By Emma Cottenie
Each year, thousands of students go abroad to study, with Spain being one of the front runners. In the Spanish working environment, where 45% of young people are unemployed, internationalization is set to improve the chances of Spanish youngsters securing a future.
In the school year of 2012-2013, Europe sent its three millionth Erasmus student abroad since the start of the exchange program thirty years ago. 270.000 students traveled to another country in 2012-2013, 15 percent of them from Spain, which makes it the top country of outgoing students. At the same time, Spain is the most popular Erasmus destination among European students, with around 40.000 people moving into vibrant cities like Barcelona, Valencia, Seville and Madrid each year.
In 2013, ten percent of all Spanish students went to study abroad, twice the European average and an increase of almost 60 percent compared to five years ago. Alejandra Villena Uerkvitz, head of the international office of the CEU University San Pablo in Madrid, saw this happening. “Because the concept of Erasmus is expanding, you can study everywhere, do internships, apply for a postgraduate experience and so on. It’s getting bigger every day.”
The San Pablo university is sending 350 students abroad in the academic year of 2016-2017 and is receiving no less than 600 foreign students.
European Commission report
According to the European Commission, the Erasmus program is not only intended to help young people expand their horizon, but also to give them better chances for their future. As stated in their annual report: “Erasmus mobility is a central element of the Commission’s strategy to combat youth unemployment, featuring prominently in the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs.”
Uerkvitz of San Pablo finds that most students go abroad to experience living abroad and to improve their language skills. “More students want to go for the international experience, rather than to heighten their chances of finding a job later, but I feel like the percentages are becoming more balanced. More and more Spanish students realize that they might need that internationalization to find a better job in the future. They’re growing more conscious of the fact that this is a globalized world, and the difficulties in getting a job are becoming a bigger issue in their daily life,” she says.
Still, Uerkvitz thinks the advantages of studying abroad are significant. “Internationalization is a good asset on the labor market. When they’re looking for a job or internship and their possible employer hears that they stayed in another country and adapted to the culture and language and new ways of teaching, it heightens their chance of landing that job.”
Work experience beats travel experience
In that way, Europe’s goal is being achieved. A 2014 EC study shows that students who have been studying abroad are 50 percent less likely to be stuck in long-term unemployment compared to students who stay at home. Five years after graduation, their unemployment rate is even 23% lower than their stay-at-home colleagues.
Pablo Benavente, a twenty-one-year old marketing and communication student at the Universidad San Pablo in Madrid, is sceptical towards the findings of the EC. He has yet to go abroad to study, but he has been traveling around the world all his life. “I don’t think many Spanish employers care about my international experience. When I was looking for a job in marketing or communication, everyone required at least two years of working experience.”
Pablo dreams of going off to study in the Far East to experience the culture and way of life there, or as he puts it ‘ver la vida’: see the life. When he comes back, he plans on going to work in London or Dublin to improve his English and make some money. Language skills are one of the most important effects of living abroad, Uerkvitz agrees: “Although the level of foreign languages is going up in Spain, it’s still fit for improvement. That is why an international experience can be crucial.”
Of course, there is much more to a stay abroad than just mastering a new language. Personal development is a big part of the internationalization and Uerkvitz experiences first-hand how her students evolve during their Erasmus adventure. “They come back as different people, especially in this private university, since students here are not very mature when it comes to certain things. Even though they’re over twenty years old, their parents come to help them register for their courses and call us before their kids leave for Erasmus. When the students come back after a few months of living abroad, they are so much more mature and independent,” she explains.
For Pablo, traveling the world is part of his lifestyle. His parents take him and his brother all around Europe and six years ago, he spent a summer with Ruta Quetzal, a Spanish summer camp with which he toured through Peru. “For my family it’s very important to travel and see a lot of the world and experience different cultures.”
However, having a lot of international encounters hasn’t been only positive. Pablo says he experiences something he calls pitiful racism. “People think that because I’m from Spain, I must be poor. ‘Poor guy,’ they say, ‘you must have such a hard time’, while actually I have a perfectly normal economic situation. Of course, compared to a German guy my age I might be poor, but both of my parents work and there’s nothing I lack in life.”
Uerkvitz finds that “for a lot of students, their personal evolution is immense. They come back so much more open and active, engaged in the international life here in Madrid,”. “Often, one Erasmus adventure leads to different other international undertakings and it’s this maturity they take with them into internships and job applications.”
More sides to the story
Lorena Peinado (25) went to study in Warsaw, Poland last year. Her motivation wasn’t purely academic, she mostly wanted to enjoy her stay abroad by exploring the city and its nightlife. In a way, she believes her international experience might have helped her create a network, which will increase her chances in finding a job in the field of her master in European studies.
Lorena doesn’t plan on staying in Spain after she graduates. “I won’t be going back to Poland, but I want to go abroad to work in a European institution. My future doesn’t lie in Spain because there are so many experiences that you just can’t have here. There’s a lack of jobs, of money and of opportunities. With my master, I’m fairly certain I can go elsewhere in Europe to find a job.”
On the other side of that mentality is Paula Escusol, a twenty-one-year old economics major, who went to the University of Chicago because it’s the best in its field. “I enrolled in the Universidad San Pablo because this is the only university in Madrid that has a bilateral agreement with Chicago. It wasn’t an Erasmus program, and I’m happy about that because that’s what everyone is doing these days. I wanted to differentiate my cv from that of students going on Erasmus, which is basically less about academic realizations and more about partying.”
Paula is hopeful for the future. “I believe my study in Chicago will have a good impact on my job opportunities here in Spain. We had great teachers and the level of education was amazingly high. That must count for something,” she smiles. When asked if she plans on permanently living and working in Spain, she nods enthusiastically. “We have a good life here. The climate is lovely, it’s a beautiful country. But maybe, if I haven’t found a job after a year or so, I might go abroad to work. After all, I’ve been studying all my life to find a decent employment and that’s what I want to pursue.”