The barriers to global exchange

Bulgarian students have many opportunities to study abroad. Since Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, exchange programmes have become more popular, yet only a fraction of students take part in them. In 2014, only 0.68% of all Bulgarian students attended a foreign university, making the country one of the least active in Europe.

Figures from the European Commission and Bulgarian National Statistical Institute show only 1,837 out of 255,600 Bulgarian students took part in Erasmus exchanges in 2010-11. This number fell to 1,757 out of 262,200 students in 2013-14.

Being mobile

An exchange programme during college is a great opportunity to overcome the obstacles of living abroad and to prepare for a masters degree or professional career in a foreign country.

The most important characteristic of a study period abroad is its cultural aspect. Students get the chance to live with people from many countries and backgrounds – to try their food, get familiar with their traditions and explore their lifestyle.

This results in an open mind and a better sense of cultural awareness. It also leads to better communication skills and teaches students to live in an international environment. As the world continues to be globalised, these interpersonal skills are more crucial than ever and can increase employability. However, their value is usually underestimated by students.

From an academic perspective, visiting a foreign university for a semester or two has several advantages. Students can take courses that are not offered in their home university and thus can increase their competitiveness among peers back home.

Additionally, being abroad is the best way to master a foreign language and increase your communication skills.

An exchange semester can be used to understand if the foreign university, or even country, might be the right destination for future academic or professional pursuits.

Moreover, being in a prestigious foreign university could be a way to get first-hand experience of new trends and disruptions in the industry. Spending several months in an international academic environment is also an opportunity for students to self-evaluate and understand their positioning among international colleagues.

Another benefit is the chance to meet hundreds of new people from all over the world. It’s not only about the great fun you have with them today – these exchange students could be a part of your professional network tomorrow.

Barriers to going abroad

Despite these benefits, Bulgarian students remain passive. Gergana Kocheva is the current Bulgarian National Representative at the Erasmus Student Network and a former exchange student in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Kocheva attributes the low rate of exchange in Bulgarian universities to students having little time to research and make an informed decision as exchange programmes typically take place after the third year of university.

Language barriers, the high grades needed for admission and the lack of accessible information are obstacles that stop students from applying to exchange programmes.

Kocheva says the easy solution would be a mobility fair once or twice a year where partner universities can be represented by recent exchange students or other representatives.

She says the event should be free to make it more accessible and should be planned like a networking event to introduce students to the idea of an exchange programme.

Still, the price of a semester abroad could be the largest factor that prevents Bulgarian students from taking advantage of these opportunities. Since Bulgaria is the poorest member state of the European Union, host countries are likely to have higher living costs.

However, financing options like the Erasmus grants (the biggest European exchange mobility scheme) are available, and in some cases they cover basic living costs abroad.

An exchange experience makes students global citizens, introducing them to so many nationalities.

Many students are starting to perceive themselves as belonging to something broader than a country. When asked where they were from, students in the Erasmus programme answered, “I’m European”. Indeed, this is an experience that broadens horizons and (ex)changes lives.

Denislav Atanasov is country contributor for Bulgaria at Global Young Voices. This article was first published on Global Young Voices, an international news website/citizen journalism project developed by a diverse team of millennials from around the world.