“It Made Me Who I Am”: 4 Life-Changing Erasmus Stories

Millions of students across the UK may lose the opportunity to study abroad in Europe after parliament voted against an amendment to keep the Erasmus+ scheme. On Wednesday, British MPs voted 344 to 254 to scrap the student exchange programme on its existing terms when Britain leaves the EU at the end of January.
The Erasmus+ scheme is an EU-funded programme which enables young Brits to volunteer, study and gain work experience abroad. There are currently more than 4,000 institutions participating in Erasmus across 34 EU (and some non-EU) partner countries, including France, Germany, Sweden and the UK. Up to two million UK and EU students benefit from grants to study and train abroad, while up to 650,000 grants are offered for vocational studies or apprenticeships. In 2017, Erasmus+ provided almost 800,000 people in the UK and EU with the opportunity to learn, work or volunteer abroad.
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Lib Dem MP Layla Moran (whose party is fighting for a clause in the bill that would keep the hope of continuing with Erasmus even after Britain leaves the EU) argued that it was "an absolute no-brainer" and that "for students, young people, those in training and staff who work in the education sector, the Erasmus scheme has been absolutely incredible."
Following the result, Moran accused the Conservatives of depriving young people of opportunities. She said: "They need to show they are serious about these programmes, but instead they continue to leave the door open to lowering standards and depriving our young people and others, especially those from poorer backgrounds, of the opportunities Erasmus brings."
The vote comes after a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute said that learning a foreign language should be compulsory. The report, published today, found that just 32% of young Britons can read or write in more than one language, compared with 79% of their peers in France and more than 90% in Germany.
Further research published by Universities UK shows that students who spend time studying abroad outperform their peers in the classroom and the workforce, being 19% more likely to gain a first-class degree and 20% less likely to be unemployed.
Many have branded the government's vote a "spiteful" attack on young people, with some calling it a "tragedy" and others adding that their time studying abroad through the Erasmus programme was the "best thing" they ever did.
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Refinery29 reached out to young women who took part in the programme and asked them about their experience, and how they feel about Erasmus being scrapped. These are their stories...
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Grace Paul, 28, studied English literature and Italian at Lancaster University.
What was your Erasmus experience like?
My Erasmus experience was incredibly enriching. I was fortunate enough to go to Italy and thanks to my grant not only could I study at an Italian university but it also meant I could afford to live while working as an intern at a translation company in Turin. I learned about Italian literature in the place where some of the works were written, about the country’s rich history and I ate a lot of delicious food! I also met people from all over Europe who were part of the Erasmus scheme. I gained friends for life.
It definitely contributed to my travel bug later in life. Having language skills on my CV has opened doors for me professionally. Lots of my fellow students at the time ended up moving back to the country where they did their Erasmus exchange – it gives you the opportunity to figure out if you want to live abroad in the future as well. It’s an experience I would recommend to everyone.

In Italy, I was exposed to so many different cultures and I gained friends for life.

Grace Paul, 28
What did you gain from the Erasmus scheme?
My language skills improved considerably as I was studying and working in Italian, which was such a fantastic experience. I'm a firm believer that to really improve your language skills you need to go and live in the country where the language is spoken.
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How does the vote to scrap Erasmus make you feel?
Appalled – I think this is another way of narrowing future generations' prospects even further. Foreign language learning at secondary schools is at its lowest since the start of the millennium and this vote isn't going to encourage students to study foreign languages at university. This is such a shame as we should be encouraging people to study abroad and learn more about different cultures instead of closing them off.
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Ellie Austin-Williams, 27, studied modern languages and European studies at the University of Southampton. As part of the Erasmus scheme, Ellie was able to study at Sciences Po in Lille, France, for a year.
What was your Erasmus experience like?
The year abroad was very formative – it challenged me mentally, pushing me out of my comfort zone, and taught me so much about both myself and others. Arriving in a new city with no friends and minimal knowledge of the language was terrifying, yet it taught me that I can be independent and resilient. Studying in France opened my eyes to how things can be done differently in welfare, healthcare and education, which has since informed my view of policies at home.
I turned up in France fresh off the Eurostar with nowhere to live, having arranged to stay with an American girl I met online for a few nights. Granted, it could have gone badly but it turned out pretty well and we became great friends. In France, I made friends with people who I would never have come across – or chosen to spend time with – in the UK and it destroyed a lot of my preconceptions and assumptions. My year abroad taught me everything I know about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and it’s made me who I am today.
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Erasmus gave me confidence in my ability to tackle anything and stick things out when they get tough, as it's quite difficult to run home from another country when things feel uncomfortable.

