An association run by students for students

Bielefeld International Student Network
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Bielefeld University has a very active student body and a wide range of facilities organised and supported by students. Since spring 2022, these have included the Bielefeld International Student Network. The aim of BISN is to pool and professionalise activities run by students for students in the international field, and in due course connect these institutionally on a European level in order to open up new student engagement and networking opportunities.

Impetus from International Office

One thing is important for Markus Symmank, Head of International Office (IO) at Bielefeld University: that student engagement at the University is strong, especially in the international field. An example of this is the International Student Council (ISR), an international student representative group, which works with the University administration and the General Students’ Committee (AStA) and supports the interests and needs of international students.IO has also always provided mobility-related support services which are connected with the University and local citizens through the Local Erasmus+ Initiative (LEI) and ViSiB (Association to Support International Students in Bielefeld). 

«There is definitely room for improvement, however, when it comes to establishing institutional and organisational links between the different activities for students who visit us here or spend time abroad, the incoming and outgoing students,» explains Symmank. «One obvious option was the Erasmus Student Network (ESN), which is not yet represented here in the Ostwestfalen-Lippe region. It has the professionalism, resources and networking opportunities that would help us develop and open up completely new options.» Henrik Sundermann, «a young colleague at International Office, who is interested in this field», followed up on the idea.

[Translate to English:] Foto von Angelika Epple
© Universität Bielefeld

For Bielefeld University, student engagement goes much further than what is set out in policies and regulations. Numerous groups and projects shape our everyday academic life. As the rectorate, our door is wide open to students and their representatives. We see each other regularly and pick up on new ideas whenever we can. 

Professor Michaela Vogt, AStA representative Jasmin Azari and student senator Matteo Gentile introduced this Bielefeld approach to our European university network NEOLAiA*. At a meeting of students from all nine locations, it was fascinating to hear how differently student engagement is perceived and practiced across Europe. BISN plays an interesting bridge-building role outside the committees, but in the midst of the action.

Professor Dr Angelika Epple – Vice-Rector for Research and International Affairs, Bielefeld University

Foundation of a new association

On Henrik Sundermann’s initiative, motivated students from Bielefeld University and Hochschule Bielefeld – University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSBI) got together in spring 2022.«We wanted to encourage international and local students from both universities to network with each other, offer them opportunities to interact socially and academically and ultimately become an official member of the Erasmus Student Network,» explains Sundermann. He and his fellow students were supported by a member of an existing ESN section, Luís Henriques from ESN Göttingen, himself an international student from Portugal and former board member of ESN Germany. Henriques explained to Sundermann the steps that needed to be taken to become a member of the ESN.

Although official registration as an association is not a requirement, Sundermann and his co-initiators decided to take this step since it allowed them to open a bank account, for example, and make use of social media offers and platforms, explains Franziska Cieslik, Communication Manager of the association, which was set up at the end of June and registered as an association with the Bielefeld District Court in early August 2022. Social media presence – alongside the existing contact to Göttingen – was also the reason why many other national ESN sections became aware of BISN and why Sundermann and four other members were invited to attend the National Assembly in Göttingen in November 2022, where the group officially presented itself as a candidate section.

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Cooperation between students and university

Since 1 January 2023, the Bielefeld International Student Network has also been officially recognised as Bielefeld University’s Local Erasmus+ Initiative. This means the group receives support from the NA DAAD which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to encourage students at the University to spend time abroad (for study or traineeships) and help international students find their way around the University and settle into their new environment.

To achieve the level of student engagement needed for an effective LEI and raise awareness of BISN and the subject of «internationality», Sundermann and his fellow campaigners attend events that are regularly organised for first-semester students in the faculties. This is also why they worked closely with the University’s IO, especially during the foundation phase. Among other things, this has involved sharing information with the association, for example on international student intake cycles in Bielefeld, and using mailing lists to contact (international) students.«Support from a university institution like International Office has been instrumental in helping us establish ourselves as a university group,» confirms Cieslik.

