Tribute to Rector Prof. dr. Caroline Pauwels

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Tribute to Rector Prof. dr. Caroline Pauwels
VUB Rector Caroline Pauwels, here during the graduation ceremony in 2020. Credit: Belga

VUB is in somber mourning. Two of our dear Rectors have passed away just one day apart:  Prof. dr. Paul De Knop (1954-2022) and Prof. dr. Caroline Pauwels (1964- 2022). This is beyond devastating. Like so many people, I join the VUB community in mourning these unbearable losses.

Our deepest sympathy and prayers are with their families and loved ones and with the people who loved and respected them. Shrouded in grief, we recognize, celebrate and indeed are proud of the legacies they leave behind, for VUB and the world beyond. My thoughts in particular go out to Rector Caroline Pauwels, who resigned back in February due to her illness and whom I knew personally. For me, she was and is the gentle soul of our university and I take comfort from the unconditional love she has shown to all of us, irrespective of race, gender, religion or background.

I have long seen Rector Pauwels as one of my greatest icons. I already mentioned her towering influence on me when I had the honour of speaking at the academic opening at Bozar in 2017, and when I was invited to deliver the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy Graduation Valedictorian Address when I graduated from the Multilingual Master in Linguistics and Literary Studies later that same year.

With her quintessential values and her truly beautiful personality she has set the bar high. I am especially inspired by her unwavering belief in humanity, her striving for inclusivity, her ability to break down barriers and bring people together, her unique sense of leadership, grounded in human kindness and positive encouragement, and by how she stood tall and proud, also in difficult time.

The news of Rector Pauwels’s demise was broken to me by a close friend of mine (Britt Vandesonneville), a former fellow student of the Multilingual Master at VUB and now an important point of contact for international students in the VUB Housing Department, while a group of us were celebrating my birthday at the Cinquantenaire Park. Knowing our closeness and how much Rector Pauwels meant to me, she was not sure when and how to break the news to me. I was completely offline (no Facebook, WhatsApp etc.), just happy to be in the company of my friends, enjoying the champagne and home-made cake she had brought.

My friend kept on looking over at me until she could not keep the news to herself any longer and uneasily informed me: “Jimmy, I have just received a message from my boss”. She paused for a moment and continued, “Rector Pauwels has passed away”, passing on her phone to me, and later also to the other colleagues present, for us to read the message ourselves.

In the moments that followed it felt like Rector Pauwels’s spirit wrapped us all as we lamented her passing, sharing our fondest memories of the unique person she was and taking great pride in the magnitude of her legacy.

We all have our memories of Rector Pauwels: a down-to-earth person, genuinely caring, and easy to be with. My own closeness with our rector cannot be captured in one go. I have often looked up to her as a source of inspiration, for her true sense of leadership. She has been my guardian too, as she kept a keen eye on the progress of my MA and PhD studies and on my student engagements. She was very proud of my recent PhD defence and even offered to go for dinner with my supervisor, Prof. Florian Trauner, “to thank him “for a job well done”.

On special occasions, such as feast days or my birthday, she would send me messages to check on me and would often be the first to write a comment on my posts on social media. She would also randomly invite me to her office just to chat. When I was nominated for (and won) the maiden VUB Laureate Award for Student Engagements in 2018, she congratulated me, saying “this is your stepping stone to winning the Nobel Peace Prize”, and a warm hug followed suit.

My many interactions with Rector Pauwels date back to my very first day on campus, when our paths crossed at the Campus Kick Off, an annual welcome event organised at the start of the academic year. She gave a speech on the occasion, and I would later learn that she had only just been elected rector and that this was one of her first major public appearances.

After welcoming everybody, she came down to interact with the students who had gathered. She also approached me and my Gambian colleagues, asking us where we were from and when we told her, she replied, “Gambians Ambassadors, welcome to the VUB, Brussels and Belgium, your new home.”

Shortly after, we were all dancing together. As newly arrived students, she made us feel instantly welcomed. She held my hand and we started dancing with the rest of the people there, forming a large circle. The people there held each other’s hands while dancing as a sign of unity from different backgrounds, countries and regions of the world. It was a proud moment and that was the first moment

I felt the warmth of Rector Pauwels. From then on, we saw each other regularly on campus; she would be the first to say hello. When I later joined the VUB International Student Platform (ISP) and was elected chairperson the following year, this gave me the opportunity to meet with her often and sit in on the discussion of policy matters. At our first ISP meeting, I presented to her a poem entitled “Gambian Ambassadors”. Later, again thanks to her, I was invited as ISP representative to have lunch with the King of Belgium when he visited VUB.

