As part of a two part special, Stephanie Costello takes a look at what the Erasmus programme has brought to students across Europe and the cultural exchange involved...

The European Union was just a symbol to me as a child growing up in Ireland. I suppose I was too busy playing with my friends and collecting stickers to ever pay that much attention to the socio-political landscape forming around me. Hanging above the blackboard in my classroom alongside the Tricolour was the azure and golden flag of Europe. It hung there, like a friendly neighbour you never get to know personally but always give the nod to.

Flash forward many years later and here I am at 25 no longer a distant acquaintance of Europe. I switched to the eager roommate living in the belly of the beast – Brussels. I just got home from my Erasmus, studying Journalism and French and it gave me a lot more time to consider the European jigsaw and where I slot into it. For the first time, I have a grasp of what it means to be a European and looking into that pool has allowed me to reflect on my generation’s shared identity.

For the uninitiated, the Erasmus Programme (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) offers third level European students the opportunity to study for a semester or a year abroad. The programme drew its inspiration from the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus who spent his life living and working in many different European countries.  Established in 1987, the popularity of the programme has snowballed. Since its inception over three million students have received study and mobility grants. In Ireland alone, over 8,000 students have profited from the programme, receiving up to 10 million euro in mobility funding.  Over the years, Erasmus has acquired a status of a cultural and social phenomenon rather than just an educational programme. Participating in Erasmus allows students to experience and actively engage in other European cultures, to meet and mix with their fellow Europeans, to brush up on their language skills and learn from a new perspective.

Perspective

Erasmus gives the gift of perspective to a young person. Growing up in Ireland, my peers and I have never known of famine or drought or the ravages of war. Ireland joined the Union in 1973, long before I was born. We don’t have first-hand experience of what it was like before. Subsequently, it is difficult to see where and how we slot into this intricately interwoven tapestry.  It would appear that academics and media outlets alike are rushing to label my generation.  I’ve come across terms such as ‘Jobless Generation’ as coined by Time Magazine, or ‘Generation Emigration’. These terms do little to motivate and leave us with little hope for our future. It’s as if they are talking directly to me. They are telling us that we are trapped in an intangible economic prison, slaves to a system that doesn’t work and one that we didn’t create.

Of all the labels that I have come across the one that I find the most relevant is that of Stefan Wolff, an esteemed political scientist at the University of Bath. He calls us the ‘Erasmus Generation’. Mr Wolff believes Erasmus will create a new cadre of pan-European leaders and prevent war for evermore on the continent.  He says, “for the first time in history we are seeing the seeds of a truly European identity”.

"If I’m being honest I think I consider myself as a European citizen first and a Polish citizen second. If everyone in Europe felt like a European citizen we could avoid many conflicts between us and finally do away with pervasive stereotypes."

Justine Karwowska, 22, is a Polish Public Relations student and aspiring diplomat. Her first memory of the European Union was 1 May 2004 when Poland joined the union. She remembers how all of a sudden the borders were open and for the first time she could celebrate with her German neighbours.

“To me Europe is openness, tolerance and kindness. It seems like anything is possible and young people are eager to learn about other cultures and different countries. If I’m being honest I think I consider myself as a European citizen first and a Polish citizen second. If everyone in Europe felt like a European citizen we could avoid many conflicts between us and finally do away with pervasive stereotypes. This doesn’t seem possible just yet, I am definitely very liberal in my views and I think we have a long way to go.”

Polish philosopher Jarosław Makowski also thinks the Erasmus generation is Europe’s future.

“The Erasmus generation is one faced with a prospect of joblessness. A generation experiencing a crisis of hope. At the same time, it is one that has grown to know Europe’s diversity through peer contact.”

According to Eurostat, the European statistics organisation, youth unemployment rates are generally much higher, even double or more, than unemployment rates for all ages. The youth unemployment rate peaked to an all-time high of 23.6% in the first quarter of 2013. The chances for a young, unemployed person finding a job are shockingly low. Unfortunately only 29.7% of those aged 15-24 and unemployed in 2012 found a job in 2013.

These statistics serve to highlight the importance of a programme such as Erasmus. Besides from networking and gaining greater independence, the Erasmus experience is preparing us for the realities of emigration and an increasingly competitive job market. Whilst living abroad I was shocked to see some young people who spoke four or even five different languages fluently.

"Living abroad for a year or a semester and seeing how a different country works enables us to make a comparison with our situations back home and gives us ideas about how to change or run our home countries better."

Kateřina Vacková, a 24-year-old Media Studies student from the Czech Republic is one such trilingual Erasmus participant.

“I feel immense pressure to find a job after my studies. My parents decided to teach me French and English from a very young age because they wanted to secure my future. It’s really disheartening to find, after putting so much effort in to my future that, through no fault of my own, there may not be any jobs out there for me. I stay awake thinking about it sometimes.”

In relation to the Erasmus programme Kateřina is hopeful.

“It’s such a life-enriching opportunity! Living abroad for a year or a semester and seeing how a different country works enables us to make a comparison with our situations back home and gives us ideas about how to change or run our home countries better. I appreciate the fact that I can study in a foreign language, meet new people and share ideas with my peers.”

It takes more than money or employment to define our generation’s identity. We are a motivated and hopeful generation. We are particularly inclined to innovation and entrepreneurship. We are international natives, open to other cultures. In fact we are the most integrated generation of Europeans in history.  We are not too worried about the erosion of our individual cultural identities; we understand that to live harmoniously, we must collaborate through cultural assimilation. From living in Brussels, it appears to me that the fear surrounding  ‘Europeanisation’ or a general homogenisation of European culture is derived from fear of strident nationalists. It is far removed from everyday European life yet thrives in academic circles.

Nationalism 

In a way, the programme is eliminating a sense of nationalism whilst at the same time encouraging young people to reflect and appreciate where we come from. I’ve enjoyed dissecting Irish news from abroad, have been proud of Panti and also had to endure the Irish stereotypes about alcoholism, oftentimes directing conversation to our world class bovine production, talking amorously about the Irish having the best milk and butter in the world. I’ve come to realise that Irish people are our greatest export.

I suppose we are just a generation of young people, like the ones before, who enjoy spending time with friends, watching movies and laughing. The only difference these days being that we are not all in the same country, let alone continent. The reality for many young people today is that home is a button refreshed every ten minutes or so on Facebook.

Courtesy of DIT's independent college newspaper the Edition