I was incredibly fortunate to have my first Erasmus+ experience at the ASHA Centre in the beautiful Forest of Dean. I had been volunteering at Oxfam when a fellow volunteer-turned-good friend told me about a residential training course on interfaith dialogue. I could immediately sense from the title of the course and from my friend’s enthusiasm about the people at ASHA that it was coming from a refreshingly genuine interest in learning and ways of engaging with others that I had been searching for through volunteering.

When I arrived I didn’t have the slightest idea what to expect, but the very first conversations I had with the residential staff filled me with a sense of reassurance and excitement that I was amongst people who brought their true selves and passions into their work, and there was a feeling of warmth and homeliness even though we were all meeting for the first time. To me, this captures the very essence of non-formal education, where the aim is not to create distance and an intimidating sense of prestige or awe, but that of mutual respect and natural ease so that we can all learn from one another.

Being quite a shy person, I tend not to contribute much to group discussions unless I have something I am certain I want to say, so as I found myself wanting to speak more in the facilitated group discussions I realised that there was something very different about the way I felt in the environment that was being created during the course. For once, it felt like I wasn’t being tested or measured, just being heard. And when I spoke, it began to feel like I was using my own voice, not one I had to project in order to meet expectations.

As I also started to connect with new friends who were going through similar shifts during the course, I realised how huge an impact the strict and unbalanced environment of my formal education had had on me as a person; and it is difficult to describe just how this realisation affected the way I saw myself and the direction that I wanted to take in my life. The existence of Erasmus+ opened up a whole avenue of possibilities in my world where there was the exciting prospect of living, working and collaborating meaningfully with others towards a better world, not just to compete and get as much out of each other as possible.

As I continued to attend Erasmus+ projects around Europe, I found my confidence in many aspects of my life grow as I came to better know my true self and was more able to bring that self into my interactions with others. I did not see formal education as something that was truly bad, however, merely that it was not always sufficient in nurturing young people to grow into whole, balanced and socially aware individuals. Since my first Erasmus+ experience about a year and a half ago, I have now returned to formal education – something I thought I would never do – and I have chosen to study Drama and Education at a university that values these concepts of mutual respect and relational pedagogy. I have rediscovered my joy and confidence in learning and am enjoying learning formally as well as informally about the different ways in which people learn and how to create educational environments and structures that best support this learning process.

To put it simply, the experience of non-formal education through Erasmus+ has fulfilled a significant gap in my development that I had sensed yet not fully understood while growing up through formal education, and I am certain that there are many others like me out there who will greatly benefit from this humble but fantastic programme for social empowerment.