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Dutch University Seeks UCLA's Help with Diversity Issues
Rene Smit, president of VU University Amsterdam, signs a memorandum of understanding between his institution and UCLA. Judith Smith, dean and vice provost for the College, and Nick Entrikin, vice provost for international studies, look over a document.

Dutch University Seeks UCLA's Help with Diversity Issues

For the past eight years, Dutch college officials have been traveling to Westwood to learn how UCLA promotes a multicultural campus. The Dutch delegations are grappling with such issues as xenophobia in their own country, where Muslims make up the largest immigrant group. This summer, VU University Amsterdam signed an agreement with UCLA to work together on promoting diversity by organizing student exchanges, research collaborations and educational programs.

By Letisia Marquez for UCLA Today

UCLA’s Academic Advancement Program (AAP), which has long helped low-income and first-generation students adapt to the rigors of college, is forming a partnership with an unlikely country thousands of miles away.
 
For the past eight years, Dutch college officials have been traveling from the Netherlands to Westwood to learn how UCLA promotes a multicultural campus. The Dutch delegations, which are grappling with such issues as xenophobia in their own country where Muslims make up the largest immigrant group, are eager to learn how UCLA’s diverse student populations become integral members of the community and feel connected to the university.

President Smit talks to UCLA officials.

President Smit talks to UCLA officials.

This summer, Dutch officials with VU University Amsterdam took a step further to deepen their relationship with UCLA. On June 14, administrators from both universities signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on promoting diversity by organizing student exchanges, research collaborations and educational programs. The International Institute is lending its assistance.
 
For years, UCLA’s AAP has offered summer courses to entering minority freshmen and transfer students in an effort to help them acclimate to campus life. This summer, VU University Amsterdam will start its own summer course for minority students, modeled after UCLA’s programs. The Dutch university, a private research university that also receives government funding, is home to 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students, including 2,000 Muslim students.
 
“This continued relationship … is a wonderful way for us to share common issues,” said Judith Smith, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education, at the signing of the memorandum in Murphy Hall. “What unites us is wanting to have universities that are excellent and really focusing on issues such as inclusion and diversity.”
 
Two or four UCLA students could be participating in the exchange program with VU University as soon as this fall, said Charles Alexander, associate vice provost for student diversity and director of the AAP.
 
“This is an opportunity for AAP students to attend a great university in another part of the world and share in the experiences of students like themselves,” Alexander said. “More importantly, it will allow UCLA to share ideas, research and educational programs related to diversity on all levels.”

During their most recent trip here this month, 13 VU University officials and students, including President René Smit, met with numerous representatives from UCLA’s ethnic studies centers and other units within the university.
 
Smit also participated in commencement ceremonies for the College of Letters and Science and the International Institute.
 
“Diversity is really an urgent matter,” Smit said at the signing. Just last week in the Netherlands, a right-wing party known as the Freedom Party gained the largest number of seats in the nation’s parliament. The party has lashed out against Muslim immigrants.

Aroosa Khan, a VU University student of Pakistani descent, talks about misunderstandings that have surfaced about her Muslim religion.

Aroosa Khan, a VU University student of Pakistani descent, talks about misunderstandings that have surfaced about her Muslim religion.

In such a climate, Smit said, it’s imperative that universities educate citizens about immigrant populations and the benefits of having a multicultural society. “The essence of the university is to create a space where people are really able to learn from each other,” he added.

Aroosa Khan, 26, a first-generation VU University student of Pakistani descent who was part of the delegation from the Netherlands, said she felt isolated when she first started attending the college.
 
Khan said she felt other students viewed her as an outsider and had misunderstandings about her Muslim religion.
 
“Amsterdam is the most diverse city in the Netherlands,” said Khan, who moved with her family to Amsterdam in 1996 and has since become a Dutch citizen. Her father works in a flower distribution warehouse. “But many people would ask me, ‘Aren’t women being oppressed by men in Islam?’”
 
Khan and other Muslim students started a group, which she said has helped them feel more connected to VU and enhances cross-cultural understanding.
 
The new summer course at VU University also will help build a supportive network for first-generation college students. “It’s important for students to know that the university wants them to succeed,” Khan said.
 
Although VU University Amsterdam isn’t the first university in the Netherlands to start a program modeled on the services AAP offers, it is the first to sign a diversity agreement with UCLA, said Alfred Herrera, director of UCLA’s Center for Community Partnerships.
 
“There are many, many AAP-type programs all over the Netherlands — from peer mentoring to summer programs — that have been started based on visits here,” Herrera said.

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