UAntwerp is attracting more and more international students, researchers and professors. The social network MONDO aims to put them in touch with each other on an informal basis.

The kick-off event for MONDO on 21 October attracted around 160 people interested in finding out more. "As organisers, we were ready to start chatting to anyone who had come alone. But that turned out to be unnecessary", laughs Pieter Spooren, head of the Antwerp Doctoral School. "Everyone got talking right away. All those people have something in common after all: they are foreigners here in Belgium, working or studying at Antwerp’s university."

Not everyone in the international community feels at home here right away. Evenings and weekends can be long when the local students and colleagues have gone home to their families and partners. Pieter: "PhD students sometimes tell me that it’s difficult to make friends with local people, or that they are starting to feel isolated." Parul Goel from the International Students Office and Erika Leunens from the International Staff Office had heard similar things. The ball started rolling after a working visit to the University of Bremen, a partner from the YERUN network (Young European Research Universities Network) in which UAntwerp is active. "There they have an initiative to put people from the international community in touch with each other," says Erika. "‘Why don't we have anything like that?’ we thought."

The idea was greeted enthusiastically by colleagues in both departments. Erika: "Rather than setting up separate initiatives, we wanted to join forces and offer a single programme for all our target groups, namely international students, PhD students, postdocs and professors. In total we’re talking about a couple of thousand people. We thought it would be refreshing to bring these different groups together. Why wouldn't a professor want to have a chat with a student?"

Suggestions welcome

A committed team of about ten members of staff put their heads together, and MONDO was born. Parul: "The idea is to organise an activity once a month. It might be a cultural excursion, a walk or theatre trip, or just getting together for a drink." The first activity on the programme is a walk in Antwerp. Erika: "But a trip to Bruges, say, is also possible. Thanks to the financial support we get from the university, people can take part in the activities for free or at a very low price. We are open to suggestions: it will be nice to see how the range of activities grows." Members of staff from the three entities will attend every activity so that participants can come to them with any questions they might have. "And that's how we find out what's going on with each of the target groups," says Erika.

Belgian students and colleagues are also more than welcome. Parul: “We’re hoping that interaction will develop naturally. We’ve got a good list of colleagues who want to get involved in organising activities with us. And Flemish students are bound to be interested too – returning exchange students, for example, who miss the international element."

Tomaat-garnaal

MONDO is the work of many. Pieter: "It is a nice collaboration between our Departments of Education, Research Affairs and Innovation, and Human Resources. We’ve all got the same goal in mind."

More information about the initiative is available on the website and Facebook page. In addition to its own programme, MONDO will also promote other activities like those organised by the Culture Department and the Employee Association.

The kick-off event for MONDO was a resounding success. The evening included a performance by stand-up comedian Nigel Williams, who shared his experiences of being a foreigner in Belgium. Attendees also had the opportunity to try Belgian dishes like stoofvlees, a traditional meaty stew, and tomaat-garnaal – shrimp-stuffed tomatoes. "It was great to see a few groups going on to have a drink together afterwards. That’s exactly what we were hoping to achieve", concludes Erika.