Studying abroad, communicating with people from various European countries and gaining new experience and impression is not a fantasy, but reality that can become a part of your life. Within project “Education on Maximum” we talked to people who participated in Erasmus+ EU youth exchange program. We are sharing their stories and telling how to find courage to apply, what to do and which “baggage” to bring back.
Case No. 1
Nika Bunziak, Kharkiv Association for Active Youth “Stella”
Before Erasmus+ became an integral part of my life, I had experience of working in the governmental sector: I worked at the University and legal company and did my internship at the Administration of Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. However, all the time I felt that I was missing something, and it was not completely my cup of tea, therefore I decided to try myself in the public centre and drastically changed my life for better. Currently I am working in the non-governmental organization – Kharkiv Association for Active Youth “Stella”. Our main objective is to provide young people with an opportunity to participate in different mobility and development projects, as well as support their active participation in the civil society.
I went for my first project by accident. I saw an advertisement on a Facebook page of one of the groups with opportunities for the youth saying that they were looking for a person for participation in the international project. I decided to apply, and in addition the project subject was youth unemployment. At that moment I have just left the job I did not like and wanted to share my experience of how to leave the job and put aside stability, if you are not satisfied with your profession. I wrote a motivational letter, attached my CV and I won!
After that first project I participated in many opportunities from “Stella” NGO, such as youth exchange programs, seminars, trainings, educational trips, and volunteering. I visited many countries from Portugal in the west to Armenia in the east, from Finland in the north to Tunis in the south. However, it wasn’t that important where the projects took place, while it was important which subjects we raised in those projects: work with children and youth, sports, social protection, environmental protection, culture and arts, gender equality, combating discrimination, media and communication, volunteering, inclusivity, radicalization, labour market, leadership and soft skills, social entrepreneurship and many other topics.
Naturally, I had certain concerns and it is absolutely ok. At first, I was very much surprised how the Program can cover all costs. However, after the first time you understand that it is really so and the European Commission really cares about the youth. Erasmus+ covers everything: transportation, accommodation, food and coffee breaks.
The second thing that made me personally feel worried was the imperfect knowledge of the foreign language. As I found out, it was not necessary!
Boys and girls from different countries and layers of population participate in the projects and for most of them English is not a native language. Therefore, even if you speak with mistakes, no one will criticize you. Vice versa, people will help you and you will find way to communicate.
Youth exchange programs, trainings and seminars are short-term activities, and, at average, they last from 5 to 21 days. However, even this time is enough to develop your personal and professional skills. Participating in different mobility projects young people obtain new knowledge and international experience, develop and gain skills necessary in professional life, for instance, communication in a foreign language, international experience, teamwork, cultural awareness, etc.
Adopting the concept of informal education is most complicated as from the side sometimes it looks as a game, theatrical performance or just a conversation, but it has a deep educational background.
Communication with foreigners appeared to be a much easier task than I imagined. Despite the fact that we all grew up in different countries, with different culture, religion, customs and traditions, we may have a different skin colour, education and perception of things, we are all active young people who want to become a generation that creates and implements active changes in the civil societies with own hands in accordance with the major European values.
Due to Erasmus+ program I met amazing people from different parts of Europe and other countries. It was same interesting to communicate with a former refugee from Syria, who had to relocate to another country to save the life, as well as with a representative of the aristocratic family from Luxembourg. Almost every person with whom I communicated during the projects impressed on my thoughts and heart. However, one of the biggest values of the project is a possibility to learn more… about yourself! You can share your thoughts, emotions, impressions, reflect, make mistakes and know that you are in the best and safest environment to learn and develop.
When you come to a new country, you are provided with very adequate living conditions. The organizations care that the participants live in comfort and have a possibility to satisfy all the basic needs. Very often they live in mixed groups by nationalities, by gender, so that they can communicate with the representatives of different countries even at the day-to-day level. Before the project young people will be always asked if they have any food habits (vegetarianism, veganism, allergies, lactose intolerance, diets, etc).
The participation in the Program allows to get rid of the stereotypes with respect to many nationalities. Not all Romanians are loud, Estonians are slow, and not all Italians use gestures a lot. All people are amazing, interesting and different and it is great!
I understood that many limitations are just in our head. It is possible and important to think out of the box, leave and extend the comfort zone. I also understood that no one was perfect.
It is not the end of the world if you make a mistake in the sentence or task. In addition, many tasks have no right answers as what is important is the process and not the result.
Cross-cultural dialogue, as well as European awareness are very important for the Ukrainian youth. The differences should be perceived as enrichment and not obstacles between the people with different education, qualifications and social status.
It is not difficult to study abroad; one just needs to make the first step: to participate in the exchange program, to leave the comfort zone and not to stop! After each project you come back as a slightly different person and understand that it is only the beginning of quality personal and professional life changes. I have already felt it on myself. You should also try!
Case No. 2
Anna Tkachenko, a member of the team of Association of Innovative and Digital Education of Ukraine
For more than a year I am a member of the Association of Innovative and Digital Education of Ukraine. Together with my colleagues we execute social education projects, as well as coordinate trainings. One of our most famous projects is LingvaSkills for learning English.