Portrait photo of Franziska Cieslik and Henrik Sundermann on the University Campus
© Privat

Franziska Cieslik and Henrik Sundermann bring Erasmus+ experience to the work of BISN: «The experience of living in Bologna and the perspective that comes with being immersed in a different culture and environment have shaped me professionally and personally.» (Sundermann). «Finnish universities attach great importance to independence and reflection. I definitely learnt to approach course content in a different way while I was there.» (Cieslik).

Institutional integration of BISN

The group continues to liaise with IO but also with other groups and bodies at the University, such as the ISR, or organisations with an international focus, such as AIESEC, a global youth-run community that helps young people develop their leadership skills. «One of our key partners is AStA. It has supported, especially financially, on various occasions, and it continues to do so today,» adds Sundermann. «It funds promotional activities and reimburses members for the costs of meeting other ESN member organisations.»

But however important these partnerships and forms of support undoubtedly are, Sundermann also stresses that BISN does not belong to Bielefeld University. «We’re a ‹voluntary› university group that relies entirely on the voluntary engagement of our members. It’s run by students for students.» And something else Sundermann stresses is that BISN is not confined to Bielefeld University. Since the very beginning, the association has always counted HSBI students among its members, currently numbering 20. The financial administrator and contact person for other ESN sections, for example, come from Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences and Arts. 

University building with outdoor facilities of Bielefeld University
© Universität Bielefeld

In the winter semester 2021/2022, around 25,000 students were enrolled at Bielefeld University. In 2019, the University was among the top 20 young universities in a national ranking.

The activities – their point and purpose

BISN is first and foremost a networking group. That means its mission is to bring together the many international students who come to Bielefeld for one or two semesters every year, for example with the Erasmus+ programme, with local students. Experience has shown that without these contacts, it is all too easy for international students to socialise only within the international community and not engage in international exchange. This is why BISN offers a range of low-threshold events. At the start of the summer semester 2023, for example, it hosted a Welcome Week. Future activities will include a trip to an amusement park and tandem language exchanges, where incoming and (potential) outgoing students can be linked. «Many of these offers, like visits to museums or trips to cities, are also a form of cultural education,» explains Cieslik. «They aren’t just fun events.»

But BISN addresses numerous other issues with its programme of events. In this respect, the group follows the principles of the Erasmus Student Network and its six causes: education & youth, environmental sustainability, health & well-being, skills & employability, social inclusion and culture. BISN therefore tackles important topical issues in today’s society and endeavours to have a lasting impact on these in the interests of students.

Reasons for engagement

BISN members relate to these concerns and recognise their importance. This is one reason why they want to get involved. Another is the personal experience they gained while studying in Bielefeld or abroad. «As a matter of fact, we’ve ALL spent a longer period of time abroad or are currently ‹abroad› in Germany,» stresses Sundermann. «We know that when we’re abroad, our own interests are not always the same as those of local students. This is where BISN comes in.» He says that thanks to the diversity of the group’s members and its focus on internationalisation, many of the concerns of international students are automatically represented. 

«Our next step – membership of ESN – will give these activities the boost we need to make a difference and lift our actions onto the next level,» says Alina Godglück with conviction.The Vice-President of BISN explains that national networking activities allow the interests of Bielefeld students to be heard beyond the city’s boundaries. And what’s more,thanks to ESN’s structures, which have been in place for over 30 years, students can participate in socio-political and democratic processes in a foreign country even for a short period of one to two semesters. 

The next steps

BISN officially became a section of ESN Germany at the end of May after its application was approved at the General Assembly of German ESN sections in Düsseldorf. The association is now part of a larger community with all the benefits this brings for its own activities and students in Bielefeld.

It’s actually unusual for universities to apply for a location. But now we’ve seen it happen in Bielefeld, for example. The University’s International Office approached us and asked if they could have a local section. We helped them find motivated students and explained the whole process, which is usually carried out by Erasmus students. It worked really well and they found a group of really committed students.
Alicia Pohl, Vice-President ESN Germany
Group photo of the BISN team on the university campus
© Franziska Cieslik

The BISN team

Author: Marcus Klein