‘Opening the world’: how Erasmus+ can change your life

25-04-2017

Young Belarusians have many opportunities to study abroad, thanks to the EU's educational programmes. Participants explain how they work, what their impressions are, and share tips on making the most of the opportunities that are available.

Opportunities for Belarusian youth

The EU’s Erasmus+ programme is currently the main tool for financing educational projects in Belarus, including academic mobility. Erasmus+ provides many programmes in which Belarusian youth can participate, says Alexander Rytov, deputy head of the International Relations Department of the Belarusian State University (BSU).

For example, Erasmus Mundus provides scholarships covering studies on Joint Master and Doctoral programmes.

Academic exchanges are offered to students for the purpose of study (one or two semesters) and to academic staff who can shortly learn or teach at European universities in the framework of agreements signed between their home university and a host university/company. The sub-programme that supports such exchanges is called ‘Credit Mobility’, and it is all about getting ‘credits’ - ECTS units that should be then recognised by the sending institution, explains Alexander Rytov.

Capacity building in higher education support reforms in line with the Bologna process, which Belarus recently joined in May 2015.

The second major component of Erasmus+ covers projects in the field of youth. It aims to finance various activities, such as seminars, trainings, volunteering, and short-term working visits. It welcomes not only university students, but also everyone related to the youth sphere, for example, members of youth organisations or youth start-ups.

Participants interested in youth activities should address themselves to the SALTO centre located in Warsaw.

How does it work?

The selection of participants for international programmes is based on a competitive basis, says Rytov. There are different selection mechanisms depending on the form of academic mobility. In Belarusian universities, collegial committees are set up to organise the selection process. For example, at the BSU there are more than 20 members in such a committee. According to Rytov, they "provide a balance between applicants’ interests (students, professors, and scientists) and other stakeholders (faculties, universities, programme/project managers)." The committees also include experts in the field of international education with extensive experience of studying or working at a foreign university, as well as foreign professors, psychologists, and linguists.

Both sending and receiving universities are participating in the selection process. As Rytov explains, their roles may be different, but as a general rule, the home university makes a preliminary selection and nominates the best students and professors, and the host university confirms its readiness to accept them.

"Participation in the programme opened the world for me"

"I can say without exaggeration that participation in the programme opened the world to me. I realised that anyone who sincerely desires to get a high-quality and prestigious education abroad can make this dream come true," says Tamara Sakolchik, one of the first Belarusian participants in the Erasmus programme. Today Tamara is 30 years old, she is a lawyer and she works in the Wargaming development studio in Minsk.

Tamara applied for participation individually, as a student of the Faculty of Law at the BSU. This was in 2007, as soon as the programme (then called Erasmus Mundus External Cooperation Window) became available to citizens of Belarus. As a result, she was offered to study International and European Law on a one-year programme at the Faculty of Law in the Spanish University of Deusto in Bilbao.

"I learnt about the programme from my sister who accidentally heard the announcement on the radio and knew that I was dreaming of getting a degree abroad. But my family wasn't wealthy enough to afford sending me to study abroad without a scholarship," Tamara says.

She said the application procedure had not been difficult – she submitted her application online. And in August 2007 she received an e-mail from the International Relations Department of the BSU that she had been selected to participate in the academic mobility programme Erasmus Mundus. Further instructions were also provided. Among other things, it was necessary to collect numerous documents for the registration of her exchange (mission) at the BSU, as well as to register her exchange in the Belarusian Ministry of Education.

"The track was not beaten and I had to overcome many obstacles," Tamara recalls. Nevertheless, at the BSU, she had all the possible support and was even allowed not to interrupt her studies (not to take academic leave), but to 'go on a mission', in other words, to study in parallel in Spain and Belarus and to clear her academic backlog in both universities.

"Then, it was necessary to obtain a Spanish Schengen visa at the Spanish Embassy in Moscow, and I needed to provide a large package of documents – the staff at the University of Deusto helped me a lot with the preparation of the required documents," recalls Tamara.

During the year of study in Spain, Tamara mastered the Spanish language at a level sufficient to pass the philosophy of law course in Spanish. Today she is very grateful to her professors at the University of Deusto for the opportunity to take a European law course, which she now teaches at the Faculty of Law in the Belarusian State University.

In addition to professional achievements, Tamara acknowledges the importance of getting to know Spain: "I was able to learn a lot about the culture of this country, to fall in love with it and travel around Spain and also in neighbouring countries, which would hardly have been possible while living in Belarus. In Spain I made amazing friends with whom we stay in touch. We have taken different paths in life, but each is interesting and unique."

"Look for opportunities that are interesting to you"

Another opportunity to participate in EU programmes is available through the 'Young European Neighbours' network, launched in 2016 to establish links between youth from EU countries and the Eastern Partnership region - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Part of this programme is the Young European Ambassadors initiative. There are 15 ambassadors representing Belarus, aged between 16 and 25.

One of them is Alesia Petrovets, a fourth-year student of the Belarusian State Linguistic University, and a volunteer at the Belarusian NGO ‘League of Youth Voluntary Service’. According to her, the task of the ambassadors is to represent the interests of their peers, to cooperate with young people from the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries, to exchange experience, and interesting and useful practices.

In the past two years, Alesia Petrovets managed to participate in five different projects implemented under Erasmus+ and visited Armenia, Georgia, Spain, Latvia, and Serbia. Alesia says this experience inspires her and provides an outstanding opportunity to study at any age.

Alesia’s advice to those wishing to find a suitable programme is to pay attention to sites and groups in social networks that unite active youth: "There are many options. In addition to the programmes that interest you personally, you should pay attention to the selection criteria and, most importantly, to how you are planning to use the obtained knowledge and experience afterwards, for your self-development and your NGO." What is interesting and important, is that while taking part in these informal educational programmes you not only learn from others but you also teach them by spreading your knowledge, says Alesia.

"I do not know a country in which I would not have friends"

Marina Korzh, programme specialist at the Office for European Expertise and Communications, participated in youth exchanges, trainings, and seminars on various topics. She says she tries not to miss application deadlines under the Erasmus+: Youth in Action programme (usually, three times a year) and together with her colleagues they submit applications, project proposals, and look for partners in her country and abroad.

Marina is convinced that the crucial element of this programme – as in life – is to find reliable partners. And she successfully copes with this task. In her extensive 'to-do list' are projects funded by the European Voluntary Service, trainings, seminars for youth workers on a variety of topics - intercultural dialogue, creativity, youth initiatives, health, sport, culture, gender equality, media literacy, volunteerism, youth policy, and many others.

But most importantly, Marina says, participation in the programme predetermines her values ​​– respect for other cultures, opinions, and at the same time intolerance for any kind of discrimination, unworthy treatment of anyone. "I have learned to work with groups of people (and even very large ones), help them, stimulate to tackle local and global problems, discuss 'inconvenient' topics (such as sexuality, human rights, and gender inequality). By participating in the programme, I have learned to adapt easily to new circumstances and cultures. I do not know a European country where I do not have friends or partners. Well, except for Iceland, probably."

Marina adds that the programme taught her a very important lesson: if she feels uncomfortable, if she sees that she is not appreciated, that she has no opportunities to learn and develop – she leaves right away. "You cannot waste time on activities that don't motivate you, if your efforts are not paying off, and don't bring satisfaction and results. I have taken the maximum from this programme and will continue using the opportunities that it offers," Marina says.

Author: Elena Daneiko