The ugly truth is, a lot of people don’t really understand the effect ESN can have on one’s personal and professional development. Whenever we express tiredness or complain about the overwhelming workload, we receive questions such as “But don’t you guys just party with Erasmus students?”. Yet, we give polite answers with a wide smile on our faces because yes, we do party with Erasmus students, but also because we never get tired of explaining how wonderful ESN truly is.
Everything can be simplified. Harry Potter for example, a book loved by many people, is very often claimed that it is the best literary creation ever written. It can be summarized as a story of a boy strutting around an enormous castle, waving his magic wand, getting into all sorts of trouble and receiving forgiveness and approval based on who his parents were and how they died. Based on that example, it is understandable how our motto “students helping students” can often be misinterpreted. You should always try to explain what a wonderland ESN truly is. You can hold inspiring, hours-long speeches or short summaries, but you should try your hardest to convince others that ESN can do wonders for them. More importantly, you should convince yourself first.
There are several sets of skills you can develop or improve by volunteering in ESN, mainly those interpersonal traits that enable you to connect with others and establish harmonious relationships. These are also called ‘soft skills’, a set consisting of: personality traits, communication, interpersonal, managerial, practical, and intercultural skills. In ESN, we have people who come from various backgrounds, with different experiences, studying different fields, and have different personality traits. Let’s show this on a real example.
Anna, Dani, and Lucia saw a flyer that their local ESN section is looking for new members and all three of them have decided to join. Anna is an ambitious Business major, but she is also shy, introverted and afraid of speaking in front of big groups of people. Dani, on the other hand, studies at the Faculty of Educational Studies and is very creative, innovative and not afraid to speak his mind and push his ideas. Lucia is very talkative, enthusiastic and friendly. She just started studying Management, which wasn’t exactly her first choice, and she wants an escape from her responsibilities.
Soon after they join, the section’s Buddy coordinator asks all three of them to join the Buddy system. Anna is too shy to say no, even though establishing first contact with a stranger gives her anxiety, while Dani and Lucia jump at the opportunity. Anna gets assigned to a Spanish student who doesn’t know English too well. Anna is fluent in English and German, and the only Spanish words she knows are the ones she has heard in soap operas. Before the arrival of her Buddy, Anna starts slowly learning Spanish on an online language platform to help him the best way she can. When the international student arrives at her city, he is impressed by her knowledge of Spanish and offers to help her. This experience has improved Anna’s general communication skills, and due to the language barriers, she has become more patient and perceptive. Because she is already ambitious, Anna continues learning Spanish and becomes multilingual. Eventually, when the new recruitment cycle comes, the section President asks Anna to present ESN at her faculty. Anna is not exactly enthusiastic about the opportunity, but she is still too shy to decline. Anna is afraid of speaking in front of a crowd. She is provided with all the necessary material, and she remembers it front and backward. When the presentation starts, she mumbles and sometimes forgets the text, but she soldiers through it and the longer she talks, the more comfortable she gets. Afterward, the President of the section thanks her and encourages her to do more presentations, which pushes Anna to improve her presentation skills. Once Anna overcomes her fear, she becomes more open to new experiences and she starts focusing on diplomacy, representation, and leadership. If you have an ambitious and knowledge thirsty member like Anna, it is your obligation to push them forward, not stunt their growth - you never know, maybe you have the future President of the ESN International Board on your hands.
As a Buddy, Dani is responsible for taking care of a Polish exchange student. Dani knows very little about Polish culture, so he is eager to learn. He spends the entire summer talking to his Polish Buddy, and when all the exchange students arrive in his city, he starts attending social events to talk to each of them about their backgrounds and cultures. This way, Dani develops skills such as knowledge discovery, cultural understanding, multicultural engagement, information seeking and communicative awareness. He starts working closely with the section’s Project Manager, helping him with implementing ESN’s international projects, which boosts Dani’s creativity and innovation. He also learns that a local section is not a place where people can push their ideas and exert their power over others, but a place of teamwork. He is not only wonderfully growing himself as a person but also contributing to the development of his ESN section by joining ESN’s International Committee for Education, where he learns more about IRO-ESN collaboration.
Lucia gets an Italian exchange student, and she is happy to know that her Buddy is interested in partying and traveling just as much as she is. She has been looking for a partner in crime, anyway. After some time, the section’s Events Coordinator urges her to join the team and she does so only due to the requirement. She starts talking to other exchange students, testing their needs in order to help organize successful events, which helps her improve her listening skills and networking. Over time, the coordinator starts giving Lucia more and more independent tasks, then she starts improving organizational and time management skills by successfully completing those tasks. With more freedom, she becomes more creative, innovative, and informed, and as a result, she becomes more oriented towards growth, taking responsibilities, and mentoring which helps her see her field of study from a different perspective.
Your experience in ESN, and how much you gain from it, is what you make out of it. But be aware that, no matter which position you choose to fill, developing and/or improving your soft skills is unavoidable. Doesn’t matter if you are a President, a coordinator, or an active member, in one way or another you are going to be ahead of your peers, and your inner value will instantly increase. The only thing left for you to do is learn how to use it to your advantage in order to grow up and be the person you have always wanted to become in your future life and career. But that’s another story, and just like J.K Rowling, we have an endless source of inspiration for this exact topic.