Erasmus in Africa and how to get there: tips from a Ukrainian student

Anastasiia Ianovytska, of Kyiv, completed the Erasmus Mundus programme (which has been included to the general Erasmus+ programme since 2014) on migration and intercultural relations. Now she is writing a thesis on empowering Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ukraine.

12143260_10156043279955567_1000615754319045024_nAnastasiia in Nakivale refugee settlement, Uganda

Why did you choose this programme?

Back in 2008, I was involved with the European Youth Parliament and I got interested in international migration, refugees, and human trafficking. My first master’s thesis at Kyiv National Economic University was related to the regulation of migration in the EU. After I finished that I worked for three years in the Kyiv office of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in the department for combating human trafficking. So my decision to take part in the Erasmus programme was quite logical. I wanted to deepen my knowledge and learn more about world trends in migration and the experiences of different countries on this issue.

In two years of study, I learned a lot about migration. My programme involves four European universities (from Norway, Germany, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic) and two African universities (in Sudan and Uganda). I had the opportunity to study in two African universities and discovered a completely different culture, environment, academic knowledge, and teaching style. Many Erasmus Mundus master’s programmes involve partner universities in non-EU countries and on other continents. This was very important in my choice of programme. I did not just want to study in a European country, but to experience life on another continent, in another culture.

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A representative of Sufism during worship (Sufism is a mystical and ascetic dimension of Islam)

Do you have any plans for your future after graduating from Erasmus Mundus?

I am quite interested in IOM projects in Ukraine related to IDPs from Crimea and Donbas. I am also thinking about organising a theatrical initiative aimed at conciliation and social adaptation of IDPs in host communities. I was inspired by an initiative in Norway called “Theatre of the Oppressed,” which involves engaging the audience in performances. This type of theatre is being organised in many countries with the purpose of discussing a variety of issues, such as HIV/AIDS, unemployment, and empowerment of women. To make these difficult topics easier to engage with, actors play out scenes and audience members are invited to express opinions or play a role to demonstrate what they would do in a given situation. This makes people think about these important problems. In Norway, this kind of method is used to work with refugees.

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Desert in Sudan

Based on your experience, what advice would you give to someone applying for admission to the Erasmus Mundus programme?

In 2009, the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute held a conference devoted to education abroad. That was the first time I heard about Erasmus. Then, when I was working with the EU Delegation, I met some people who graduated from the programme and that made me realise it was realistic that I might get admitted.

Before applying for the programme, I participated in several training sessions on preparing the necessary documents and writing letters of motivation. An important thing to understand is that each master’s programme is very different. There are different requirements depending on if you want to study physics or social sciences, for example.

I didn’t have very high grades in my studies in Ukraine. I never made academics a priority; social activism was more important for me. I worked a lot at the European Youth Parliament. So, in my motivation letter, I focused on exactly what part of the programme I was interested in and how my experiences related to it. Having excellent grades in Ukrainian subjects reveals very little to the person who reads your documents. Good grades do not mean that you have any real knowledge or can apply your knowledge in practice. But if you already have additional experience (like volunteering or working with NGOs), that says a lot more about you. Therefore, the most important thing to include in the motivation letter is your experience and activities and in what ways the programme you are applying for is consistent with what you are doing. Or, if you want to apply for something different from what you’ve done in the past, your motivation letter should address your reasons for changing your subject.

You also need to pass a language test: TOEFL/IELTS for English programmes or DELF/DALF for French ones. If you have not passed the test before, I would suggest taking a preparation course. This helps a lot, even if you think you already know the language. It is a matter of understanding of the test. Each test has its own “tricks.”

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Studying in Oldenburg, Germany

I also suggest giving your CV to someone to read over before submitting your application. The CV must be relevant and well-composed. The Erasmus programmes recommend submitting the CV in Europass format, which is very detailed. My CV is seven pages in that format. Academic CVs are permitted to be longer than what you would use for applying to a job. I advise you to include all of your qualifications:  volunteering experience, honours, awards, and certificates from training or courses. These things really demonstrate your activeness and motivation to study. Many people have a lot of experience but this doesn’t always come across in their CVs. You should include in your CV interesting things that describe who you are, including extra courses, interesting hobbies, volunteer experiences, etc.

