Asian students photo call © Basile Morin/ Public domain/ Pixabay
Higher education is globalised. And it has been so for a while now. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness on the trends of students’ mobility across Europe and Asia, and how it is always a good idea – for individuals as much as for institutions – to invest in cross-cultural education. The first paragraph will provide a bit of context, by presenting a general overview of student mobility and its evolution. The second part leaves space to exchange students’ testimonials and considerations about their experiences. In order to give a wider picture of what student mobility within EU and ASEAN – and between EU and ASEAN – means concretely, I interviewed four students who recently undertook or are currently living an international study experience. European Guanxi is a youth organisation and, therefore, it is always a good idea to get young people talking!
Gümüş, Gök, and Esen stress that “the last three decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the international activities of higher education institutions in terms of their scope, volume, and complexity” (Gümüs et al., 2020). However, “in a rhetorical sense, […] internationalism has always been part of the life world of the University” (Scott, 2000). Today, this intrinsic internationalism reflects on facts: every year, more and more universities all over the world offer exchange programmes, scholarships, and possibilities for their students to study, volunteer or train abroad. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics’ estimations, “the number of international students around the world increased from around 2 million to 5 million between 2000 and 2017.” (Gümüs et al., 2020). And, while the amount of exchange students kept growing at full pace, youth mobility started to be a phenomenon not only associated with the economically developed, politically stable, and academically advanced world: now, it is also an issue “that involves countries with different economic, political, and academic characteristics.” (Kondakci et al., 2018).
Student mobility is the umbrella term commonly used when talking about the possibility for university students to spend a period of time abroad while undertaking their degree. Mobility is beneficial for individuals, as much as for institutions. It not only increases awareness of the people involved in the exchange, by making them more tolerant, open to diversity, and conscious of global issues; it also strengthens partnerships between institutions, and can contribute to the development of more positive relationships between countries. Needless to say, the past couple of years have been a bit static in terms of student mobility. Nevertheless, young people have not stopped manifesting their will to explore and undertake exchange programmes.
The student exchange programmes exposed in this article through the precious words of those who've been there are the SHARE Programme, Erasmus +, and Erasmus Mundus: skip to the experience you are more interested in!
What's leaving with a SHARE mobility like?
The SHARE Programme was launched in 2015 from a joint agreement between EU and ASEAN, to promote students’ mobility within ASEAN countries: “SHARE supports ASEAN’s ambition to build a regional higher education space in the region.” (SHARE Programme Official Website, 2021). The initial agreement covered a period of five years; last year, the project was extended for an additional two-year period and, thus, it will be lasting until 2022. The objective of the initiative is to “strengthen regional co-operation and enhance the quality, regional competitiveness and internationalisation of ASEAN higher education institutions and students” (SHARE Programme Official Website, 2021). Since its launch, it succeeded in enhancing the relationships between ASEAN universities and boosted partnerships between EU and ASEAN universities.
I had a chat with two SHARE alumni: Jazlyn Onglim Yu and Alex Haekal Abdurrahman. Jazlyn Onglim Yu – Jaz for short – gained a Bachelor of Science in Food Technology at the University of Santo Tomas, in the Philippines and studied at IPB University, Indonesia, for one semester as a SHARE scholarship student. Alex Haekal Abdurrahman – Alex thereafter – an International Relations student at Diponegoro University, Indonesia, spent a semester with SHARE to study International Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Jazlyn, how did you know about the SHARE project? And, more concretely, is it easy to get a SHARE scholarship?
The first time I saw SHARE, it was online. I eventually saw it being advertised at our university during my second year. I first applied for SHARE during the first semester of my third year but backed out because of the discouragement I received from some of my family members, peers, and faculty. As faith would have it, I met a SHARE awardee in my class who was from the university and course that I wanted to apply for. She became one of my closest friends and is honestly the main reason why I managed to try applying for SHARE. I would say that the process would vary per university. It was a lot of paperwork on my part and it took several months. However, the international relations office in my university was very accommodating.
What about you, Alex? Was it easy to get a SHARE scholarship?
I can’t say that getting SHARE scholarship is easy, but it wasn’t hard either. I was required to submit documents that you typically would use to apply to any other scholarships, such as your credit scores, recommendation letter, and motivation letter. But I think the most important thing about SHARE is how they stand with inclusivity. In my year, SHARE had fixed quotas for each university and each country, and everyone, with any background, has the chance to apply for this scholarship.
Was it easy to adapt and learn to appreciate another country’s culture and society?
JAZ: I would not call it easy but rather exciting, especially at the start. Although, it does take time and effort to learn the language. It took me a few days to learn the basics as Bahasa Indonesia has a similar vocabulary to Filipino. For the culture, it was pretty easy for me to pick up, especially since I am from ASEAN. However, I could say it would have been challenging for me to accept if I were from elsewhere. All in all, it was definitely memorable and well worth it.