Unfortunately, the University at which I am studying does not provide students with the access to the information about educational programs and international internship. Therefore, I was happy to hear from a colleague by chance about the possibility to participate in Erasmus+ project. Without hesitations I decided to apply as I was interested long ago in getting acquainted with active youth from other countries, learn more about their activities and vision of life and society.
In addition, I got interested in the training topic – peace building. Allowing for the current geopolitical situation in our country, this project was especially important for me. It was called “Empowering those in the field” and carried out in Georgian town Kobuleti for 10 days. The aim of the project was to tell more about the conflicts in general, ways of their solving and peace building, as well as inspire the active youth to strengthen peace-building processes on the ground.
I was not afraid to apply. Definitely, I had certain concerns if my application is selected, if I can be helpful to this project and gain new practical skills instead, as well as if I manage to find a common language and communicate with other participants in English at a good level.
During the project itself I had no difficulties and concerns. The team of organizers and trainers did all possible to ensure comfort of each participant of the project and create a friendly, almost family-type atmosphere within a very short term. Under such circumstances it was much easier to get acquainted, absorb new knowledge and perform practical tasks.
All participants were provided with accommodation, food and financial compensation of the round trip. I am especially proud of our training schedule – it was very rational, did not let us get overloaded and provided for free time for own needs.
As a result, I got acquainted with over 30 representatives of different countries: Italy, Spain, Denmark, Moldova, Azerbaijan. I cannot even remember all of them. They included highly qualified trainers, activists and founders of NGOs, as well as just socially active youth. We also had an opportunity to meet and talk to the invited guests – observers of OSCE and activists of local organizations that work in hot spots of Georgia.
Together with them we got theoretical knowledge about basic peace building notions and performed many creative works, including made presentations on acute topics and presented own projects.
I can describe my impressions with three main words: location, atmosphere and practicability. These three things were thought out and implemented by the organizers by 100% that facilitated to success of the project.
This experience significantly levelled up my planning, project design and management skills, helped me understand people better and their way of thinking, understand the reasons of conflicts and ways of their solving. However, most important is that the project built me as a personality: my oratorical skills, communicative skills and self-confidence. It also gave me cool friends from different countries.
I advise all those who just learns Erasmus+ Program and its possibilities in Europe to be active, eager to new knowledge, initiative and independent. It is important to stay goal-oriented and persistent in order to find your own learning program and be elected, as well as learn foreign languages. The world becomes much brighter with them.
Case No. 3
Maryna Nosachenko, coordinator of non-governmental organization “Center UA” in Sumy Oblast
I graduated from the pedagogical university and worked in my degree field – taught English and Ukrainian languages, as well as worked as an entertainer and event organizer, but after some years I understood that something was missing in my life. At those days some of my friends and knowns already volunteered abroad within Erasmus+ Program. I thought that it would be great for me to try as well, especially knowing that there is such an opportunity and it does not require any financial contribution from a participant, in other words all the expenses are covered by the European Commission.
As a Ukrainian you can find out which countries are open for you at the youth organization as a member of which you would like to apply, or on the site of the Program. In my case everything was a bit easier, because I just approached organization “Centre of European Initiatives” in Sumy and asked them which opportunities existed at those days. I was immediately answered that there was a funded project to Greece and without any hesitations I agreed and went on my trip.
I was 25 and I was not afraid and open to anything new.
I was a bit worried about bureaucratic moments, because all documents were in Greek and I did not know what to do, if, for instance, the funding was not provided. However, there were no problems, and everything was clear. I also knew nothing about the level of English in Greece, but, as it turned out, it was not bad. Even if Green people do not know the language, they will help you understand them with all possible means. In addition, a large share of population who migrated from the former Soviet Union countries to Greece are Russian speaking.
The project in which I participated was called «Keep it up». The aim of the project was to share information and experience between the countries. Therefore, we went to Greece for ten months, while two Greek persons went to Ukraine for the same period, thus as if we built a bridge of solidarity and cooperation between two countries. Generally speaking, we shared experience in the field of youth policy. Practically we participated in completely different activities, but everything depends on the hosting organization and specialization. In my case it was work with students as in Greek town Komotini, where the project took place, there is a quite famous Democritus University of Thrace with high education standards.
I taught English in the recreational centre for retired people. It is not a home for elderly, but there is no 100% alternative to this institution in Ukraine. I taught Greek old women the language. I also participated in the cultural project “International Poetry”. Each week we arranged meet-the-artist events, where representatives from different countries, mainly Greek, presented poetry in their own or their favourite author’s native language. The next task was to interpret the poetry in English and explain the idea.
Definitely, there were also difficulties. For instance, the Program provided 250 EUR a month, what was not much for the Greek, far from being the lowest prices. We mobilized and found options. Before I have never lived in the dormitory, while in the course of volunteering I shared an apartment with other people from different countries, however each of us had his/her own room.
I was worried about how I would share the living conditions with my neighbours. However, everything was much easier, and we even became friends.
