World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, as established by the United Nations in December 2002, occurs on 21 May every year. In the following meditation on the meaning of this day, Yves Winkin describes the ERASMUS program as a good example of cultural diversity and dialogue.
One practical demonstration of meeting the goals of the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development is ERASMUS, the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. When the European Union launched the program in 1987, European education ministers were not sure it would work. It was incredibly innovative: university students could spend three to nine months in an EU country of their choice and earn degree credit in their own country for successfully completing courses.
At the time, I was teaching at the University de Liège (Belgium). One of my courses was titled “Intercultural relations and processes of acculturation.” I remember getting a call from my president asking for help in distributing special funding obtained from the Minister of Education. The idea was to go anywhere in Europe and quickly set up Erasmus partnership contracts, so that students could get moving, and Belgium could be a good European partner. As a result, I went to the University of La Réunion (a French Island in the Indian Ocean), and colleagues came to me from the UK and Finland. A delegation from Jyväskylä spent a few days in Liège distributing brochures and t-shirts: come to us! Initially people in Liège didn’t recognize that Finnish town, yet within a few years, Erasmus became the most popular program of the EU.
Extended to all 27 EU countries, and later to many other countries in the world, it allowed literally millions of students not only to learn another language and explore new disciplines but also, and more importantly, to engage day-to-day in demanding intercultural dialogue.
The most celebrated illustration of the Erasmus experience is a 2002 French film by Cedric Klapisch, L’Auberge espagnole [The Spanish Apartment] about the tribulations of six students living in the same apartment in Barcelona. As Xavier, the French student who is the lead character, observes: “I am like Europe, I am a real mess.” But a creative and maturational mess: as they struggled with their cultural affinities and differences, the six Erasmus students learned to live together and to build long-term relationships.
In 2023, Klapisch is offering a sequel called Salade grecque [Greek Salad], in which the protagonists are the children of the Spanish apartment residents. Indeed, it is said that Erasmus facilitated marriages: a study by the EU suggested that one million “Erasmus babies” were born between 1987 and 2014.
Now, it must be stressed that structural matters, and not simply good intentions, were needed to facilitate the intercultural exchange. The Erasmus program would not have been possible had European universities not accepted the notion of course credits across nations (European Credit Transfer System). In a way, it can be seen as an academic euro, a shared means of commerce.
In the early years of implementation of the Erasmus program, many professors considered such accounting logic detrimental to the quality of education. Students were alleged to accumulate credits toward their degrees through easy electives. Ultimately it was shown that students did not play that game at all: the experiential effects of their Erasmus sojourn would counter attempts at beating the system. Indeed, the personal growth process that an Erasmus experience abroad triggers is one of the most frequently mentioned benefits of the program, and academic benefits are often considered secondary when compared to relational benefits. For that reason, listing an Erasmus experience on a CV is much valued by employers.
A longer version of this article appears today on the Reiss-Davis Graduate School website; published here with permission.