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“We’ve put the framework in place”

“We’ve put the framework in place”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes

First year of the Student Project Team

MAASTRICHT. Their main goal last year was to make the university more student centred. But the new Student Project Team also had to promote themselves among students and employees and figure out what exactly they wanted to do and how to do it. “We have to build a strong foundation for the coming years and the teams that will come after us.” Observant followed them over the course of the year.

When the four members of the Student Project Team (SPT), Yvon Heijmans (team leader), Thomas Schäfer (treasurer), Luka Delsing and Celine Charles apply for the team in May 2013, the mission is clear: to make UM’s operations more student centred. But how they intend to do that and which projects they will launch is entirely up to them. “This is the pilot phase. We can choose which direction to steer it in”, says Heijmans. “We have to build a strong foundation for the coming years and the teams that will come after us”, adds Charles.

It’s October 2013 and the team has been installed for a month. They started off by identifying students’ issues and people in need of student feedback. They are meeting new people almost every day, trying to spread word of the team’s mission. “Ideally, people approach us if they want student feedback. We organise a panel, a questionnaire or a digital platform to get this feedback”, says Schäfer. “We should become a constant entity that people can approach – both students and university staff”, says Heijmans.

Those early days weren’t easy, the team reflects in June 2014. Delsing remembers their first day. “I had arranged a car to take us to Ikea to get some furniture. We had no idea you’re supposed to order it through the university.” “The startup was not easy. We were really thrown in the deep end”, says Schäfer. “It’s a challenge to claim your place in a big organisation.”

But as time passed, structure increased. “We started to figure out where everyone’s interests lay, how to divide the work. And where to get computers”, says Delsing. “It was interesting to experience the group process. We started with nothing and now we’re a real team”, says Heijmans. Although structure also has its downsides: “The early mornings were sometimes painful”, laughs Charles. “I like to sleep.”

 

Help desk

By April the team has started several projects. They conducted a small-scale study on the employability of UM students, organised feedback on the new online student portal and worked to improve the efficiency, accuracy and functionality of digital communications within the university. Today, 10 April, will see a brainstorming session for a new student help desk. “Currently, there’s no central point where students can go with their questions if they want to start up a new initiative”, says Schäfer. “Nor is it easy to find out what organisations and events already exist in Maastricht.” Therefore, the SPT has gathered representatives of student organisations in the Karl Dittrich hall in the Student Services Centre. “What are your problems? What do you need from the university?” Schäfer asks them.

The students’ comments make clear that better communication is a must. “It’s hard for an organisation in Randwyck to get in touch with an inner city organisation”, one says. “Sometimes several people are working on the same idea without knowing it”, another points out. Office space also turns out to be a problem. “Can everyone with that issue approach us?”, asks Heijmans. “If we can find a solution we can then take it to the Executive Board.” “Maybe one big flexible workplace”, suggests someone. “We don’t need an office the whole week, and that way it’s also easier to communicate with one another.”

Schäfer notes down all the problems and suggests solutions. “What do you think about an online platform or a Facebook group, where you can communicate with one another and share documents on things like how to apply for grants?” Heijmans is satisfied with the evening. “We heard a lot of useful things.”

To promote the help desk and support student initiatives, the SPT started the Idea Competition. The best idea to improve student life will receive 250 euros in cash and start-up funding. “We haven’t had any applicants so far, but it’s just been exam week”, says Heijmans. “We’ve arranged to go to a few classes to announce it, so maybe things will pick up.”

Bend your paperclip

“Coffee or tea, anyone?” Heijmans and Charles greet the five candidates of the Idea Competition. They get to attend three workshops to help them with their business plan before pitching it to a jury on 17 June. Today, 7 May, is the first workshop. The SPT members will join in too, to help the other participants and pick up some tips themselves. “We had many people coming over asking questions about starting up initiatives”, explains Delsing. “Some didn’t enter the competition, but have set up meetings with employees. Others are thinking about how to link their idea to UM.”

The participants are each given a paperclip. “Shape them in a way that represents your team”, says Thijs Geraedts, the workshop leader and former employee of the Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship. The SPT doesn’t have to think long. “We tied our paperclips together, because we’re a team. But every paperclip is bent differently because each of us is different”, explains Heijmans. Over the past year, the team members have come to know one another well. “We know how to handle each other’s dark sides”, laughs Charles. “Working so closely together teaches you a lot about how you’ll perform later in a professional environment”, says Delsing. “You get to know your own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

During the workshop the team members help the participants to prepare for the jury. “Remember to emphasise the added value for the university”, says Schäfer. “That’s what they’re looking for.” “Be careful when you describe your mission and your vision”, Charles warns. “Standard models say your vision is your idea and your mission is how you want to achieve it, but at UM it’s the other way around. So switch it or use different words altogether.” Meanwhile, Heijmans is dealing with the catering: “Is anyone a vegetarian?”

