I await the train that will return me to a county
They say that it is my country, the land where I belong
But how then do I feel so at ease here?
I have grown roots in this soil
Is this not also my land, my city, my home?
(Written on the journey ‘home’ from my year-abroad)
Three years and five months ago I landed on ‘home soil’ after eleven months of living la dolce vita in Perugia, Italy. My year-abroad was a compulsory element of my undergraduate degree, sponsored by the EU’s ERASMUS programme. The experience shaped me as an individual, a Brit, and a European citizen. Three years on I often find myself reflecting on what the European Commission’s Erasmus scheme has been doing, not only for me but for students across Europe for the last 25 years.
The ERASMUS scheme was introduced in 1987 with the aim of “increasing student mobility within the European Community”. According to the British Council, nearly 3 million students have participated in an ERASMUS work or study programme over its 25 year history and 33 countries now participate in the scheme (the 27 EU member states, Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey). With over 4,000 students involved in an ERASMUS programme at any one time it is clearly a major player in European international student migration.
ERASMUS migration is a form of ‘credit mobility’ which typically involves a period of international study as part of the students’ degree programme (King et al., 2010). In the academic year 2010/11 190,495 students from across Europe took part in an ERASMUS study programme. Spain was the biggest sender and receiver of students that year (31,427 and 30,580 respectively) while 8,577 UK students migrated with ERASMUS. The majority of these headed for France (2,509) and Spain (2,042). As these figures imply UK outward student mobility is low compared to other European countries and as a result the UK acts predominantly as an ERASMUS ‘host’ country.
As a year-abroad graduate myself, and having completed my Masters in a course dominated by international students, I have developed a deep interest in the phenomenon. Unsurprisingly perhaps this has led me, as a ‘Migrationist’, to look a bit closer into what research exists. Much of what I have found focuses on statistical analysis of students’ motivations and the economic impacts of studying abroad and is based primarily on large scale survey data (examples include Motivations and Experiences of UK Students Studying Abroad and International student migration and the European ‘Year Abroad’). Although the academic focus rests on patterns of mobility, statistics and economic and policy effects of student migration, my fascination lies with the ways in which a year-abroad affects students’ identities.
ERASMUS migration is a very specific form of migration with a fixed end date and continued connection to the ‘home’ country. The knowledge that they will return does not, however, mean that students’ identities are not affected by the move. In fact, the year-abroad can be incredibly powerful, especially because of its timing (an ERASMUS year usually occurs in early adulthood), and the fact that for many students it is their first chance to live abroad.
In reading the HEFCE’s International student mobility literature review I was interested to find that I am typical of a British ERASMUS student: female, white, middle class and an academic high-achiever. But how typical were my personal experiences of life in another European country?
In their 2003 article King and Ruiz-Gelices hypothesise a) that a year-abroad gives students “a more ‘European’ identity” and, b) that year-abroad graduates are “more likely to pursue their subsequent career/migration paths in continental Europe”. Their data certainty suggested that the latter was true. When contrasted to alumni who had not experienced a year-abroad, King and Ruiz-Gelices’ sample of year-abroad graduates were twice as likely to have migrated internationally after graduation, and three times as likely to be living abroad at the time of asking. King and Ruiz-Gelices explain that a study year-abroad often acts as “a trial run for further geographic moves” and this is certainly something which I have witnessed within my own academic cohort.
But what of the first hypothesis? King and Ruiz-Gelices conclude that the majority of year-abroad graduates “see themselves as belonging to a European cultural space” and are “more likely to see their identities as at least partly European”. However, they also recognise that students who choose a degree programme with year-abroad element are probably predisposed to such feelings as a result of earlier experiences. An interesting point which the article does raise, albeit briefly, is the development of “place confidence” in year-abroad graduates. Their enhanced ability to be ‘at home’ in different places lays the foundations for future migrations but “place confidence” can also affect identification.
By the end of my year in Perugia my spatial identification had drastically shifted. Admittedly I was young, naïve and had never lived abroad before, but I was swept away by the momentum of my Italian life and experienced a creeping sense of uncertainty about where I ‘belonged’. This is clearly expressed in the words of my 21 year-old self in the poem at the start of this blog. After just eleven months, I felt deeply connected to my ‘host’ society and those in it who understood my life there and with whom I had experienced new, exciting things. Throughout that year Italy frequently felt more like ‘home’ than my ‘homeland’.
Italy is a country close to my heart, and Perugia is certainly somewhere I remember fondly but in hindsight, after three and half years back in the UK, I would not say Italy is my home. Perhaps it was but those feelings and connections have faded. What the year-abroad experience has left me with, which they don’t put in the handbook, is a taste of migration, a taste of the journey. By this I do not mean the geographic journey but the metaphorical journey of identity, self-discovery and home-making. In addition to what it says on the tin, the ERASMUS scheme enables thousands of European students like me to ‘taste’ what it is like to be a migrant every year.
 There is debate over whether to use the term ‘migration’ or ‘mobility’ to describe student movements. While I accept King, Findlay and Ahrens’ (2010) point that ‘mobility’ is better suited to such movements because it “implies a shorter time-frame for the movement, and a high probability of return”, I choose to describe it as ‘migration’ because of a wider political belief that the migrations of those understood as ‘native’ should be emphasised, rather than hidden behind other terms, in an effort to dilute the common dichotomy of ‘native’/’migrant’.
King, R. and Ruiz-Gelices, E. (2003) International student migration and the European ‘Year Abroad’: effects on European identity and subsequent migration behaviour; in International Journal of Population Geography 9(3) pp. 229–252
Findlay, A. and King, R. (2010) Motivations and Experiences of UK Students Studying Abroad; BIS Research Paper No.8. University of Dundee.
King, R., Findlay, A. and Ahrens, J. (2010) International student mobility literature review. Report to HEFCE, and co-funded by the British Council, UK National Agency for Erasmus.
Teichler, U. (2004) Temporary Study Abroad: the life of ERASMUS students; in European Journal of Education 39(4) pp. 395-408