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Sara Lanzilotta: From ESN Volunteer to Building an International Career

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In the spirit of the European Year of Skills, we sat down with Sara Lanzilotta, the first-ever ESC volunteer at the ESN Headquarters in Brussels, to talk about her career and memories from her time as an ESN volunteer. Sara's journey is a testament to the power of volunteering, showing how the experience impacted both personal and professional aspects of her life.
Photo of Sara in the hemicycle of the European Parliament in Brussels
Sara in the hemicycle of the European Parliament in Brussels

It all started in the basement of her university in Rome. She had just returned from Spain, where she was doing an Erasmus exchange, and, like many exchange students after their mobility is over, she was craving an international community. “Let me see what’s happening downstairs”, she thought after hearing that that’s where the ESN office was based in her faculty. What followed was a year full of organising activities, attending events and helping international students deal with life in Italy. “It was an amazing year because ESN Roma ASE was a very big section at the time. We had over 300 international students”.

A leap to Brussels


Around the same time Sara was getting involved in ESN Italy, in Brussels, ESN International was taking its first steps. March 2007 marked a significant turning point, as Sara and other volunteers travelled to the European capital for a conference, and she realised things were also happening outside of her bubble in Rome. 


Months later, when offered the opportunity to go back to Belgium as an ESC volunteer (then it was called EVS for European Voluntary Service), she didn’t think twice. “I had one week to decide if I wanted to be the person coming to Brussels or not [...], and I said yes. I packed my luggage and came to Charleroi with the cheapest option I could find.”


At the time, the ESN House was a fresh idea, and the ESN Office was still in the process of being furnished. As part of her volunteering, Sara had the opportunity to get involved in projects like that year’s edition of the ESNsurvey or the preparations for the Erasmus programme’s 20th anniversary, which consisted of a campaign covering more than 40 European cities. In her free time, she helped build the Office furniture and enjoyed spending time with the other ESNers who were there. “So everything was very physical on one side, building the office and the furniture, but then also building ideas and initiatives on the other.” 

Sara with the ESN International Board in Lisbon
Sara with the ESN International Board in Lisbon

Learning by doing


Reflecting on her first months in Brussels, Sara recalls the dynamic atmosphere and the feeling that each project was contributing to the growth of ESN and her own growth as a person. “The fact that I could deal with data from 8000 students (for the ESNsurvey) was really valuable for me. I studied economics and was interested in demographics and statistics, so being able to analyse real data and work with people who could explain to me how more sophisticated software worked was great.”


Another standpoint for Sara was the trips in the ESN van. “I had the chance to drive from Brussels to Tromsø and then also from Brussels to Lisbon”. For Sara, these trips were more than an opportunity to engage with policymakers and students or showcase the importance of the Erasmus+ programme: they were a “life-changing experience”. And, like most things during her time in the organisation, the learning was mostly achieved through doing. “There are some things you just learn by doing. You have to throw yourself in the water, and eventually you will learn to swim.”

The ESN van tour at its stop in Norway
The ESN van tour at its stop in Norway

Transitioning to professional life


“When volunteering, you realise that your voice can be heard, that you can make a change. You're doing things for the greater good, but you also develop soft skills and learn to relate to people from different nationalities.”


As Sara transitioned from ESN to working full-time, she discovered that the skills cultivated during her volunteering days seamlessly translated into her professional journey. Her ability to work across diverse cultures, her knack for building connections, and her experience with organisational complexities found a place to shine in her different roles.


“After working for ESN as a volunteer, I moved to Eurochambres, and when I had my job interview, I realised I could reference ESN so many times. [...] Since then, my job has always been focused on internationalisation.”


Even today, in her current role in Brussels, these skills empower Sara to act as a connector and foster collaboration between people of diverse perspectives and backgrounds. 

Sara during a meeting
The first ESN International Board meeting at the UNICA offices

Beyond professional achievements


Beyond the professional aspects, Sara highlights the overall growth fostered by her ESN experience. To this day, the sense of fulfilment and the enduring friendships formed during her ESN days continue to shape her personal life. 

“I moved here to volunteer and Brussels became my home. My experience stayed with me, and it impacts my choices in everyday life. It gets under your skin, and then you can’t get it to go away anymore; it’s in everything you are.”

For those considering volunteering or seeking international experiences, Sara's message is simple yet clear – take the leap.

“Do it. In my job, we often speak about the return on investment, which is what you think you will get back when you make a decision.” In the case of volunteering, Sara says, what you get is always way more than you are able to give. “The advantage of doing it with ESN is that it will really help with your professional career, but mostly it will enrich your soul.”


Photo of Sara at the European Pavilion
Photo of Sara at the European Pavilion