Year(s) active: 1997-1999
Position: Section President
Section: ESN Leeds
Degrees: European Studies (Bachelors), University of Leeds
Exchange: Ghent University, Belgium (September 1996 - January 1997)
ESN takes me back to a time before email and internet were widely used or easily available. I recall selecting my degree program in European Studies at the University of Leeds from a printed brochure. One of the deciding factors for me was that there was an Erasmus study abroad semester at the University of Gent and a work placement in the European Parliament. I was the only student in my year to make use of this option. It had not been in place the year before so there were no older students to seek advice from. It was difficult to get information about the practical side of things, e.g. accommodation, setting up the work placement ourselves, registration at the city council and insurances were a hassle too. I remember faxing paperwork in August to a student office in Gent and getting last-minute confirmations before setting off abroad to find my empty student housing block and start an intensive pre-semester Flemish language course. I was joined by four other students from the Politics Dept. at Leeds, one returned home within a few weeks and one became a best friend (Anne Fairweather). We studied European Political Development together at Universiteit Gent and worked part-time at the European Parliament in Brussels.
When term started the accommodation began filling up with Belgians and foreign students; most Belgian students went home every weekend so the block was deserted. It could have been lonely but we were lucky to meet those fun-loving fellow Erasmus students and spent wonderful times together, exploring Gent and delighting in each others company, food and drink, translating for each other between Finnish, Norwegian, Dutch, English, Italian, Spanish and international hand actions, which made me realise that wherever there is truly a will, there is always a way to communicate. Erasmus students were also a great support network and source of comfort to each other, all away from home, the first time for many, negotiating life's small and large dramas on our own: muggings, broken hearts, death of a family member.
ESN in Gent was run by a large and charismatic group of Belgian ex-Erasmus volunteers. They organised pub events and a trip away, taking us out of the city to the Ardennes and showing us a greener side of our host country. They introduced us to the production and tasting of abbey beers and cheeses, a nice change from the standard student fare of Vlaamse Frites!
Anne & I realised how valuable being in touch with ESN Gent was and that Leeds needed an ESN section to help those incoming as well as to prepare those outgoing students. It could be run by returning ex-Erasmus students who also shared our enthusiasm for European integration, swapping experiences, organising fabulous parties and offering practical support. Upon our return we quickly organised weekly pub meetings, a James Bond Cocktail Party, Eurovision Party, a ceidligh dance I think and a trip out to the Yorkshire countryside. Email was now available to all students so we now had a mailing list for the members to annouce events and plastered posters around campus to advertise. We also coordinated with the International Student Office at the University to communicate our existence to incoming & outgoing students inviting them to become members. I do not recall exactly how many members we had in total.
I was already very enthusiatic about European co-operation and integration; I took part in a EuroSim, was a member of AEGEE in Leeds and had joined the Young European Movement in the UK, whilst these organisations would have welcomed Erasmus students, they were not ESN!
ESN was non-political as well as different in spirit and was specifically to provide a network for those in the Erasmus situation. When I learned about how many students want to come to the UK but that there was a deficit of UK students going abroad I also became more passionate about promoting study abroad to my fellow UK students. They were really missing out. Why was I the only one on my European Studies course choosing to go abroad? More could have jumped at the chance of such a great experience and simultaneously widened their horizons by getting off our island for a semester! Did they know there were several ESN sections all over Europe waiting to greet them?!
Anne & I were unashamedly evangelical about ESN. We spoke at a conference for the UK Erasmus-Socrates Council about our experiences, founding ESN and encouraging other UK students to take the study abroad plunge! With ESN (& Anne), I attended the AGMs in Graz, Gent and Aarhus to meet up with other ESN sections, we managed to get some funding and the rest we supplemented ourselves, we loved it. Looking back I am still struck by how well organised these events were and how warmly hospitable our host countries and Universities were, the ESN-ers on the organising committees must have been resourceful fundraisers and excellent networkers.
After graduation I worked for Michael McGowan, the MEP for Leeds (1984-1999) with whom I'd been fortunate enough to secure my Erasmus work placement with. One of my favourite memories was that of being in a lift in the European Parliament and hearing 6 different languages in one ride, this brought alive to me the concept of an integrated Europe. For me the Erasmus program successfully led to a job offer, I was extremely lucky. I later did a Leonardo da Vinci work and language study program in Montpellier and worked at the European HQs of a couple of multinational companies based in Amsterdam. My later work has involved travel, trainings, organising a Pan-European conference and recruiting top talent MBAs for a European Leadership Program.
I now live in Paris with my Dutch husband and raise our two trilingual boys. I hope they will also grow up to have their choices of study and work abroad options in the future and that Erasmus funding and cross-bordering academic exchange programs continue... along with the parties :)