We had almost no misunderstanding and conflicts, and those that occurred were solved quickly. Generally, it did not matter if a person knew English or not – we communicated with gestures and mimics. Therefore, there were no problems in common living.
Greece is not a very organized country, thus once there was a problem – delay in heating. We had to solve this problem and it was very interesting. For instance, it was a shock for volunteers from Belgium and Finland as they were not ready for it, while being a Ukrainian, I was not surprised. This situation was illustrative of our teamwork: we purchased hot water bags that were not used for 50 years, somehow agreed about fuel delivery. For example, I also had warm socks and I gave them to a girl from Spain as she was not used to such colds. Greece is a warm country, but winter is quite severe there.
I constantly met new volunteers, who changed often. My project was long-term, while others came for 2-6 months. Roughly speaking, I became an old-timer. I was lucky to meet many people and now I can go to almost any country and find my former room mates.
I opened the Greek history from a new angle, because I visited many museums and regularly visited different exhibitions and expositions. It helped me better understand what was happening in the days of the Ottoman empire and wars. Political issues became more transparent when you feel the atmosphere of the country and communicate with the people living in it.
The program gave me important lessons about which I try to remember in Ukraine. As my first lesson I understood that it was possible to live and not to get nervous and not to hurry. We, Ukrainians, always chase something. The life in Greece is slower. Sometimes it is annoying, but there is certain charm in it. People sit and enjoy life, watch the sea, drink coffee with friends and know how to live each moment. I learnt this from them.
My second lesson is not to impose my opinion on others. Many mothers and grandmothers have such a feature to teach everyone how to live and children adopt this feature. When living with volunteers from other countries I understood that if a person did not want to clean his/her room, it was his/her right.
There was a situation when my friend from Belgium could wear a T-shirt for three days. I could not tolerate it and made a comment that it was worth changing it. He answered calmly: “Why do I need to do it? It is my right to wear one T-shirt for as long as I want”.
I can understand people who are worried or even afraid to apply for Erasmus+ Program: whether it is studying abroad, or youth exchange program, or volunteer project in a foreign country as it is unclear what will be next.
I would advise, first of all, to carefully select the organization which will be hosting you, check the data, collect feedback of participants who have already gone there. If you found out all necessary information, but still feel hesitant, evaluate all pros and cons.
At first I also thought: “Why? Maybe I will work for one more year here”. However, at certain moment of living in Greece I understood that the experience I was gaining during communicating and cooperating with people from different countries was priceless. The volunteers with whom we lived together become friends whom you will never forget. In any other project it will not happen. It is not work and it is not studying. It is helping local population to cooperate with other countries, and it is unique. Therefore, I would strongly recommend to all to participate in volunteer projects as this experience can change your life. It has changed mine for sure.
Case No. 4
Feliks Novikov, a student of Sumy State University
I am a second-year student of Sumy State University at specialization “Management” and I regularly participate in Erasmus+ Program. They usually last for two weeks. The first time I participated in the youth exchange program was in summer of 2016 after the 10th grade. The last time I participated in 2018. I have already known about the Program before my first trip due to visiting Euroclub at school. Actually, it was my teacher who managed the club who offered me to try my hand aboard. I agreed as I decided that it was a good opportunity to gain new experience, meet different people and improve my English.
I was worried only at the very beginning as I did not understand what was going on. Later I got a charge out as if in the anticipation of an expected meeting.
The last project in which I participated was called «YE Manga – Zone for Youth» and took place in Georgia. Its main subject was civic position, marginalization problems, stereotypes, etc. For instance, all participants were given a task to draw Japanese comics-manga and illustrate certain social problems with their help. Then we made an exhibition of works for the local population.
The learning process in such projects was informal, interesting and very joyful, therefore there were no real difficulties. The only thing is that everything is in English, therefore comprehension is slightly worse. When studying abroad we always discussed acute social topics and tried to communicate these thoughts to people. We made theatrical performances, flash mobs, exhibitions. It depended on the project.
Generally, communicating in English was much easier. Everyone understands that you came from a country where English is not a native language. It was quite easy to communicate with other people. As a rule, there were topics for discussion and if a conversation suddenly came to an end you can always tell about the culture and customs of your country.
The living conditions were on a good level. It was always fun as we had a big company, each time about 40 participants. Though sometimes there are unpleasant moments due to cultural differences, but such things are easily solved and at the end of the day I found many friends and acquaintances from different parts of the world. It was most interesting to talk to people who were in 30-40 similar trips. They have a huge life experience, though their average age is 25 years old.
I also learnt a lot of useful information about social problems, ecology and problems of refugees. I dived deeper into the life and customs of other countries as all participants always share certain peculiarities of their cultures. It is indeed amazing that people from different countries and sometimes with huge differences can become the best friends.
For me these projects were something incredible. I discovered that leaving the comfort zone is a way forward that can open new opportunities.
I found out a lot of new and sometimes sensational information, improved my level of English and communicative skills. Studying in English is much more useful that in the native language.
I would advise people who cannot decide and apply for Erasmus+ Program to overcome themselves and try. You can select a one-week project, as well as go to study to the EU universities for the whole semester. In any case you will get a priceless experience.