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Erasmus is Key for Developing Cultural Awareness in British University Students


If UK loses out on Erasmus, we lose the next generation

One of the OMG moments I had during my post-Brexit bewilderment was what would happen to funding for the Erasmus programme; an EU initiative to support students to study abroad for one year.

I was, and still am, genuinelly concerned about the impact it would have on us should we leave it.

Why? Because I saw first hand the impact it has on improving young people's confidence, characters, employability and cultural awareness.

So it was with glee that I came across an article with my morning coffee on the Guardian which highlights calls for the government to protect British participation in the programme.

I wanted to amplify this call with some of my own experiences and thoughts on why Erasmus is so crucial to all our futures.

How European Students through Erasmus Helped my Business

Previous to Commisceo I ran a translation agency. We were based down in the SW of England and found that, unlike London, the pool of people we had to recruit from was very monocultural - essentially all were white and English, with the odd exception now and again.

As we worked a lot with international clients and suppliers it soon became clear that they lacked some simple cross-cultural skills. We faced many challenges and issues as a result. With some digging we discovered that in fact our employees' expsoure to the world was a lot less than we had suspected - some had not even been to London, let alone abroad.

Put a foreign accent on the phone they would go into meltdown and revert to the strange British characteristic of simply saying the same thing but louder, as if Grandma was on the other line. Conflict was very badly managed leading to loss of relationships, several incidents of misccommuncation had to be addressed through operational changes, we lacked relationships with key global clients...the list goes on. I'm sure many can recognise these symptoms.

Let's be clear though, our staff all had bags of talent. We loved them and wanted them - our way was to help. We tried training them which had some impact, but not as much as we needed. We need a mind shift - we needed a culture shock.

We came across Erasmus and started an internship scheme; we started with one German girl and at one point a few years later had 20+ in offices sat next to our full-time people.

I can not emphasise the positive impact having these interns had on our staff; not only that but our office culture, our ability to listen, to analyse, to think and to respond in the best way. They taught our people so many things, number one of which was "cultural awareness".

Just to give you one lovely anecdote; our team on the whole followed type and would go off in different directions at lunch time to do their jobs or eat their sandwiches and crisps. And so it was a shock for them that our foreign guests would all come together at lunch, sit, talk and share. It was beautiful. As someone heavily influenced by Middle Eastern culture food has always been a social thing for me. When our guys started to watch this happen consistently they slowly started to join in.....and share....and learn. This alone...and I repeat, this alone was worth it all - to see their cultural habit of lunch time isolation vanish as they realised there is another (nicer?) way.

You could see the transformation take place before your eyes in the office over the course of 3 months, 6 months and years. We watched young adults grow and mature into business professionals able to hold themselves in meetings, on the phone and at seminars with clients and suppliers. We were and still are very proud of how well some of them are now doing.

Now I ask you - where or how else could we have achieved this level of impact?

Student exchange programmes such as Erasmus are absolutely funadamental to the future of the UK - how on earth can we possibly secure a bright future if we don't have the people able to deal with the world? We need to have cultural translators. 

We need the next generation to be able to speak to the world - not one another.

Let's also stress that not only do these programmes help "us" understand "them", it also works the other way around. Think of the impact it has on universities and businesses when these students return their home countries with our language, our culture, our mentality, etc. We create ties with these countries - we develop and understanding and desire to do business, research or whatever together.

Students don' stay students for long - soon they'll be working in and running our charities, banks, businesses, schools, hospitals, airports and God help us, our government.

Should the UK lose out and become detached from Erasmus I fear it could have grave consequences on the opportunities we leave for the next generations. We have to fight to make sure that we stay part of Erasmus and exposure our talent to the wider world.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

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