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20 Jul 2020

“Thinking Critically”, a Transnational Virtual Exchange Project connecting over 150 participants across Europe

Gilberto and Silvia, both Italian, recently participated in the Virtual Exchange, “Thinking Critically”, organised under the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange project with 15 youth partners and 150 participants from across Europe. The exchange came about as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way of connecting young people unable to meet physically.

Silvia and Gilberto are part of a theatre group called Teatro de Linutile, whose mission it is to create high quality training opportunities across different age ranges to develop performing arts skills, whether as a hobby, but also to prepare those who wish to enter Italy’s most prestigious performing arts institutions.

Silvia studies at the university of Padova, Italy, and wants to become a social educator,Gilberto studies music, art and theatre studies at Bologna University. Initially both were sceptical about participating in a Virtual Exchange - but for different reasons.

“I admit I have prejudices,’ says Gilberto, “and I focus on stereotypes. I’m not particularly interested in traveling or meeting people from other cultures. But when I was offered the chance to participate in a Virtual Exchange, I thought it may be the only time in my life I’d meet other nationalities. I threw myself into it, even though my spoken English isn’t so good.”

Silvia, on the other hand, loves travelling, considers herself open-minded and is confident about her English-language ability. But with the pandemic lockdown, she had been feeling uninspired and wondered where she would find the time for yet another online experience.

“Upon reflection, I pulled myself out of my mental apathy and my comfort zone at a time where the only place to be was at home. I hadn’t practiced my English for a long time and when I found out the topic was ‘Thinking Critically’, I thought that this exchange was made especially for me!”

Gilberto and Silvia initially felt shy, meeting new people on a screen wasn’t the easiest way to feel at ease, especially with the lingua franca being English. But they quickly saw that most of the participants were in the same situation. “The facilitators really helped us loosen up”, explains Gilberto, “they repeated that the online space was a safe space and we could express ourselves as we wanted, without fear of judgement or recrimination. I can honestly say that this experience made me curious about others, and it broadened my mind. I talked and I wanted to talk more. We have a Whatsapp group now and have continued our discussions there when the collaboration ended officially.”

Silvia says she was initially disappointed in the role of the facilitators. “I knew they had to be neutral, and maybe I am wrong, but if there are problems, I thought they should have intervened more.” Eventually she appreciated that remaining neutral was the best way for participants to feel able to speak freely. She enjoyed sharing ideas and opinions with smaller groups in the ‘breakout rooms’ (on zoom) and felt meaningful relationships were built over the four online sessions they had.

“I have always liked relationship building during my travels, but in front of a screen it is different. It is limiting in some ways but stimulating in others. You only have your voice so you have to get on with it. It’s hard, but the only way is to get stuck in.” “You can get a sense of the person and their personality over time, even via the screen,’ she says, “I could feel who the shy ones were, those who avoid conflict, those who want to agree all the time. All these traits are very useful to observe. These characteristics are the same the world over.”

Gilberto explains how during the final facilitated session a nice game was played in which several questions were asked such as – ‘Who made you laugh the most, who made you feel happy, who taught you something new etc….and Gilberto, who had felt shy about speaking was pleasantly surprised that his name came up often. “I was so happy to know that I had had an effect on people’, he smiles, ‘I was so pleased that I had succeeded in expressing myself and making an impression on people.”

Silvia loved the way she realised how similar they all were, regardless of background and nationality. “I think I am open-minded and I am proud of my curiosity and consider diversity as something enriching. We talked about cultural misunderstandings, stereotyping, media manipulation and fake news and I was happy to find that my experiences were also felt by others.”

They both hope the Virtual Exchange experience continues beyond 2020!