Living in Belgium is a unique experience because of its international importance as the center of European business and politics. People from across the world travel here for a cosmopolitan education or to develop transcontinental relations. KU Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) is a perfect example of this diversity, as they have students from over 150 countries studying here. One of my favorite parts about living in Leuven is listening to the dozens of languages being spoken simultaneously. Belgium itself has three official languages; Dutch, French and German, which represent the communities living here. KU Leuven creates an open forum for the world, while teaching me the importance of speaking different languages.
KU Leuven is proud of the cultural diversity of its community and actively cultivates it through on-campus events. Pangea is the community center for the international staff and students living in Leuven. They host cultural events, organize field trips to obscure regions of Belgium and also facilitate language courses. I have participated in all three types of these events and have found them as a great conduit to building new relationships.
I had the privilege of speaking with one of Pangaea’s employee’s Ms. Laura Del Rio Gonzalez, from Madrid, Spain, about her experience with Pangaea both as a student and now working there.
What did you study in school and why did you decide to work at Pangaea?
Ms. Gonzalez: “I began my education studying film and media before going abroad to study intercultural communication. My time abroad inspired me to come to Belgium for a Masters in Cultural Studies. I started working at Pangaea because it matched my studies and I was excited to be able to work in the field I am passionate about. My responsibilities as an employee are managing the buddy program and organizing the logistics of events.”
What was your first experience with Pangaea and do you have a favorite event you participated in?
Ms. Gonzalez: “My first impressions of Pangaea were that I was impressed by its diverse community and because I missed my orientation days, I was able to meet my fellow exchange students there. Visits to Pangaea became part of my daily lifestyle here as my friends and I would use the space to study and participate in events. One of my favorite events here was an Iranian concert hosted by the Iranian students here. I remember it because it was a new music I never heard of and the crowd was very excited reminding me of concerts at home. Another event was a quiz event hosted by the community which was remarkable because they asked questions about the whole world and I felt it was inclusive.”
What is the role of Pangaea in the community and generally how does the organization accomplish these goals?
Ms. Gonzalez: “We are the meeting center for the students for Belgian and international students through cultural exchange. Pangaea hosts integration such as orientation, buddy events and field trips. And languages it was language tables, café lingua and conversation groups with native speakers. We also have external groups that we assist such as meditation groups. Finally, we open our venues for rent to students and student organizations such as Erasmus Student Networks. Our main group is students as we are students’ services however we invite all employees of KU Leuven and the neighborhood. Such as African film festival which draws in the whole town.”
How does the organization host community events and draw groups together?
Ms. Gonzalez: “We open our faculties available to students for two types of events here, public and private ones. Public events are student run and open to the whole community, we allow them to use our space rent free. We also allow students to host private events that they have to pay rent for. We have rules to determine if an event is public, everyone can participate, and that it is hosted in English. For example, we have had Chinese and Spanish cultural events that were hosted in English meaning that there was a space for international members to join the event while those with fluency in the cultural can experience an authentic event as well. We have numerous languages for conservation café to encourage people to learn new languages while tutoring other students in ones they are fluent in. We also have multilingual languages for newspapers, Spanish English Dutch and magazines about the whole world. Movie night also has foreign movies with subtitles in English.”
From my experience with Pangaea, the organization also brings the community out on the field. What are some examples of these excursions?
Ms. Gonzalez: “Our trips are designed to put Belgium in the spotlight and bring exchange student in contact with the country they study in. Cycling is a big part of Belgium and we notice that many exchange students are from non-cycling areas so we host events to help them feel safe cycling and also socialize with other people from a similar background. We also collaborate with cycling school of Leuven which helps new arrivals learn how to navigate the cycling traffic rules.”
How has Pangaea changed since you became part of the community?
Ms. Gonzalez: “From the time I was a student until now it has changed a lot. A couple years ago we renovated the physical structure. We have lately seen more Flemish students here and we have grown a lot. When I started, I have seen more colleagues join as we are growing as an organization.”
If you could create a new activity for the organization, what would it be and why?
Ms. Gonzalez: “First, offering free coffee and tea to members, but its not just about the free caffeine. The purpose is to bring people together and create common space to meet people and create a break time so people can socialize. Same for volunteering opportunities for students, we let students work and they are able to meet fellow students. These create a chance for people to feel at home and feel that their culture is represented here especially the ability to celebrate their culture and religion here. I also think expand creativity such as going out of your comfort zone to try a new dance or genre of movies or any new cultural experience.”
If you could create your own event, what would it be about?
Ms. Gonzalez: “If I could create my own event, it would be related to showcasing my culture. One event I really want to showcase would be the day of the Three Wise Men, which is a Spanish holiday in January where we celebrate the family by giving everyone gifts and joining together in family events. I want to create an event about my culture I cherish and is important back home.”
Your Discovery. Our People… The World Awaits.