Student exchanges are at the core of our profession as international educators and benefit everyone. If we really wish to build Europe as a living entity, today’s Erasmus students will be tomorrow’s leaders. Students everywhere are our future citizens; their values, their world outlook, their way of life are influenced by experiences they’ve had during their formative years, with exchanges being one of the most eye-opening. And the sooner they go abroad, the better – ideally having their first experience at age 19 to 20 as undergraduates. At this age they’re still completely free of family responsibilities, they’re curious and open to others, willing to try out new food and customs and accept cultural differences.
Learning in a different academic setting, working in a different business environment (if they’re on a work placement), speaking a different language (not only English but the language of the host country) will make them more culturally aware at an age when they’re still easily influenced. The older you are, the more set you become in your ways (that’s why I firmly believe waiting till postgraduate studies is too late). This experience will mark students for life, making them more tolerant and understanding of cultural differences. Not everyone can go abroad, so the presence of exchange students on campus allows the homebodies to be exposed to people from different cultures by interacting with them in the classroom.
Some students may decide to settle in their host country (mixed marriages, job offers), some will develop a taste for travel and continue their studies or professional life abroad, but most will return to their home country. Yet they’ll always have a special link with their exchange country and will be instrumental as professionals in building and maintaining relationships between the two. They’ll act as go-betweens, being familiar with the language and mindset of their special partner.
Thus taking the trouble to help exchange students is a long term investment for us all. Of course, they entail more work than home students, at times their needs and demands may exceed professional limits (who hasn’t comforted a homesick youngster or helped out in a medical crisis?), but this interaction with young people from all over the world is incredibly rewarding and keeps us young, at least in spirit!