It is not uncommon to hear among the AFS circles that the educational impact of an Erasmus programme can’t compare with one of a secondary school exchange, such as those organised by AFS. There are good arguments stating that host family placements ensure much deeper immersion in a hosting reality, that adolescents are in a much more formative stage of life than university students and finally that AFS provides participants with activities and support enhancing the intercultural learning process. This often gives AFSers a sense of superiority over the Erasmus scheme – it is us who do the “real thing”, right?

Yet, and not surprisingly, also the higher education sector is looking into the quality of the intercultural learning experience in the Erasmus programmes. Studies have shown that the international exposure, increased self-awareness and soft skills are often mentioned as more important Erasmus gains than the academic achievement. At the same time, it is clear that immersion in a different environment does not in itself guarantee intercultural learning, nor does it necessarily reduce stereotypical perceptions of otherness. Therefore – given the scale and resources involved in the Erasmus scheme – there is a huge potential in improving the intercultural learning support to the students.

Among the initiatives in this direction, one attracted EFIL’s attention in particular: the 3-year international project entitled “Intercultural Education Resources for Erasmus Students and their Teachers (IEREST)”, which has just been concluded. The main outcome of the project is a set of learning modules to be provided to Erasmus students before, during and after their experience abroad, supporting their development in terms of personal growth and intercultural awareness.

Hey, but AFS has done this for years and we have tones of such learning modules ourselves, right? True, but there are two aspects that still make the IEREST tools interesting. One is their very strong grounding in the current intercultural education theory and literature, despite the overall experiential approach. For every module there is a list for further reading provided, attention is paid to vocabulary and suggested assessment methods. The second and even more important aspect, coming out of the theoretical basis, is the overall non-essentialist approach to culture.

What does it mean? While many existing intercultural learning activities offered to mobile students (including often in AFS) address culture-specific matters to help learners adapt to their destination countries, the IEREST educational resources stimulate students to go beyond national diversities and enjoy their own and others’ multiplicity as individuals. This non-essentialist view of culture (based largely on Adrian Holliday, 2011) stresses also that the different aspects of our identities increase or diminish in intensity, according to the context and purpose of our interactions. For example, in one moment it could be most important that I am a parent, and soon after in a different situation it would matter just as much that I am an atheist. These senses of belonging are not just multiple but they are also shaped and co-constructed in interaction with others. Interlocutors decide what identities they are embodying, negotiating their relative position, as well as the images that each one has of the other.

Not many AFS activities attempt to counter the natural tendency of exchange students to categorise people they meet by nationality and to see them (and themselves) as cultural ambassadors of their country. Even fewer educational modules explore the shifting frameworks of belonging and the “identity negotiation” happening between individuals in every encounter. One could argue that some of the theories trained in AFS (Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, Bennett’s DMIS, among others) stand in contradiction to this complex and dynamic view of culture, and instead rather reinforce easy attribution of cultural membership.

This is why sometimes it may be relevant to challenge our approaches and look outside the usual circles – even into such frowned upon schemes as Erasmus, as the IEREST project shows. Representatives of EFIL participated to the project symposia in Leuven and Bologna this year. We are in the process of building a stronger relationship with the respective universities in view of conducting together potential European projects – one idea being teachers’ training on intercultural competences and mobility opportunities. We are also thrilled to see that several national AFS organisations are also successfully cooperating with higher education institutions, be in the context of educational mobility or even within residential courses (see the next article by Ömer Ongun). Let’s hope the scale of these partnerships will continue growing, with a mutual benefit for everyone involved!

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