Elena Valbusa

Project Manager Incluusion I Utrecht University






Exclusive interview by Loes Jaber, 10 August 2018

You manage project Incluusion at Utrecht University. What is Incluusion?

Incluusion is a grassroots initiative that enables education for refugee students. It is special because we don't just enable education for refugees with a residence permit, but also for refugees who are still in their asylum procedure.

In the spring of 2016 two PhD students came together in search of a way to help refugees. Utrecht University had no program whatsoever with regards to refugees. That's when the idea for Incluusion originated. Simply put: we added an extra chair to the existing classes. It is as simple as that. Refugees and asylum seekers who meet the entry criteria for the course can attend classes.

The concept was unique in The Netherlands, and in June 2017 we organized the first Incluusion conference. The conference was accessible to anyone who wanted to know more about the project and who wanted to meet the students. We considered expanding the concept to other universities to help more people, therefore, we invited other universities to join in hopes that they would embrace the idea and start a similar program. We managed to enthuse several universities, as they implemented similar programs such as: Wurth-while at Wageningen University and TU-Enable at TU Eindhoven. Above all, we wanted to spread an optimistic message and share the positive and transformative impact of education in the lives of refugees.

How has the project gone since 2016?

Last year 200 refugees took part in the program, and this year our participation included over 160 refugees. 60% of them have a residence permit, and 40% are still in the midst of seeking asylum. Most of the students I have met received a residence permit after a few months or a year. If they don’t receive a refugee status and they have to return to their country of origin, at least they made good use of their time in The Netherlands. I don't just mean that in a functional sense, but because it gives meaning to their time in The Netherlands. They get acquainted with the country, make friends with fellow students, and build a network. If at the end of it all they have to go back, then at least it wasn't all for nothing.

What more can you tell me about the participants of Incluusion?

40% of the refugees participating in our program come from Syria (and includes stateless Palestinians), 40% come from African countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Sudan. We also have students from Morocco and Egypt. It's variable, and the remaining 20% are a mixture. This year we had many Yemenis, Turks, and Venezuelans. The composition of the refugees partaking in Incluusion coincides with the political situation worldwide.

70% of participants are male, 30% are female. These a distressing figures and I don't know why there is such a disparity, but there are many cultural aspects involved, for example families often prefer for the male to study. When women walk into our office interested in Incluusion, we do everything we can to keep them involved.

What comes after Incluusion?

Students partaking in Incluusion attend classes and can take exams. Theoretically, students can attend as many courses as they wish, but they are not officially registered for a study program, meaning they are unable to obtain a Bachelor's or Master's degree.

If students fulfill all the course requirements (do the assignments, pass the exams) they will receive a certificate at the end of the class. If they apply for a study program at a later date, they can ask the Admissions Commission for accreditation. What we have seen until now is that the courses taken through Incluusion give the Commission's members some kind of framework to relate to a degree taken in a different country. Incluusion really does have added value, including in many other aspects not directly related to education.

What is your role in Incluusion?

The two PhD students that came up with the program – two women, by the way – approached the department that I worked at at that time. They suggested setting up a pilot. I thought Incluusion was a great idea and I wanted to do my part, so I offered to help out in my spare time, but within two weeks of the pilot, the project grew explosively. Eventually I started working on the program full-time and began lobbying to receive institutional recognition and financial support.

What part did you play in making this program so successful?

I am not the only one who helped this project. It was difficult to get it up and running, but I am just as motivated as the students. I do as much as I can. Incluusion has become more than a job, it's become a mission. My team and I fought hard to get this program the recognition it deserves, and eventually we managed to get the program embedded in the University and receive the necessary (internal and external) funding to run the program.

This is the first position you've held in which you work with refugees. How do you like it?

It's very rewarding work. The job is variable, especially now. The new academic year starts in September, and we'll be starting the third year of Incluusion. Every year is different and has its own set of goals. During the first year, I focused on setting up the program and collecting evidence and data to justify the program to the University's Board of Directors. Last year I focused on dissemination of information, and on building up a network abroad and in the city, which also resulted in a partnership with the Municipality of Utrecht. This year I want to focus more on the inner circle. I want to find a better connection between the program and other departments at the University, such as the Admissions Department, to facilitate the flow of students from Incluusion to an official study program.

One thing stays the same, and that is the contact we have with the refugees, which I find very important. We talk personally to each one of them to manage the enrollment process on their behalf. There is no admissions procedure; the students are simply admitted on the basis of an intake with the Incluusion team, but the personal contact with the students is vital to the success of the program.

Did you have a plan in mind for your career when you were studying?

