Photo caption: Teenagers wait at the entrance of a school in Rome near placards announcing the "No Berlusconi day" Dec. 5, 2009. Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

ROME, Italy — For a university student living in southern Italy, where there’s high unemployment and crime, an exchange program in London or Paris can represent less an opportunity than an escape.

According to proponents of the Erasmus program — the European Union's flagship education and training scheme — going abroad, learning a new language and getting familiar with a multicultural context can also help Italian students “de-provincialize” their minds, and give them a better sense of what it means to be a European citizen.

“Our students don’t know much of what’s going on in the world, but thanks to the Erasmus program they have the chance to travel and discover different places and cultures,” said Raffaele Longo of Cosenza’s music conservatory, who regularly sends his scholars on internships at Vienna’s Opera House and Seville’s symphonic orchestra.

Erasmus stands for "European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students," but its name was inspired by the famous Dutch Renaissance humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who spent his life teaching across Europe.

The program this year enabled a record number of nearly 200,000 students to study and work abroad.

Launched in 1987 by the European commission with the objective of transforming Europe into a knowledge-based, innovative and competitive region, it unites 4,000 higher education institutions scattered across 33 countries (the 27 EU member states plus Turkey, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Croatia and Macedonia) that swap not just students but also teachers and faculty, with the goal of enhancing curricula.

More than 2.2 million European students have participated in the program since it started, and the EU commission’s target is to reach 3 million by 2012.

The success of the program is without equal on a global scale, said Simona Aceto, head of Italy’s Erasmus communications and projects office.

“Many countries out of Europe have tried to imitate the Erasmus program,” she said. "It has become terribly attractive and contagious." 

What makes it unique is the experience it offers. A three- to 12-month period spent abroad not only enriches students’ lives in the academic and professional field but also improves their language learning, intercultural skills and self-reliance, Aceto said.

“Such an experience radically transforms a student making it easy for him to integrate in all areas without prejudices,” she said.

Since 2007, Erasmus has also offered an internship placement program with European universities and firms.

“The traineeship are having a great success because they increases the students’ employability and job prospects,” Aceto said.

The university of Calabria leads a consortia of nine Italian institutes connecting universities and businesses in Europe. Franca Leonora Morrone, the founder of the consortium, outlined the project: “Here in southern Italy youth unemployment reaches 60 percent. In this dramatic context, a better qualification is a top priority and a work experience in foreign enterprises makes it possible.”

Still, despite its growing popularity, only a fraction of the region's students take part.

According to EU statistics, in 2008-2009 school year, 19,414 Italians took part in the program, amounting to just 1 percent of the entire university student population (1,660 of whom opted for the traineeships). And this is within the European average, where 0.85 percent of students normally participate in Erasmus. Italy places fourth at EU level for outgoing number of students after France (28,283 students), Germany (27,894) and Spain (27,405). The most popular destinations among young Italians are Spain and France.

For Marina Tesauro of Rome’s Tor Vergata University (an average of 400 Erasmus students per year out of a total 44,000), application to the program is still limited because of a certain prevailing mentality.

“Italian youth are way too attached to their families, friends and city of origin. They lack the spirit of adventure. But it’s also the teachers’ fault: they think Italian education is the best in the world and thus hamper students from going abroad,” she said.

Plus, the monthly grant for young Italians is not much: 250 euros for the study exchange, 500 euros for the Erasmus placement. But it’s worth the financial sacrifice. Valerio Foce, 21, a student at Rome’s LUISS university spent four months at Paris’ European School of Management.

“It was very fruitful because the teaching methodology there was totally different, I got to study less theory and more practice,” he said.

Valerio joined the Erasmus program because he wanted a break from his daily routine in Rome and start building a professional background.

“When I do job interviews my experience in Paris plays as an added value because it shows that I am flexible and open-minded.” Carolina Ricceri, 27, said, agreeing with Valerio. It’s also thanks to her stay at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University that she now works at the Milan headquarters of L’Oréal.

Not everyone is equipped to handle the Erasmus life, however.

Laura Luiselli, a 34-year-old secretary and alumni of Rome’s Tre University, said: “In Brighton I wasted my time partying. But it all depends on whether you’re a good or bad student from the start. I was a bad one.”

Related Stories