Can you describe what you do?
I’m currently a third-year PhD student at the Centre for Computational Linguistics of KU Leuven. My research project involved developing pictograph translation technologies for people with an intellectual disability; enabling them to use social media websites, chat apps, and email. While our research group belongs to the Faculty of Arts, our office is not located in the Erasmus building. Instead, we are located in a lovely manor on the Blijde Inkomststraat, a cosy place with high ceilings and parquet floor. The main objectives of our small, yet tightly-knit team is to contribute to research in formal and computational linguistics, and to teaching and training in the areas of our expertise. The main reasons why I love working at the Centre for Computational Linguistics are its open-door policy, and its spirit of co-operation. My colleagues and supervisors are always prepared to share their knowledge with me, whenever I need it. Thanks to them, I have been able to make great progress in my research project, and I sincerely enjoy going to the office every day. I’m also a freelance artist in my free time – but that’s a different story!
How do you perceive Leuven? In your view, what kind of city is it?
Leuven brings together people from all over the world, and our locals greedily welcome all their expertise, knowledge, traditions, and cuisine. There’s a great feeling of belonging, and an attitude of open-mindedness and acceptance. The University definitely plays an important role in this, with its wonderful initiatives – like the Buddy Programme, encouraging Belgian researchers or students to make their international colleagues feel at home in Leuven –, its language exchange communities, and its involvement in countless international research projects. Leuven celebrates cultural diversity in all its forms, while still preserving that pleasant “small town” feeling. It’s a place where everyone would and does feel at home. I’ve made so many friends from all over the world here, and they have definitely widened my horizons.
What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
To me, Leuven’s main appeal is its “small town” vibe, its picturesque streets and buildings, and its friendly atmosphere. The city is particularly peaceful and quiet during the summer months and the weekends, but I must admit that I find the city most enjoyable when the students are in town. When the academic year starts, the city magically comes to life after a three-month slumber.
When I came to Leuven at the age of 17, I was suddenly surrounded by people who loved me for who I am, and showed me that I should never feel ashamed of my talents and interests, constantly supporting me in everything I do.
How would you say has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today?
I’m from a small town in Limburg, and I tended to hide my creative hobbies, nerdy interests, and geeky fandoms from the outside world, because I felt like most people would’ve judged me for them. When I came to Leuven at the age of 17, I was suddenly surrounded by people who loved me for who I am, and showed me that I should never feel ashamed of my talents and interests, constantly supporting me in everything I do. Over the years, I have become more confident and started to work harder to achieve my goals – one of which was to become a PhD student at KU Leuven. I ended up doing an internship at the Centre for Computational Linguistics, and it was love at first sight. Another goal was to become a better artist, and now I collaborate with local businesses to push my boundaries further. I am very satisfied with my professional, social, and artistic life today – and Leuven has played a very important role in that!
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
This is a tough question to answer: the city scores very well in sustainability and quality of life, as is evident with their Green Leaf award last June. There’s always a lot of stuff going on, and I can’t complain about the culinary offerings, either! Having said that, I would be very excited to see the return of The Big Draw. A festival which took place only once in 2015, it would be amazing if it became an annual event. Hundreds of enjoyable drawing activities were organised throughout Leuven to connect people of all ages with schools, galleries, museums, outdoor spaces, and so on. Children left colourful chalk drawings all over Ladeuzeplein, a hundred shop windows were decorated with original paintings by local artists, and people could sign up for all kinds of creative workshops. I have very fond memories of the event.
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what/where would it be?
I would actually suggest avoiding a trip on a weekend, and to come visit our city on a weekday instead, preferably during the first or second semester of the academic year. Personally, I think nothing compares to exploring Leuven through the eyes of our students! Go for a nice evening walk around the historical city centre, then spend some time on the Grote Markt, the “longest bar in Europe”, to have a Belgian beer or two. When the students are in town, the atmosphere is always guaranteed to be amazing!
The spirit of Leuven’s students – always up for some harmless mischief!
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
One of my favourite anecdotes is that of the “faux king”, a hilarious example of a successful student prank. In 1951, a small group of students encountered a young man who funnily enough resembled King Baudouin / Boudewijn of Belgium. They all paid a visit to Heilig Hartinstituut Heverlee, where they were welcomed by the community of sisters. The students even rented out a limousine and played out the roles of palace ministers, officers, camera-men, and so on. After a while, the bishop started to get suspicious, and the police were called to intervene to put an end to the prank. This story perfectly embodies the spirit of Leuven’s students – always up for some harmless mischief!ccl.kuleuven.be/~leen linkedin.com/in/leen-sevens-16615991