When I applied to go to Iaşi, a city in eastern Romania, to take part in a youth exchange programme, I had almost no idea what I was letting myself in for.

All I knew about the EU -funded exchange was that it would bring together groups of young people from the UK, Romania, Estonia and Turkey to learn more about social enterprises – that is, organisations that use commercial strategies to boost human and environmental wellbeing, rather than shareholder profits – in the hope that we would then be inspired to develop our own businesses.

I applied to take part because I co-run my own fledgling social enterprise, the Edge of the Universe Printing Press, and because I had worked before with Youth Discovery Ventures, the Sheffield-based organisation who co-ordinated the UK’s involvement in the programme. I had very little idea of what to actually expect from the exchange, especially about the country I was going to.

Before I got there I didn’t even know how to say the name of the city where we were staying (for the record, Iaşi is pronounced ‘yash’). Beyond overhearing the occasional rant about benefit tourists, the main perspectives on Romania I had heard were from older people who had once been there to do charity work. “It’s much less developed than the UK,” I had been told. “You might find it shocking.”

This stereotype, unsurprisingly, turned out to be false. Since 2000 Romania has benefitted from prolonged economic growth, and Iaşi is a busy, student-filled, working city. The visibility of poverty there seemed little different than it is in the UK. Coming from Sheffield, a city where homeless people rub shoulders with Waitrose shoppers, I wasn’t a stranger to the starkness of 21st century inequality.

It’s a cliché that travel expands the mind, but one that the exchange proved to be totally, vitally true. Whilst social enterprises contribute billions to the UK economy, they are far less established in other European countries. The Turkish participants told us that social enterprises don’t really exist in their homeland at all. Being able to learn alongside them helped me to see social enterprise anew, and I began to really understand the importance of what these kinds of organisations can achieve. I also grasped the incredible privilege – so seemingly natural that I had never really noticed it before – of being born in an English-speaking country.

Perhaps it was because Romania only joined the EU eight years ago, or because communism is still a recent memory, but all the Romanians I worked alongside were incredibly optimistic about their country’s new direction and the positive changes that each of us could enact. And it wasn’t blind optimism, either. Suportis, the Romanian social enterprise that organised the entire exchange, was staffed entirely by intimidatingly accomplished young people.

The energy and enthusiasm of the other participants was a welcome break from the cynicism and self-deprecation that seems to typify my generation in Britain. Their attitudes were infectious. By the end of the exchange, I had not only equipped myself with a dazzling array of new international swear words, but was filled with hope about what my business could achieve.

Europe’s austerity budgets have made immigration one of the key issues in the approach to the general election, and previously-ignored mutterings about our EU membership are now gaining worrying traction. Having been so inspired by this exchange, it makes me nauseous to think that our government would consider cutting other British youths off from these kinds of life-changing experiences. I can only hope that other European countries won’t limit our freedom of movement as brutally as we’re threatening to do to them, because if the UK ever does leave the EU , I won’t really fancy sticking around.

youthdiscoveryventures.co.uk

Sarah Christie