ALEX: Yes and no. Adapting to their society wasn’t bad at all: Cambodians are kind and helpful! However, adapting to their culture was quite a challenge. As a Muslim, at first it was hard for me to find halal foods and a place to pray. But as I stayed longer, I found out that there is a huge Muslim community at the heart of Phnom Penh. Although the people are kind and I managed to adapt culturally with their foods and community, to be honest – please forgive my younger self – I complained a lot during my stay there. For instance, during the hot season, the government had to periodically shut down electricity. Imagine you were in your room, with the temperature hitting 40° Celsius or more, but you couldn’t even turn on the fan.
Do you think this experience enhanced your ASEAN identity?
JAZ: Yes, it definitely did. Now, I am more aware of what happens in ASEAN as well as the point of view other countries have towards it. I also have a close group of friends from almost every country which allows me to view it from a more personal standpoint. In addition to this, SHARE is active with various events for alumni, such as policy dialogues and workshops, that allow us to meet professionals, alumni, the SHARE consortium and team, and many more people who are proactively shaping ASEAN’s education and work environment.
ALEX: Absolutely! I studied International Studies, and apparently in RUPP the students and lecturers are highly aware of their identity as a part of ASEAN compared to where I originally studied. They even have Model ASEAN Summit in their curriculum that teaches us the diplomacy and policy making within ASEAN Summit and how it shapes each country, and ultimately us as citizens. Moreover, I met a lot of people from many ASEAN countries. My scholarship mates were from Myanmar and Malaysia. I also got to meet some Vietnamese who volunteered there. One time I even got the chance to go to Thailand. It’s shocking to me how Cambodia and Thailand have a similar root culture, but Bangkok and Phnom Penh are two drastically different cities.
Why do you think student mobility is important in a world that is going more and more global?
JAZ: Student mobility and programmes are important because of the skills and experiences gained by people. It pushes many to grow out of their comfort zone and promotes the globalisation of products, services, the workforce, and even ideas. It also fosters acceptance, understanding, and appreciation of various cultures. Many innovations can be created this way and students who participated in these programmes tend to be inspired to push for further development in themselves and their own communities.
ALEX: The most important thing about student mobility like SHARE is how it could open our perspective on the diversity of human culture, society, and political views. It is crucial and urgent to teach our young students their place among many cultures and societies so they could be respectful and be humbled of their place. Moreover – with the growth of globalization and information technology – racism, xenophobia, and religious intolerance are somewhat being facilitated and become more apparent. Thus, I believe exposing our youngsters to different cultures could help them realise a bigger picture of our world and how to behave accordingly to achieve unity as a global citizen.
What's leaving with Erasmus+ like?
Erasmus+ - known simply as “Erasmus” until 2014 – is a European Union student exchange mobility programme, effective since 1987 after the brilliant idea of Sofia Corradi, an Italian pedagogist. Our respondent is Guido Sassaroli: he studies Automation and control engineering at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy and he is currently doing an Erasmus+ mobility at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingeniería (ETSI) of the University of Sevilla. Like most Erasmus+ students, he wanted to find out how universities abroad work, and he was attracted by the opportunity to get in touch with new cultures, learn a new language, and meet new people.
Guido, the Erasmus was initially launched with the aim of strengthening the European identity of the European youth. Were you perceiving yourself as European before this experience? Do you think this experience enhanced your European identity?
Before leaving for the mobility I already perceived myself as European, but this experience has definitely strengthened this perception. My Italian university is particularly international, but while studying there it was not that easy to build relationships and friendships with students from abroad. On the other hand, while being abroad, building a network with international students is almost a spontaneous process: the constant contact with people from fellow European countries definitely helped enhance the sense of belonging to the European community.
Despite Spain and Italy presenting many similarities, it can always be difficult to adapt to another country’s habits and costumes. For you, was it easy to adjust and learn to appreciate another country’s culture and society?
It wasn’t particularly difficult for me. The main challenge is adapting to the university method, which is totally different from the Italian one. There are a lot of practical laboratories, which are evaluated and graded exactly like exams, and projects to be done during the semester. On the other hand, in Italy there is a lot of theory and a few practical labs.
Why do you think student mobility is important in a world that is going more and more global?
It is not merely important; it is fundamental for any student. It is an experience that opens your mind, it takes you out of your comfort zone. I think that I will remember this experience as one of the most beautiful and formative six months of my life.
What's leaving with Erasmus Mundus like?
Last but not least, we interviewed Joshua Angelo E. Bata, an Erasmus Mundus alumnus. Erasmus Mundus was launched with the objective of enhancing the quality of higher education: it is basically an international version of the Erasmus+, allowing international and European students to study abroad with the aim of creating cross-cultural study paths.