There is much to write about Rector Pauwels’s legacies, especially for the international student community. During her tenure ISP, a policy advisory body focusing on the needs, challenges and opportunities of international students, developed into a vibrant platform, working very closely with the Student Council, and by extension with the university administration.

As former chairperson of ISP, I can attest to the fact that she was our most fervent advocate. That international students were given the opportunity to speak at the VUB Academic Opening is but one of the many success stories we managed to register as a result of her unrelenting support. Myself being only the second international student to speak at this auspicious occasion gathering, after my best friend Arlind Cara in 2016, I considered it the greatest honour of my life. The Academic Opening is an important platform to provide visibility and show appreciation of the contributions of VUB’s international students.

In 2018 she helped to initiate the International Student Goodbye event, giving international students a befitting farewell in anticipation of the graduation ceremonies, which are not held until autumn, when most international students have already returned to their home countries. We shared the stage together, as I introduced her after my speech.

I have not forgotten the three key lessons she gave us: 1) Although for many it is a dream come true and an exceptional privilege to obtain a higher education abroad, you should “never look down on anyone and treat everyone with the same respect wherever you go”; 2) In whatever you undertake tomorrow or the day after, “do your best and do not be afraid to fail, because it leads to success”; 3) always carry the VUB spirit: “be free”.

Rector Pauwels was a champion of human rights in both theory and practice. On numerous occasions she took part in human rights protests and was a leading voice in advocating the unconditional release of our very own VUB professor, Almadreza Djalali, who has been held in Iranian prisons since 2016.

During the doctor honoris causa ceremony of Emma Bonino in 2017, she invited me to join her on stage to confer the VUB honorary doctorate on the Italian politician and the inhabitants of the isle of Lampedusa. Our rector herself responded to the refugee crisis by welcoming Syrian refugee students through the VUB Refugee Programme. This programme is but one of many reasons why VUB is positioned as a compassionate university; today it has been extended to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion who will start at VUB in the new academic year.

As a champion of student engagement, Rector Pauwels supported many student initiatives that lighten up campus life. Her Rector For One Week initiative gives students the opportunity to serve as rector for a week. She was also right behind the idea to form the African Student Community (ASCOM), and subsequently the Latin American Student Community (LASCOM). As ASCOM’s founder, I vividly remember how in May 2017 she welcomed us, a delegation of fifteen African students representing the various African countries studying at the VUB, to her office to discuss and support our existence.

With the slogan: “It is time for Africa,” she challenged the group to organize itself and encouraged us to take our studies seriously and get ready to shape the continent's future. Since that meeting, the group has organized various activities, from its first open barbecue on 25 May to the commemoration of Africa Liberation Day on campus.

During the pandemic period, it was thanks to her “Caroline Pauwels Relief Fund for students” that many financially struggling students were offered weekly food supplies on campus and rent support (and those living on campus even a rent waiver). Some students got financial support between 1500 and 3000 euros. I have witnessed this myself and can attest to the impact this support has had on those who benefitted from it.

While some cried in disbelief at the rector’s generosity, others offered prayers on the spot. One of the students, Abdulai Zibo Issaka, who benefitted from this relief, sent me a touching message upon hearing of her death: “It is one of the worst days of my life Dr. to hear of the passing of our dear rector!” It will take time to come to terms with her passing, but we keep her in our minds, thoughts and prayers.

Internationalization was also a central concern of Rector Pauwels. It positioned VUB as an open, inclusive and competitive university. The university’s international ranking rises every year. International collaboration, also with the Global South, is on the VUB agenda.

The rector was a huge supporter of the VUB’s alliance with the University of the Gambia and always happy to receive Gambian delegations on their European visits, which were led by the then Vice Chancellor of the University of The Gambia, now retired Prof. Fariq Muhammed Anjum, and the then Minister of Higher Education, Hon. Badara Joof, now Vice President of The Republic of The Gambia. Rector Pauwels also encouraged the development of a number of English taught programmes, such as the Social Sciences Bachelor and the Multilingual Bachelor, which have attracted many students from abroad. She also supported massive infrastructural developments on campus, such as the newly built student housing, which increased the percentage of students able to live on campus, which is particularly convenient for new and international students.

We trust that the VUB administration will honour her legacy and continue to support the many initiatives she took and encouraged. In addition, they could think of instating a Caroline Pauwels Fellowship or a Caroline Pauwels Day, or they could name an institute or building after her. At the student level, to continue the “Rector For One Week” initiative she launched back in 2017/18.

Rest in perfect peace, dear Rector Pauwels. You are forever in our hearts!


Dr. Jimmy Hendry Nzally

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