Bulgarian students are missing the chance to (ex)change their lives

Bulgarian students are missing the chance to (ex)change their lives

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

Data showing how few students choose to take part in an exchange program. Credit: European Commission and Bulgarian National Statistical Institute

Data showing how few students choose to take part in an exchange program. Credit: European Commission and Bulgarian National Statistical Institute

Being mobile

An exchange program during college is a great opportunity to overcome the obstacles of living abroad and to prepare for a Master’s 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 globalized, these interpersonal skills are more crucial than ever and can increase employability. However, they are usually underestimated by students.

At an International Exchange Erasmus Student Network event. Credit: Taken by Dejan Žagar for ESN.

At an International Exchange Erasmus Student Network event. Credit: Taken by Dejan Žagar for ESN.

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 firsthand experience with 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 of going abroad

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

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

Gergana Kocheva. Credit: Kocheva's Facebook profile, taken by Dimitar Savov

Gergana Kocheva. Credit: Kocheva's Facebook profile, taken by Dimitar Savov

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

“The easy solution for this issue is a mobility fair,” Kocheva said. “An event that would happen once or twice a year, where partner universities can be represented by recent exchange students or other representatives.”

She noted that 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 program.

Still, the price of a semester abroad could be 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 would likely 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 of 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 program answered, “I’m European.” Indeed, this is an experience that broadens horizons and (ex)changes lives**.

Author's notes:

* The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) is the largest student organization in Europe. It was founded on Oct. 16, 1989, and legally registered in 1990 to support and develop student exchange. It is present in more than 500 higher education institutions across 38 countries. ESN involves around 34,000 young people, offering its services to around 190,000 international students every year.

** "(Ex)change your life" is the informal motto of the largest European exchange program, Erasmus.

Cover credit: Mycutegraphics.com

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