Joshua Angelo E. Bata, from the Philippines, worked with the Philippine government for three years before pursuing his Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree in International Development Studies. In June this year, he finished his graduate studies at Palacky University Olomouc in the Czech Republic, the University of Clermont Auvergne in France, and the University of Pavia in Italy. Currently, he is pursuing a career path in international development.
Joshua Angelo, why did you decide to apply for an Erasmus Mundus scholarship?
After finishing my Bachelor’s in Development Studies, I was sure I wanted to pursue a graduate study in the same field. However, I also knew that I would first need to have some professional experience to help me define some of my goals before pursuing other degrees. So, it took me some time to finally decide to see my odds with graduate programs outside the Philippines. Before applying, I was not familiar with Erasmus Mundus as other programs were more well-known in my social circle. I stumbled upon the Erasmus Mundus website then started browsing the programs in my field. There are a variety of programs offered by the Erasmus Mundus because there are a lot of participating universities, which captured my interest in the program. The mobility aspect of Erasmus Mundus’s programs eventually became the most attractive perk since it allowed more networking, travelling, and the opportunity to live in different countries.
You come from an ASEAN country. Do you think this opportunity helped you shape your perception of Europe?
My Erasmus Mundus experience coincided with my first trip to Europe. This opportunity widened and deepened my knowledge of Europe, especially of countries like the Czech Republic. Cities in the Northern and Southern countries of Europe are more prominent in the media and the popular imagination. That is why living in the Czech Republic has expanded my notion of what Europe means. Likewise, living in Europe for two years during the program has concretized why the “old world” is usually associated with Europe. This oldness could be felt and seen in the urban architecture, museums, cafes, and restaurants I have visited. Yet, I also saw how Europe wants to be at present and in the future. Although my two-year experience is reasonably brief to fully grasp the meaning of Europe’s aspirations at present and in the future, I was able to observe this within the universities I have attended.
Do you now perceive yourself as a “global citizen”?
Networking, socialising, and meeting several people from diverse backgrounds have certainly changed me in more ways than one. However, I still do not perceive myself to be a “global citizen.” Perhaps, this is because though I have thoroughly benefited from my program’s mobility aspect in the past two years, my mobility is still tied to my passport’s strength in terms of my ability to travel to or live in other places. Likewise, while English helped me connect with other people, my inability to speak German, Spanish or French has considerably reduced my ability to communicate and make connections with others. However, if being a global citizen means being attached to a “non-place” or “place-lessness,” I would say that the experience has helped me achieve being a ‘global citizen.’ Being comfortable living outside my birthplace for extended periods has changed my perception of how huge the world is and how our roots can always find a new place, even in a foreign land.
For you, was it easy to adjust and learn to appreciate other countries’ cultures and societies?
At first, there were some difficulties. Of course, back in my country, it is not every day that I meet people from different cultural backgrounds or societies. Because of the familiarity, it was not such a vast effort back then to understand and appreciate. In my case, I think my program did an excellent job in enjoining us in a workshop about cultural sensitivity. I think that experience has refocused my expectations about meeting new people from other cultural backgrounds. Because of this experience, it became easier to adapt, adjust and appreciate other people’s cultural backgrounds.
Why do you think student mobility and programmes such as Erasmus Mundus are important in a world that is going more and more global?
I think student mobility and programs like the Erasmus Mundus are essential at this age because they level the playing field for people from different backgrounds, especially those from developing countries. These programs aid students and give them access to further education, hoping to be utilised for the common good. For me, these programs are envisioned to be a microcosm of what it means to live in a global society. It is not every day that people from 24 different countries (i.e., my cohort) come to live and study together.
As student mobility is a privileged experience and not yet totally accessible for all, recognizing and showing its importance is a first step to persuade people, governments, and institutions to invest in it. Moreover, these interviews, and the precious insights provided by these young European and Asian students and professionals, can be used as a tool for those students potentially interested in spending some time abroad. So, when are you leaving?
Maria Elena Sassaroli has a double master’s degree in International Relations at University of Turin and Beijing Foreign Studies University. She holds a bachelor in Chinese language and culture from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. After living in China as an exchange student at Suzhou University and Sichuan University, she worked as an intern at the Italian Consulate in Adelaide. Mainly focused on China’s domestic politics, she is also passionate about Indian politics, sustainable development, and media and communication studies. You can find her on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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Gümüs S., Gök E., and Esen M. (2020) “A Review of Research on International Student Mobility: Science Mapping the Existing Knowledge Base”, Journal of Studies in International Education vol. 24(5): 495–517.
Scott P., (2000). “Globalisation and higher education: Challenges for the 21st century”, Journal of Studies in International Education 4(1): 5.
Kondakci Y., Bedenlier S., Zawacki-Richter O (2018), “Social network analysis of international student mobility: uncovering the rise of regional hubs”, Higher Education.
SHARE Programme Official Website https://www.share-asean.eu/