because virtually everybody can contribute, unlike existing TU sites. He did add however that the campuswiki would complement, not replace, other TU Delft websites. Having experienced some problems in getting support for this initiative, Van Putten remarked: “If the university at least shows more enthusiasm for initiatives of which the benefits aren’t clear beforehand, students won’t be afraid to present them.”
Van Putten’s comment that it wasn’t always easy to get support from the university created a surprisingly tense atmosphere when one participant asked what he, and the other students, meant by “the TU”, complaining that they should be more specific, while also tersely adding that the reason why students might have difficulties finding the right information is perhaps because they don’t look hard enough.
TU student Jan Wouter Vorderman then presented the Board of European Students of Technology (Best) as a successful example of a student community. Best, a European international student organization with 81 branches in 29 European countries, also offers career support by connecting students and engineers with companies According to Vorderman, who became acquainted with Best during his internship in Spain and now intends to start a Best branch at TU Delft, Best should not be confused with associations like AEGEE. “The difference is that content and courses are central for Best,” he said.

Before the workshop session started, Maarten van der Sanden, a TU Delft science communication officer, explained the key points to consider when creating communication models, such as magazines: “It’s important to ask yourselves: what do I want to achieve with communication between students? Do I want to inform or encourage discussion? How am I going to this in actuality: with a wiki or a magazine?” 
The evening’s workshops resulted in a barrage of ideas, including an online or offline magazine, a forum, a lunch debate, a social networking site like Hyves and good blogs. The evening came to a close when a slim young fellow with a wide smile on his face presented what seemed to be the most tangible idea of the evening: “According to us, the best way to enhance communication between students, whether they’re Dutch or international students, is to organize parties,” he said, as the audience laughed, and Rector Fokkema added that he was always interested in parties. When the laughter died down, many participants agreed that in fact parties were perhaps the best way for students to communicate.
Parties indeed, and coincidentally, or perhaps not, the ‘participant’ in the meeting that just so happened to have ample experience in organizing parties was the host, Virgiel, with Virgiel’s public affairs officer, Laura Nieuwenhuis, saying: “Look, at your faculty you won’t easily approach a complete stranger and ask him or her point blank: ‘so what do you think about the university’s policy to oust students after an unsuccessful first year?’ But at a party you might, because the threshold to talk with people is much lower.”
While some audience members met this example with quizzical smiles, many more seemed to agree that the threshold to talk to strangers is indeed lower at parties, as it’s obviously up to the people at the party to talk about what they want to talk about, be it the importantance of beer in life or quantum mechanics or indeed university policies. 
Although the evening generated lots of interesting ideas, no clear-cut answer emerged as to which communication medium is best for informing students and creating a real sense of community. The event was regarded as good start however and the TU’s marketing and communication department plans to host a follow-up session shortly.
During the ‘borrel’ following the main event, Rector Fokkema opined that no matter what the ultimate communication model chosen, it should be in English and should promote debate. Issues like the difficulties international students encounter trying to obtain rooms in Dutch student houses should be discussed among students, Fokkema said, and although the results of such debates won’t necessarily lead directly to solutions, it will surely be a first towards finding a solution. Fokkema: “In the worst case, it will simply show how complex many issues are, and we’ll still be much better off for that alone.”

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