Juan Rayón González, president of the Erasmus Student Network, says the hundreds of thousands of young people who have studied abroad with the network’s assistance can help tackle international challenges.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Rayón said the network was working on other initiatives relating to climate change, employability, and equipping young people with the right skills for the labour market, since there was high unemployment on both shores of the Mediterranean.
He believes that the internationalisation and dialogue the Erasmus programme encourages provide an opportunity to confront various challenges.
From Students to Students
“Students really want to travel and study abroad, which is why we need to do more in this regard.”Juan Rayón González President of the Erasmus Student Network
Rayón stressed the need for students to support other students. “Students face many challenges these days, including those related to uncertainty. They do not know what will happen in the future, in light of the geopolitical and economic crises.”
While Rayón believes that young people are not able to change everything themselves, he says that they can inspire others to achieve change. They must look beyond their comfort zones and discuss solutions to problems as part of a global community with the same dreams, hopes, and challenges, he said.
Rayón said supporting study abroad was “just the beginning, … part of a bigger framework to empower students, connect them to others, foster dialogue, show openness to partnerships with universities and media institutions, and support south-to-south mobility.”
35 Years of Promoting Study Abroad
The Erasmus programme (now called Erasmus+) was launched 35 years ago when the European Community approved a plan to allow higher-education students to do part of their studies abroad.
Two years later, in 1989, the Erasmus Bureau created the Erasmus Student Network, whose motto is “students helping students”, to enable peer-to-peer support of students studying abroad.
Speaking to Al-Fanar Media on the sidelines of the recent General Assembly of the Mediterranean Universities Union (UniMed), in Jordan, Juan Rayón said the network was an international, not-for-profit student organisation whose mission was to represent international students, provide opportunities for cultural dialogue and self-development, and support and promote student exchange.
More than 1,000 higher-education institutions in over 40 countries now participate in the network, according to statistics on its website. It has around 15,000 active members, supported by many “buddies” who help take care of international students. Thus, the network involves around 40,000 young people, mainly volunteers, offering their services to around 350,000 international students every year, with funding from the European Commission.
The network is currently preparing for the annual conference of the European Association for International Education, to be held in Barcelona in September. Rayón said the conference was an ambitious initiative “to bring together students from both shores of the Mediterranean, to discuss their experiences, their challenges, and their ideas from an international standpoint.”
They particularly want to hear the students’ “ideas for integration, cooperation, and exchange between students and universities to confront common challenges … and build a long-term partnership,” he added.
“The conference may be an opportunity that encourages students to establish their own organisations, or to join other projects.”
He said he was glad the conference would be in Barcelona because it was “a classic Mediterranean city that attracts many students.”
Strong Participation of Arab Students
Rayón said more than 36,000 students from southern Mediterranean countries, mostly Arab, had studied abroad through Erasmus+. “Our network also has many European members of Arab origin, especially from the first and second generations,” he said. “This diversity in membership provides great opportunities for cooperation with the Arab region.”
He added: “We also know that the level of satisfaction was really very high among Arab students.”
Arab students seemed to value the chance of studying abroad more than their counterparts in Europe despite facing some challenges, Rayón said. “Some of them, a small group, reported discrimination based on race or religion, but the majority have an incredible experience, and they show more appetite for it.”
Universities that promote study abroad receive many more applications than those that do not, Rayón said. “This means that students really want to travel and study abroad, which is why we need to do more in this regard.”
Contributing to Change
Arab students value the chance to study abroad. “Some of them, a small group, reported discrimination based on race or religion, but the majority have an incredible experience.”Juan Rayón González
Rayón thinks one of the best things about studying abroad is that when the students return home, they speak to others about their experience and what they learned. “That is important to us,” he said, because the alumni encourage and support other students’ interest in study abroad.
“We believe that in the future, similar student organisations, or Erasmus Networks in the southern Mediterranean countries, will be more effective because it will make studying abroad more attractive. This can make students from the southern Mediterranean, or Europe, keener to study abroad, exchange experiences, and influence others in their home communities.”
He said he thought Erasmus graduates were more likely to be influencers in their societies and contribute to making a difference.
Plans to Include Refugees
The Erasmus Student Network is considering creating programmes for international refugee students, Rayón said. “Refugees face many challenges similar to those faced by international students. They go to new countries where they do not know anyone, and they need social and cultural integration to get support.”
The network has offices representing Erasmus+ in a number of countries that promote opportunities and contact universities, but Rayón plans to go further. He wants to see more direct promotion from students to students, so that more students get to know Erasmus, and for its alumni to have greater opportunities to say connected with each other through links in each country.
- Speakers at UniMed Assembly Stress Need for Partnerships and Future Skills
- European-Kurdish Cooperation in University Reform Is Seen as a Model for Iraq
- Report Explores How to Improve Arab-European Educational Exchanges
- Syrian Students Find Hope Amid New Challenges in Portugal
- International Master’s Programme Tackles Climate Change in the Mediterranean