The only things you regret are the things you don’t do

According to recent surveys, only an estimated 16,000 UK students complete an Erasmus project each semester. This is less than 1% of the number of UK natives currently in higher education. The chance to challenge yourself in a new environment is a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity, one that our European contemporaries take in far greater numbers. During the 2013 academic year, the number of European students studying in the UK was over double that of UK students attending courses overseas. Shamefully I am one of the 99% of British graduates that failed to take this opportunity, however through IVS and the EVS projects they offer, there is a second chance.

There are so many benefits to volunteering in Europe that it would be nigh on impossible for me list them all here. They are evident to me in my interactions with my colleagues here in Madeira, the majority of which have either lived or studied abroad prior to the EVS project. Taking yourself outside of your comfort zone presents the opportunity to gain confidence and improve your soft skills exponentially. Working as a part of Madeiran Heritage in Funchal, I have had the opportunity to improve my verbal and written communication skills by participating on guided visits of the city’s landmarks and working with the publications department of the University of Madeira. At a time when graduate employment opportunities are relatively scarce in the UK, participating in an EVS programme offers the chance to stay busy and motivated, in addition to livening up your CV.

Away from the relative drudgery of the rat race, EVS programmes also allow you to meet people that previously you may never have had the chance to socialise with. Here in Madeira, there is a close-knit group of volunteers and students, which ensures you never get bored, lonely or homesick. By interacting with a diverse group of young Europeans, I have learned about Turkish cuisine, been offered interesting new perspectives on the political situation in Catalonia and even had the opportunity to collaborate on the publication of a Polish history book with another volunteer.

Not only does participating in an EVS programme allow you to develop your skillset and meet new people, it also provides an inexpensive and engaging way in which to travel to new places and experience new cultures. Given the longer lengths of these programmes, compares to Erasmus programmes or other UK-funded volunteer placements, you have a better opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture. In Madeira, I have learned about the unique cultural celebrations that define the island’s tourism industry, enjoyed the regional dishes and had the opportunity to travel twice to mainland Portugal for free. Portuguese language courses are also provided free of charge. While my own ability with the language is limited to asking for another beer at the bar and apologising (key phrases for the British abroad), my English language competencies have also benefited from living abroad due to having to interact regularly with non-native speakers.

At this time, when the UK’s political conversation increasingly seems to be moving more and more towards isolationism, it is a genuine shame that so few of our young people seek to challenge themselves in new environments. The EVS programmes offered by IVS, such as mine in Madeira, offer a brilliant opportunity to develop our skills, be part of a young, European community and experience new and exciting cultures at a very low cost. Don’t make not doing an EVS placement one of your regrets.