Letters of recommendation are also important and they are dependent on who you ask to provide them. In my case, the majority of my recommenders wrote letters themselves and described my qualifications in detail. In one case, however, my teacher told me to write the recommendation myself. You should not be ashamed to write about yourself what you consider relevant and true. The person reading the recommendation should understand that you are truly worth the programme.

The most important thing is not to procrastinate until the last moment. Take preparation courses in advance, pass the language tests, and get letters of recommendation (this depends on other people so it may take some time).

Who should applicants ask for recommendations?

First of all, it should be a person who will give you a good recommendation. One of the recommenders has to be a teacher who knows you and your strengths. Other recommendations can be from your boss or a colleague with whom you are engaged in volunteer activities or internships.

Many people apply for many Erasmus Mundus programmes at once. Is that a good idea?

There are two different strategies. Both can be successful. I applied for two Erasmus Mundus programmes. I was admitted to one of them, and for the other, I was placed on a waiting list for a scholarship. But I was preparing for these over several years and I had set out to significantly enrich my professional experience so I knew I had pretty good chances of getting into the programme I wanted.

Some of my friends applied for many programmes simultaneously. For some people, there may be an issue of quality versus quantity, but if you have enough time and you are well planned to be able to put together multiple quality applications, there is no reason not to do that.

In any case, I suggest starting to prepare the applications one-and-a -half or two years in advance in order to research various programmes, attend conferences and educational fairs, speak with people who have studied abroad, take courses on writing motivation letters, and gain experience. The Unistudy newsletter is a good resource. It includes information about different training available on how to prepare applications, and testimonials from former students. There are a lot of events related to education abroad and I found the ones I attended useful.

If you recognise that you lack experience in the field you are applying to, start volunteering at least.  This will give you some experience you can add to your CV. But don’t give up, even if you don’t think you have the required experience.

What advice would you give to potential applicants for choosing their course of study? Where can they find information and what should they be looking for?

There is a European Commission website with a list of all Erasmus+ programmes organised by category and title:

Erasmus+ also offers exchange semesters or exchange year programmes for bachelor-level students, which are very popular in the EU. All my friends from the European Union participated in Erasmus. The programmes are very cool and scholarships are provided.

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International Student Union of Stavanger

Only 10 out of 26 students from my programme received scholarships from the European Commission. Upon arrival to study in Germany, the rest of the students applied for scholarships from the German government on the advice of our German university. Our professors told us how to apply for government scholarships and helped write correct applications. The students get to keep these scholarships even when they move to another university through the Erasmus programme; it is counted as a semester abroad.

What parts of the EU University experience might Ukrainian students not be prepared for?

I think academic writing is a big challenge. EU education requires a lot of writing and analysing information. Ukrainian universities don’t pay enough attention to these skills. This can cause students a lot of stress in the first months of studying in the EU. Students need to spend a lot of time in libraries. But it is possible to adapt to this rhythm quickly, and there are many ways to get support: you can consult with professors or work in groups with other students. You are not alone; there is always someone to ask for help.

What did you learn from your programme?

I have a bracelet from Africa with the inscription “hakuna matata,” which in Swahili means “no worries.” This is not just a song from a cartoon movie, but a real philosophy held by local people. When you ask for something, it is not uncommon for locals to respond, “hakuna matata.” You want to send in your paper work later? “Hakuna matata!”

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Al Kharţūm, Sudan

So, the relaxed attitude I felt in Africa is another experience I got through Erasmus. In everyday life, we often feel stress, which is not helpful. This motto helped me relax, keep my expectations low, and to just enjoy the moment.

On a more serious level, I now consider any problem through the lens of social sciences. All rules and regulations we have are just social constructions and they can be changed. You have to understand that everything we have imposed on society is changeable. The boundaries of countries, visas, all obstacles are just social constructions. So I’ve learned not to automatically think that everything is the way it should be. It is important to learn the history but also not be afraid to change the present.

European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations: http://www.emmir.org/service/emmir/

List of all the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees offering EU-funded scholarships: https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/erasmus-plus/library/emjmd-catalogue_en 

Erasmus+