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Staff symposium on student well-being: ‘Let’s talk more about adversity’

How can we help our students build resilience and prevent unnecessary stress? And how do we break the taboo on failure? These and other questions are what study advisers, lecturers, deans and student support staff discussed at the staff symposium on student well-being at PLNT.

Joanne van der Leun

She didn’t want to be all doom and gloom, said Professor of Criminology and Dean of Leiden Law School Joanne van der Leun at the start of her keynote speech. Because many students are resilient, help one another and have a good network at the university. ‘Our staff are there for the students,’ she said. ‘There are people everywhere all doing their bit. I see fantastic examples of this every day.’

At the same time Van der Leun called for honesty. ‘We can also see that things don’t get better of their own accord and that many students are struggling in all sorts of areas.’ She is therefore pleased with the new Vision on Student Well-Being, which gives shape to the way the University wants to improve student well-being in the coming years. ‘The vision aligns with what we want as an organisation and with our core values as set out in the Strategic Plan.’ Examples of this are seeking connection and working together on a safe study and learning environment. She hopes that all staff members will read and share the vision. ‘We aren’t starting from scratch. Every faculty, service and programme already does an incredible amount. But many more connections are needed.’

Room for failure

Van der Leun said it is a myth that university is the best time of your life. This myth makes it all the more of a taboo for students to say they are not doing well. ‘What really affects me is that students are often too late to ask for help. That is at the heart of what we as a university do not do well enough.’

She therefore ended her keynote with a wish: for university to be a time that consists of more than getting good grades and building your CV – and that alongside room for relaxation, creativity and humour, there is also room for failure and trial and error. ‘I want us all to get better at breaking the taboos on adversity and asking for help at an early stage. I want everyone to have a fellow student or staff member who looks out for them and I want everyone to be able to be this fellow student or staff member. I hope that the vision will help.’

Rutger Kappe

Unnecessary stressors

The second keynote speaker was Rutger Kappe, a lecturer in study success at Inholland University of Applied Sciences. He offered a number of practical strategies for improving student well-being. One is to tackle the circumstances or events that cause student stress. He asked the audience to give examples of unnecessary stressors in the Mentimeter online tool. The responses filled the screen: complicated IT systems, unclear communication, bad planning, the binding study recommendation... ‘You do realise that you’ll have to deal with all of this now, don’t you?’ he joked.

A student who was present, medical student Charlotte, agreed with many points, particularly when it comes to ‘the bureaucracy involved in studying’. She sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night wondering whether she has registered properly for an exam. It doesn’t help that these are often scheduled immediately after holidays, she said.


Another of Kappe’s strategies was developing resilience, a trait he said was linked to many other things. Resilient students experience less stress and pressure to succeed, get higher marks and feel more committed to their degree programme. Students who found it difficult during the Covid pandemic are often called a lost generation. Strange, said Kappe, ‘We should call them the resilient generation instead. Many students got through the crisis really well.’

The trouble is that you need some adversity to become resilient. ‘You can’t develop resilience in an ideal world’, he said. ‘But that raises the question of what you do as an educational institution: how long do you leave students to sink or swim? When do you throw them a lifebuoy?’

He thinks it is important to pay preventive attention to skills such as resilience, in both the teaching and the career and support programmes. It is also crucial that students are properly informed about the support on offer right from the start. ‘If their stress levels are too high, students won’t use this support’, said Kappe. ‘So don’t wait until it’s too late.’

Text: Evelien Flink
Photos: Monique Shaw

What did visitors think of the symposium?

Dave Eikenbroek, study adviser
‘A highlight for me today was the workshop “The student’s perspective”, which was also given by students. Incredibly interesting to hear about the ways students themselves already help improve student well-being: I wasn’t aware of all the initiatives. At the same time it was also confronting to hear that although the University already offers a lot, it is not yet sufficient in the eyes of students. I think we should look together at how we can do better in the future. One tip I’d give colleagues is: make sure students can talk about things. Be open, don’t have any taboos or barriers... that is the main thing. You can also talk about what isn’t going well.’

Naomi Prins, from Student Affairs
‘At Student Affairs we also see that students aren’t always doing well. This symposium therefore seemed like a good opportunity to look at whether we can make improvements to our work processes. The enthusiasm of the students at the workshops today really stood out for me.  And Rutger Kappe’s keynote was really good. I think it’s important to involve students as much as possible in policy about their well-being. Because there is a lot on offer at the university but the biggest problem is how to get students to use it. I’d have liked to have had that question answered today.’

Ynette Caupain and Roswitha Kazic-Koliloedjoer, student counsellors at the Meeting Point

Ynette: ‘It was good to see how we can improve our services from a student perspective. And I thought Rutger’s keynote was really informative. It got me thinking about how we can involve students even more in our activities. And the symposium is also good for connections among colleagues. It will make it easier to work together and refer to one another from now on.’

Roswitha: ‘As Joanne said in her keynote, university isn’t just about good grades and achievements but also to a great extent your life alongside that. My aim today was therefore to pick up useful information that I can pass on to our students. As a staff member you are quick to want to give students a solution. But sometimes you have to sit on your hands and listen so that students can come up with their own solution.’

Watch the livestream of the symposium

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