Yes, I did, but life has gone different than expected. I studied Political Science and International Relations because I wanted to go into diplomacy, or work for an international organization abroad. By the end of my studies, I started to feel a sense of restlessness. I wanted to work in a dynamic environment and be able to change things and I was not sure that I could get used to all the bureaucracy associated with those fields. I studied in Italy and I also knew that it was very difficult to work in diplomacy without a relevant network. I was discouraged by the cultural situation, and by the end of my studies I decided to divert my ambitions to the private sector where I have been working for the past 17 years.

Life and love also took an unexpected turn. My then boyfriend and current husband brought me to The Netherlands after graduation. I considered working at an international organization, to follow my intended path after all, but I felt I needed to improve my Dutch and I was intimidated. There were so many graduates who spoke as many languages as I did, and they were much better at Dutch than I was.

When we arrived in The Netherlands, I took the first job I could find. I was losing my mind back then. I had just graduated, was newlywed, and I was living in a village called Nieuwegein, wondering why I traded my life in beautiful Verona for a new place. Of course, I learned to appreciate it later, and I have very warm memories of that time now, but back then I was homesick and I figured that everything was better than sitting at home. Within two months of arriving in The Netherlands I had a job at an office for wood traders. I didn't even know how to properly answer the phone and I remember that I could never pass the call properly. It was really hilarious at times, but working there gave my language skills an enormous boost, which was important. A year later, I found a job at a big international company and was very happy.

Any regrets?

No, I mean, what is regret? Why regret? I am now who I am because of all of these experiences and detours. I have made peace with it.

What struggles have you encountered as a woman in your professional career?

I have worked both in Italy and in The Netherlands and I have experienced great differences between the two countries. Working in Italy was challenging. After I gave birth to our second child and after my husband joined the company that I was working for, my employees started to look at my position differently. My ambitions and my plans became secondary. My husband had a very good position, so others were asking why I was making a fuss, and if I should stay at home with the kids to support my husband's career. Even during salary negotiations, my husband's salary was taken into account in my own salary. That was enormously frustrating and sad.

I found the combination of working and being a mother very difficult when working in Italy. I was the only female employee with children in the company and my colleagues could not relate to my situation. Competition among colleagues was also very strong and I did not want to show my weak spots in an environment which had zero tolerance towards parenting. At the office, I would only share the funny stuff of raising little children, but I would never tell the real difficulties of being a mother, such as dealing with sickness, tantrums, sleeplessness, etc.

I also had a part time position, which was an exception back then. Some female colleagues thought of it as a privilege, but I often had to take my work home in order to accomplish what I could not finish at the office. I realized I was not the exception, and that other women found themselves in similar situations elsewhere.

In The Netherlands, the working environment is different - working conditions are more female- and family-friendly, and the University of Utrecht is a good employer. I can't complain, but still, I know that barriers still exist, such as unconscious biases that we carry with us, also amongst women. I am also part of the University's Diversity Team and together with the Diversity Taskforce, and other colleagues and departments, we work for raising awareness of diversity. I like the self-inquisitive attitude of the University. We don’t pretend to be perfect, we want to know where we go wrong and we are open for improvement.

Why do you do what you do? 

My motivation is based on a sense of frustration I feel for the situation refugees are in. Perhaps it has to do with my own history. Obviously, I did not experience the same thing because I moved from one European country or another European country, I didn't even need a residence permit and I could start working right away. Yet, I know what it's like to lose your network and to miss your family and country. I felt a sense of understanding towards refugees. In the current climate, refugees are constantly accused of coming to The Netherlands for economic reasons. I'm sure there are asylum seekers who do so, but I can also say that most of them had no other choice if they wanted to survive. Most of those I speak with would return home if they could, so they come here, life as they knew it taken from them. They have to prove themselves all over again: who they are, what their skills are, what level of education they have, etc.

The 'refugee' label is a necessary term if we want them to have access to legal recognition and support. It's a positive thing that the international human rights system came up with, because it is the official acknowledgment of a situation to make financial support, accommodation, and family reunions possible. Unfortunately, it is hard to get away from the label. The second student I admitted to the program in 2016 was a young man from Burundi. He only received a residence permit after two years, this past June. During this time he attended more than eight courses, he plays for the local basketball team, has a Dutch girlfriend, and a huge circle of Dutch friends. He is the most integrated asylum seeker I know, and he is labeled as a refugee now. This all started with Incluusion. For two years he wasn't just an asylum seeker. He was above all a student. He learned so much, including the language, and he improved his English. However, he never says he's a refugee or an asylum seeker. He says that it makes people look at him differently, with pity or distrust. Misconceptions about refugees have easily spread, causing distrust and discrimination. The refugee label carries a stigma which is difficult to remove. With Incluusion, we temporarily remove this label and offer them the possibility to participate in society. They become students again, they can be themselves, despite the label. He has since been accepted to the Master's degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University and he will start studying in a few weeks. This is the best outcome we can wish for at Incluusion. That’s why we do what we do.