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"The key message is the idea of mobility"

Bruno Castro Benito works as a Policy Officer for the Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (DG EAC) of the EU Commission in Brussels. Originally from Spain, he oversees relations to Latin and North America, a quite diverse and interesting portfolio and deals with EU programmes like Erasmus+, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) and Fulbright-Schuman. We spoke with him about his work, the programmes he is responsible for and how EU Alumni can help to increase the EU’s influence.

The different EU programmes that you are working with – Erasmus+, MSCA, Fulbright-Schuman – what do these programmes represent for the EU and what is their key message?

The key message of these education programmes is the idea of mobility. The programmes are built on the idea that students are not limited to just the country they were born in, but that Europe is a single space where students, researchers and professors can freely move and look for other opportunities.

Apart from this academic component, there is also a cultural experience. By sending students abroad, we aim to create a European feeling and citizenship, a sense of belonging. This is the essence of the programmes we are running. And of course, the programmes help to boost the use of different European languages.

When they were opened and enlarged to the rest of the world with several special characteristics the idea was to promote the EU in areas of the world where it is less well-known. So now, when we are receiving for example Latin American Erasmus+ students, we are thus creating European Ambassadors that further spread the European idea in their region.

Who are those participants in particular? Is there a specific profile?

We have several actions and sub-actions within our programmes, each of them is normally addressed to specific profiles or different kind of individuals or institutions. Erasmus+ being the biggest and most well-known for the Americas, is addressed to higher education students at universities or at doctoral level, but not open yet to schools or high schools as it is in Europe. Also, teachers, professors or non-academic staff can participate in exchanges for trainings, teaching in different countries. We furthermore have higher level scholarships called Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees. This excellent programme is quite selective and offers students to do their Masters at different European universities. Moreover, we also have projects aimed at institutions, for example, universities to build capacity, to start engaging cooperation projects with other universities, to work on the administrative or academic performance.

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions are addressed to researchers, doctoral or post-doctoral. Like in Erasmus+, workers in research organisation, for example, administrators, can also participate in this mobility exchange.

Finally, the Fulbright-Schuman Program, a bilateral programme with the United States. Here we are looking for excellent students who are conducting similar to MSCA doctoral or post-doctoral research.

How is the linkage kept from your institutions with the participants? How do they cross the line from being a participant to becoming alumni?

After their return, we try to keep in touch by informing them about the different alumni associations that we have. We encourage participants to become a member in these groups. They can do that actively or at least passively by being aware and receiving information, joining mailing lists and participating in events. Of course, the local EU Delegation also remains in close contact with the alumni from a specific country, e.g., through joint events.

Being an Erasmus alumnus myself, I know that most alumni are happy to connect with other alumni to share memories and experiences.

Once being back in their home countries, how do they maintain this belonging to the EU in their mind and soul?

What I have is mostly anecdotal evidence. Alumni come back from our programmes, satisfied and thinking about the opportunities that they have received. Of course, they might be critical about specific aspects, but in general they are thankful and happy because of the enriching experience of living abroad thanks to an EU scholarship. This is already a positive point. Non-European alumni also get to know more about Europe, they live in a particular country and city and will learn a lot about European cultures. Being an Erasmus alumnus myself, I know that most alumni are happy to connect with other alumni to share memories and experiences. A great percentage of them are also happy to cooperate in promoting the EU programmes in order to reach new participants.

Which is the most important added value of alumni relations in the work you do?

In the last couple of years, we started receiving more and more Erasmus+ alumni as trainees which is great as we are working on Erasmus+ in my team. We are drafting the policy, we are managing the grants, we are talking to universities and participate in the selection, define conditions, and so on. But at the end of the day, we only know the theory and are full of questions about the practical daily life and what means to be an Erasmus student. So, when we started receiving these bright students working with us, they were teaching us a lot. That is very enriching also for making policy work better.

A practical example, I learnt from the trainees in our unit that they don’t receive much information about alumni associations. They only learnt about this when they were trainees with us. Therefore, we have realised that we should do better promotion of EU Alumni communities.

How can alumni increase the EU’s influence? How can they support the EU’s image and visibility and spreading its key messages?

Of course, EU alumni can spread the word about the EU in their daily lives. In a more structural way, many of our alumni are embedded in institutions, in ministries in foreign countries or in universities. So, it’s very valuable to have counterparts that understand how the EU works, e.g., in political or trade negotiations. If the negotiator of the third country is an EU alum, it’s not that we have better negotiation card because they love the EU, but at least they understand how the EU works or they are better disposed to have empathy. They are aware of cultural differences, of language differences, and this is very valuable for their professional careers.

What should the EU ALUMNI initiative look like in 10 years?

That’s a difficult question. Ideally, all alumni of different countries will get to know each other and will be available for EUD activities. Alumni maybe can get in touch directly with each other without the intermediation of EU institutions. That they can establish networks where they can reach each other not only for EU purposes but for their own benefit.

On an institutional level, the initiative could ideally help to enhance the communication and knowledge management. Sometimes even in the same institution, e.g., in universities, different professors and students work on different Erasmus+/MSCA projects and don’t know about each other. In the future, everyone should know that other people did something similar so they can learn from them or can help each other.

More information on EU Alumni Organisations:

  • Erasmus+ Students and Alumni Alliance ESAA
  • Erasmus Mundus Assocaition EMA
  • Organisation for Cooperation, Exchange and Networking amongst Students OCEANS
  • Marie Curie Alumni Association MCAA
  • African Students and Alumni Forum ASAF
  • Western Balkans Students and Alumni Association WBAA