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Students Ruşen and Rana fight for diversity in higher education

Two Leiden students stand a chance of winning the ECHO Award for Higher Education. Deniz Rana Kuseyri (Rana for short) and Ruşen Koç are two of the six finalists for this annual national prize that is awarded to students who promote diversity and inclusion in their own discipline.

The two students tried to convince the jury this autumn with a motivation letter and a pitch. Rana Kuseyri, who has now graduated in Liberal Arts and Law from Leiden University College (LUC), and Ruşen Koç, who is studying International Studies and History, will hear on 3 February whether they have won the prize.

Network for LUC students

In her letter to the jury, Kuseyri spoke about her migration background and how her mother managed to care for her and her brother despite a lack of money. But it wasn’t easy. ‘My experiences, together with the expertise I gained from helping my mother navigate through the Dutch legal and administrative landscape, inspired me to fight for higher education that is inclusive and conscious of socio-economic diversity.’ She believes there are still many obstacles to diversity.

‘Winning the ECHO Award would be welcome recognition and a celebration of my work and efforts’ - Rana Kuseyri

Kuseyri has been campaigning for some time at the University for more inclusion and attention to students whose financial situation makes it difficult for them to study at all. She is one of the founders of Not rich at LUC, a network for LUC students from a migration background, first-generation students and students who have grown up in poverty. ‘Winning the ECHO Award would be welcome recognition and a celebration of my work and efforts, by a community [the ECHO community, ed.] that I would like to have stronger ties with,’ Rana Kuseyri wrote in her letter.

Enthusiasm for education

In his pitch Ruşen Koç told the jury about his foundation, Stichting OOK, that helps parents prepare and motivate their children for school and further education. Wearing a tracksuit and bearing a loaf of Kurdish bread he had baked himself, Koç spoke about the help he had given one of his struggling mentor families. The 14-year-old boy from this family from The Hague had come into contact with the police and his school no longer wanted him as a pupil. The boy’s mother phoned Koç in panic.

‘I hoped that it would show my mentor child that I supported him, that I was part of his culture, that we were cut from the same cloth’ - Ruşen Koç

‘I took the first train from Nijmegen to The Hague, in the clothes I was wearing that evening. The clothes I’m wearing today, my streetwear. I knew that it would influence their [the school leadership team, ed.] perception of me, but I didn’t have anything else, and I hoped that it would show my mentor child that I supported him, that I was part of his culture, that we were cut from the same cloth.’ In that meeting with the school leadership team, the mother and the child, it was decided to give the boy one more chance, as long as Koç would take the boy to university with him that week to show him what it was like there, which he did.

In the coming years, the student wants to help more families in Schilderswijk in The Hague, to encourage more young people to choose school and education. ‘In the hope, inshallah, that this will mean that the next generation is an integral part of Dutch society and that their constant struggle for bread, which is here in front of you, will no longer be necessary.’ By working together with the University he hopes to increase the University’s visibility. ‘Not only can children from these neighbourhoods learn from higher education, but higher education and researchers can also learn a lot from them.’

‘Hold up a mirror’

During a special lunch, Annetje Ottow, President of the Executive Board of the University, spoke to the finalists and a previously nominated Leiden student, Aline-Priscillia Messi, about their exceptional efforts. ‘The way these students are working on diversity, inclusion and education – both inside and outside our university – is inspiring. They hold up a mirror to us that shows that we as a university are not there yet. That is why it is so important to continue to work on this and that students like Rana and Ruşen have a platform where they can share their insights and help us change.’

ECHO is a non-profit organisation that focuses on diversity and inclusion in (higher) education and on the job market. The ECHO Award is presented each year to celebrate an excellent talent with an African, Latin American, Asian (excluding Indonesia and Japan) or Turkish background in higher education. The winner of the ECHO Award for Academic Education is given an all-inclusive summer course at the renowned American university UCLA.

Text: Tim Senden

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