An Insider’s Guide to Student Life in Leuven

“Stella is a student’s best friend”

The City of Leuven is a unique little universe in Belgium. It hosts the oldest university of the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), which is also the oldest extant Catholic university in the world: the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Because of its high quality education, students make up more than 50% of the city’s population. What baffles most visitors here, is how concentrated everything is. It is striking how so many bars and cafés are squeezed into so few square meters. Let’s not forget the pride of Leuven: AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer who  also produces our beloved Stella Artois.

Students are known for partying a lot, often showing up to the lectures the day after, with bags under their eyes as blue as the ink in their pens and a face as pale as paper. The result of a night spent at a café or bar in Leuven, where the beer is sold at prices adjusted to a student’s budget and the familiar noise of breaking glass is overpowered by the deafening music pulsing from the speakers.

Tabula rasa

Everyone has found themselves in the notorious position of a freshman or first-year student. Slightly insecure, very nervous but also extremely excited, you drag  yourself to the aula for the first time. It feels as if a slingshot shoots you right into the next part of your life, like a projectile without direction. Roaming the streets, looking for the correct door to your very first lecture. You start to get used to the new rhythm and integrate in the student life.

Luckily, Leuven has a thriving student community. For those who desire to expand their circle, there is always a student association willing to take you under their wing. They organise weekends for the freshmen, sports and cultural events, parties and a prom as a cherry on top of the year.  Joining one of these societies often requires some sort of ‘baptism’: a moment of initiation ceremonies. It is likely that you have seen these students marching the streets of Leuven, especially in October: covered in eggs, flour, ketchup and liquids of all kinds, smelling like garlic and residual waste. Many terrifying stories exist about these rites, but the unions associated with the KU Leuven need to sign an agreement with strict rules.

Tighten the bonds

The baptisms usually take place out in the open and the ‘victims’ are free to leave at any time if they feel too uncomfortable. Because they are so public, it is easier to control these activities. In some countries, these ‘humiliating’ rites of hazing are banned, but in Belgium the authorities regulate them. The student associations first need to notify the police about their exact activities, the products that will be used (some are strictly forbidden) and the order of the places where the ceremony will take place.

For some, this whole initiation happening may seem horrifying with its humiliating activities and verbal violence. Yet, it is important to know that it is completely up to the students themselves and that there is a mutual consent for this ‘role play’. Last but not least, the students crawling on their knees on the pavement right now will probably be doing the same to the newbies next year. You may wonder: what’s the point in all this? These rites are said to make the freshmen tougher and to create a strong bond: solidarity, friendship and unity are created.

Some of the associations show their fellowship by wearing sashes, as if they were participating in a beauty pageant. Leuven is not the only city in Belgium that has this rather odd tradition. The idea of wearing sashes or hats – like some put on as well – go way back. At the beginning of the previous century, a society from Leuven introduced this originally German tradition. They used to wear the caps or sashes as a sign of being Catholic or Flemish, a gesture of solidarity. Now it is worn to symbolise interconnectivity and friendship.

Typically extraordinary

As you may have noticed, most of the student associations have their election weeks in April or May, the most conspicuous one being that from Ekonomika. This is the student association from the Faculty of Economics and Business at KU Leuven. During an election week, the members who are candidates to be elected as the new group of leaders (“praesidium”) for the following academic year try to convince students to vote for their team by handing out free food, drinks and gadgets. It’s worth taking a look and scoring some free stuff!

Another typical element of the student life in Leuven are the ‘fakbars’ or faculty bars. These are cafés run by volunteers from the student associations linked to the different faculties of KU Leuven. That is the reason why the prices of the beer and other beverages there are dirt cheap. Negotiating favourable contracts with the brewers also plays a part in that game plan. All you need when entering a fakbar, is your student card and some euros.

To all the pessimists who believe that this student’s miniverse is barbaric or savage: there is proof to the contrary. Plenty of cultural events and possibilities to develop one’s talents pop up like flowers in the spring. Besides that, the amazing concept of a cantus was created. The term was derived from the Latin term cantare (‘singing’) and refers to a gathering that involves singing traditional songs from a book called ‘codex’ and drinking beer. The codex in Leuven contains the club anthems of most student associations and various other songs in Dutch, French, English, German and Latin. The event is governed by strict traditional rules (i.e. you need to ask for permission to leave the room) and always starts by singing two songs in Latin that praise the university and fellowship. Most of the seasoned students know these by heart!

All this being said, the student life in Leuven is a fairly unique phenomenon and will continue to flourish as long as a promising drop of Stella still glistens in its glass.

Emilie Vermeulen