After I came back home from my first Erasmus+ project, I was left with two impressions: that I had a great week and that it probably wasn’t the best use of European Commission funding. 3 years and more than 20 projects later, all I can do is look back and say: “Boy, was I wrong!” about the latter part.
Not just for university exchange
Most people already know that Erasmus+ is an enriching programme that enables students in higher education to study or work abroad for a semester or two. It might come as a surprise to some people, however, that the programme is not only about universities and has many more opportunities for short-term mobility. One of the most popular of these opportunities are youth exchanges and training courses which rely heavily on non-formal and informal learning, which differs significantly from academic education methods.
Unlike in formal education institutions such as schools and universities, the learning environment is very informal and the facilitator isn’t usually qualified in formal teaching methods, but rather is trained in non-formal methods and is a volunteer from the group. Many exercises are built on teamwork and may even seem a bit unorthodox at first. I often found myself thinking: “Is building a tower out of spaghetti really going to help me find out more about human rights?”. After some time, however, I understood that the spaghetti-tower might not have been the main goal of the workshop after all.
Skills that schools don’t teach
The aim of the Erasmus+ programme is to help participants gain the valuable life skills and international experiences they need to succeed in today’s world. This is the part which formal education often fails to deliver, because of its different nature and objectives.
Unfortunately, today’s academic curricula do not always cater to the current needs of the labour market. Cultural awareness, social and civic competences and “learning to learn” skills are just some examples of things that can’t be learned only from the textbook, but from real life situations as well.
Notably, the most evident improvement I noticed in myself during these international projects is in my language skills. I am proud to have witnessed situations where young people who were afraid to even say a word in a foreign language managed to actively participate in workshops after spending a week in a positive learning environment.
Informal learning is also not to be forgotten, because that kind of learning takes place in everyday life. It can be something as mundane as learning how to open a glass bottle with a lighter or learning how to cook the perfect pasta - all real examples from previous project experiences of mine. Despite rarely being recorded and virtually never certified, informal learning has concrete outcomes. During these projects, participants learn many new energisers, games and traditional dances which they had probably never done before. Learning by doing is the main working method of these projects and in an intercultural environment full of new people, participants are encouraged to learn more in a shorter period of time.
Promoting European values
Thanks to my active participation in numerous youth exchanges and training courses, I feel I have definitely developed my personal skills to another level. In addition to that, I have come to a better understanding of what “feeling European” means to me. In times when European values seem to be in crisis and the media can distort and amplify everyday events, first-hand human interactions teach much more about other cultures than any speech or lecture in school could. I’m also absolutely convinced that every euro invested in these mobility programmes has a higher return-on-investment ratio in terms of cultural and social inclusion and the integration of young Europeans than if the same money were to be spent on yet another social campaign with posters and other forms of advertisements.
And did I mention the best part? It’s usually almost free of charge to participate. You just need to contact your Erasmus+ National Agency (see the links below) and ask for more information regarding the application process and the list of NGOs involved. Good luck!