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Erasmus exchanges help European students travel

A program offering time in another country helps European youths “de-provincialize” their minds.

Italian students
Teenagers wait at the entrance of a school in Rome near placards announcing the "No Berlusconi day" Dec. 5, 2009. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo caption: Teenagers wait at the entrance of a school in Rome near placards announcing the "No Berlusconi day" Dec. 5, 2009. Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

ROME, Italy — For a university student living in southern Italy, where there’s high unemployment and crime, an exchange program in London or Paris can represent less an opportunity than an escape.

According to proponents of the Erasmus program — the European Union's flagship education and training scheme — going abroad, learning a new language and getting familiar with a multicultural context can also help Italian students “de-provincialize” their minds, and give them a better sense of what it means to be a European citizen.

“Our students don’t know much of what’s going on in the world, but thanks to the Erasmus program they have the chance to travel and discover different places and cultures,” said Raffaele Longo of Cosenza’s music conservatory, who regularly sends his scholars on internships at Vienna’s Opera House and Seville’s symphonic orchestra.

Erasmus stands for "European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students," but its name was inspired by the famous Dutch Renaissance humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who spent his life teaching across Europe.

The program this year enabled a record number of nearly 200,000 students to study and work abroad.

Launched in 1987 by the European commission with the objective of transforming Europe into a knowledge-based, innovative and competitive region, it unites 4,000 higher education institutions scattered across 33 countries (the 27 EU member states plus Turkey, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Croatia and Macedonia) that swap not just students but also teachers and faculty, with the goal of enhancing curricula.

More than 2.2 million European students have participated in the program since it started, and the EU commission’s target is to reach 3 million by 2012.

The success of the program is without equal on a global scale, said Simona Aceto, head of Italy’s Erasmus communications and projects office.

“Many countries out of Europe have tried to imitate the Erasmus program,” she said. "It has become terribly attractive and contagious." 

What makes it unique is the experience it offers. A three- to 12-month period spent abroad not only enriches students’ lives in the academic and professional field but also improves their language learning, intercultural skills and self-reliance, Aceto said.

“Such an experience radically transforms a student making it easy for him to integrate in all areas without prejudices,” she said.

Since 2007, Erasmus has also offered an internship placement program with European universities and firms.

“The traineeship are having a great success because they increases the students’ employability and job prospects,” Aceto said.

The university of Calabria leads a consortia of nine Italian institutes connecting universities and businesses in Europe. Franca Leonora Morrone, the founder of the consortium, outlined the project: “Here in southern Italy youth unemployment reaches 60 percent. In this dramatic context, a better qualification is a top priority and a work experience in foreign enterprises makes it possible.”

Still, despite its growing popularity, only a fraction of the region's students take part.