Early mornings

It’s early June. Back in their office at the SSC the team members talk about how they have grown as a team, but also on a personal level. “I’m much more patient”, says Schäfer. “The university is a big organisation and it usually takes a while to get a response.” “I’d never been a team leader”, says Heijmans. “It was fun to know a bit about everything, to be the person who can jump in whenever needed. But that was also difficult. I had to learn how to lead discussions instead of being a part of them; I had to think about what would be best for the team, and not force my personal opinion.” Delsing and Charles both agree that they learned most from the group work. “I speak up quickly”, says Delsing. “In the last year I’ve learned that it’s sometimes better to wait a bit before I give my opinion.” “For me it was the other way around”, says Charles. “If I disagreed with something, I used to let it go. Now I speak up.”

They feel they did well for the first team. “We still need to increase our visibility for students, but we’ve built up a strong network. It’s good to see that the university responded positively to our feedback and has used it, for instance with the new student portal”, says Schäfer. “There’s a framework for this team, a vision. The team after us will still have a lot of freedom, but we’ve laid a basis for how things can be done.” “When we started searching for the new team, I was scared we wouldn’t have enough applicants, but we had loads”, says Charles. She and Heijmans will return to their studies (European Studies and Health Sciences, respectively), Delsing will start a master’s in Entrepreneurship and Schäfer has found a job at the Student&Stad project. “I’d like to do SPT for another year”, says Heijmans. “We spent a lot of time on the preparatory phase, so now’s the time to reap the rewards. But we’ll be coaching next team, so we’ll still be involved.” “And now that we’ll be students again, we can benefit from the results of this year”, adds Charles.

Two winners

There is tension in the air on the morning of 17 June. Today, the five contestants in the Idea Competition were scheduled to present their ideas to a jury, but one of them has fallen ill. Charles hands out the altered agenda. “He was supposed to be first, so everybody moved up a little.” She holds up the big cardboard cheque with 250 euros for the winner. “Who should sign this?” “The Student Project Team should”, says university board member and member of the jury Nick Bos immediately. “You organised this, so we should highlight you, not the jury. And you should announce the winner at the end.” “I’ve never done something like that”, Charles says nervously. “Well, you have two hours to think about it.”

One by one, the contestants present their ideas. The jury pays attention to several criteria. Do all students benefit from the idea? Does it fit within the budget (maximum of 1000 euros, 250 from the SPT and between 150 and 750 from the Stimuleringsfonds)? And can it be done within a reasonable time period? 

In the end, it’s a tough choice. Two winners are announced – the Maastricht Academy and the Founders Club (see box) – but the jury decides to help all contestants by setting up meetings, for instance, or helping them to find funding elsewhere.

Delsing enters the room with flowers and champagne and everyone toasts the winners. “These are all interesting ideas, but I bet there are at least thirty more out there”, says Schäfer. “Hopefully next year, they’ll all enter.”

 

What is the Student Project Team?

The Student Project Team was established in September 2013 to create a bridge between UM and its students and assist the university in its mission to become a truly student-centred research university. The team implements student-related projects and provides student feedback to the UM management on an operational level. Every year, a new team of four students will serve as full-time team members. They receive €424 per month and an additional payment of six ‘administrative months’ (six times the monthly amount of study financing). The second team will be installed in the coming academic year.

More information: www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/web/ServiceCentres/SSC/InformationForProspectiveStudents1/TheStudentProjectTeam.htm

This year’s team

This year’s team members come from a variety of backgrounds. Yvon Heijmans is in her third year of Health Sciences, Luka Delsing recently finished a master’s in Globalisation and Law, Celine Charles is a European Studies student and Thomas Schäfer has a bachelor’s in Information Management and a pre-master’s in European Studies. Their reasons for joining the team also vary. “During my studies I came across various issues that could be solved”, says Delsing. “This project gave me the chance to change things by providing input.” “I want to translate theory from my study programme into practical experience”, says Schäfer. “Also, I’m the only member who studied at a different university, so I can compare how things are done.” For Heijmans, it’s about gaining insight into a big organisation. “When I graduate I’d like to work as a policymaker in a hospital, so this will help prepare me for that.” Charles likes the fact that the team is completely new. “We’ll have real influence on a big scale. Plus, even with this year-long break from my studies, I’ll still have a master’s at the age of 22. That’s soon enough.”

The projects

The Student Project Team has started several projects. For example, they have been involved in the creation of a new student portal, which will serve as a gateway to all UM student information. A student panel has given feedback on the design and prioritisation of features in the portal.

The SPT is also working to improve the efficiency, accuracy and functionality of digital communications within the university. Agenda items include creating apps and making the website more responsive.

Third, the SPT is creating a Student Initiative Helpdesk. This will contain an overview of all existing student projects and initiatives, online help in the form of information about funding, room bookings and legal registration, and the possibility for offline help from the SPT.

Further, the SPT created a questionnaire to gauge student satisfaction on their timetables and disseminated it via Facebook and EleUM, participated in a brainstorming project on the information students would like to receive from the university on employability, and provided different UM stakeholders with feedback (including the Flycatcher questionnaire designers, the library, UM Career Services and the Department of Marketing and Communications).

Winners of the Idea Competition

There were two winners of the Idea Competition: the Maastricht Academy and the Founders Club.

The Maastricht Academy is a website where students can find study material and ask for help from their peers. The initiators also organise workshops and are planning to upload videos to the site explaining difficult study material. All their work is free of charge.

The Founders Club organises weekly meetings for students who are interested in entrepreneurship. Students can seek help, feedback and even co-founders to set up their business.

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