Erasmus has sown seeds of a truly European identity

For many young people home is a button refreshed every 10 minutes on Facebook

Erasmus student Giulia Celli,  from Verona, enjoys  St Patricks Day festivities. Photograph: Alan Betson

Erasmus student Giulia Celli, from Verona, enjoys St Patricks Day festivities. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

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 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 stay, 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 to 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.

Runaway success

Over the years, Erasmus has acquired the 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 to learn from a new 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.

European identity

Justine Karwowska (22) is a Polish public relations student and aspiring diplomat. Her first memory of the European Union was May 1st, 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.”

In a way, the Erasmus programme is eliminating a sense of nationalism while at the same time encouraging young people to reflect and appreciate where we come from. 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 10 minutes or so on Facebook.

Stephanie Costello from Ringsend is a student at Dublin Institute of Technology. She is winner of the European Commission prize in the recent National Student Media Awards which took place in the Aviva Stadium. This article is an edited version of the winning essay

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