Ellie Austin-Williams
What did you gain from the Erasmus scheme?
I was low on confidence heading to university but after a difficult few years, Erasmus gave me confidence to tackle anything and stick things out when they get tough.
How does the vote to scrap Erasmus make you feel?
I feel betrayed by the government and upset for the future generations who won’t have the same opportunity. Both my boyfriend and I did Erasmus years (in France and Austria respectively) and we often talk about the people, the cities and the life lessons we learned in that year. The support provided through the scheme is invaluable and it feels incredibly selfish that MPs have made this decision.
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Meg O'Donnell, 27, studied photography at the University of Plymouth. She spent four months studying in Gothenburg, Sweden.
What was your Erasmus experience like?
It was honestly the best thing I’ve ever done. I went completely alone and it definitely made me wake up to life. At that age (20) I was far too dependent on my parents and my boyfriend so the experience was really very big for me. I met so many great people and had the most fun – too much fun. The photography course was insanely inspirational and the city was incredible. I went to SO many Erasmus 'kitchen parties' and discovered many (many) different sides of myself.
What did you gain from the scheme?
All of the memories, hilarious experiences and a love of sushi! 

I met so many new people, went to SO many Erasmus 'kitchen parties' and discovered many (many) different sides of myself.

Meg O'Donnell
How does the vote to scrap Erasmus make you feel?
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It’s SUCH a shame that this experience isn’t available to people anymore. If I hadn’t had this opportunity then I genuinely don’t think I would be the person I am today – as cringe as that sounds!
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Katy Thompsett (above right), 34, studied English and French at the University of Warwick. She studied a year abroad in Grenoble, France.
What was your Erasmus experience like?
To say that I was terrified when I arrived in Grenoble at the start of my Erasmus year would be an understatement. One of our lecturers back at Warwick had put the fear of God into us about French student halls – cold; dirty; toilets that were essentially a hole in the floor – and we were determined to find our own accommodation. So my friend and I rocked up in September, far away from everyone we knew, with nowhere to live and no idea what the fuck we were doing. After a couple of weeks in the local youth hostel (where we befriended a Lebanese family fleeing the Israel-Hezbollah conflict), I found a flat in the city centre, sharing with a French guy and a girl from South America. From there, everything got easier – and the fun began!
There are five universities in Grenoble, which meant there were students from all over the world. We were there to study but that was only half the story: rowdy nights out at Les Trois Canards and Le Couche Tard; endless brie and baguette picnics in the park; ramshackle dinners at each other’s flats; absurd conversations conducted in half French, half English; hiking up mountains in flip-flops; €1 bottles of wine; road trips across the border to Milan and all the way down to Venice; and, yes, toilets that were essentially a hole in the floor…
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What did you gain from the scheme?
So much! I’m naturally quite shy but if you want to survive in a foreign country, you have to get over your fear and speak up – whether that’s to open a bank account or make new friends. My confidence improved enormously over the course of the year. Also, my family isn’t particularly well off so Erasmus was the first real opportunity I had to see another part of the world.
Most importantly, though, it forced me to take my language skills out on the road – which is an entirely different experience from reciting "Où est la discothèque?" at a bored teacher. I was by no means fluent when I came home but after living, studying and socialising almost exclusively in French for nine months, I was pretty damn close.

My family isn't particularly well off so Erasmus was the first real opportunity I had to see another part of the world.

Katy Thompsett
How does the vote to scrap Erasmus make you feel?
Furious, disappointed, utterly miserable. It’s such a mistake. Denying young people the opportunity to get out there and meet people from different countries and backgrounds, with different points of view. Sealing ourselves off from Europe and the rest of the world. It’s just another frustrating example of the small-minded, self-interested, misplaced 'patriotism' of our government and its insane obsession with Brexit. A report came out this morning which found that 32% of young people in the UK can read or write in more than one language, compared to 79% in France and over 90% in Germany. It would be funny if it wasn’t so fucking sad.

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