Youth meetings have long been an integral part of school and extra-curricular educational offerings. But do they have a lasting significance for the development of young people?
International youth meetings can be a formative experience for the participants, whether they plant trees at a work camp with other young people from around the world, do a student exchange or engage in cultural or political programmes. What learning experiences young people have, however, depends on their age and the particular programme, says Alexander Thomas. The emeritus professor of psychology has studied the long-term effects of international youth meetings. One decisive point is whether young people are housed abroad as a group or individually with host families. “In families they have much more cross-cultural learning opportunities”, he says. “And that’s an essential element.”
Alexander Thomas gives an example: a German teenager from a liberal family is an exchange student in France. He feels the parents of the host family are sometimes more authoritarian than his own, which disconcerts him. It is then important, says Thomas, that he can talk about this with the programme counsellors: “They will explain to him that in French family culture different rules and values prevail”. A double learning effect: the student learns something about the value system of another culture and at the same time reflects on his own family culture.
Youth meetings and personality development
For the study, the results of which were published under the title of International Youth Service Works – Research Results at a Glance (2013)
, Thomas and his team surveyed adults who ten years previously had taken part in international youth meetings. At the time of the usually three-week programmes the participants were on the average seventeen years old. The study’s conclusion: even short meetings have a big effect, especially on the development of personality. They boost self-confidence, knowledge of foreign languages and intercultural skills. The respondents stated that after the meetings they could deal better with unknown situations and were more open to strangers.
For young people between the ages of thirteen and eighteen another aspect was even more important, explains Thomas: through the meetings they experienced that they could act independently and make a difference. With reference to the already cited example, the student in France learns not only that French family structures are different, but also explores the reasons for this. “Such experiences are very important for personality development”, says Thomas. “The space of intercultural meetings is very well suited for this because it isn’t habitual space.” Just this is what constitutes the learning effect of informal educational offerings.
Influence on professional development
International youth meetings promote not only development of the personality, but also the educational and professional prospects of participants. In a survey on the EU programme Youth in Action
, 66 per cent of respondents said in 2010 that the programme had helped them gain a clearer idea of their future education. Some 65 per cent believe that participation has improved their career opportunities. And the programme also had a positive influence on social commitment: about 63 per cent stated that they have been subsequently more engaged socially and politically, and about 39 per cent have taken up new voluntary work.
International youth meetings in Germany
In Germany too there are many opportunities to take part in international youth meetings. There are a wide range of offers at the Internet services of the IJAB – International Youth Service of the Federal Republic of Germany (Fachstelle für Internationale Jugendarbeit der Bundesrepublik Deutschland e.V.) and the International Youth Community Services (Internationale Jugendgemeinschaftsdienste/ijgd). Traditional forms of youth meetings are language courses such as those offered by the Goethe-Institut: three-week young people’s courses in various cities in Germany and Austria. The prime interest of the participants is to learn German, but this is not the only interest. “They will of course also get to know the culture and the people, gain intercultural experiences and have fun”, says Sybille Trapp, consultant for the Goethe-Institut’s youth programme. Very important for most young people during these courses, she says, are the friendships they make with their peers from around the world. In the three-week youth courses of the PASCH Initiative, young scholarship holders from all over the world do more than improve their knowledge of German; in the PASCH youth course in 2009, for example, the now twenty-year-old Alica Parganlija from Bosnia and Herzegovina got to know other young people from Turkey, Indonesia, the USA, Mexico, Mongolia and other countries. With most of them she is still in touch today, she says. “Through the common goal of learning German we became closer. In this way I not only got to know Germany better, but also learned a lot about other countries.”
International youth work in Germany, Alexander Thomas has observed over the years, is “very professionalized”. “The team and organizers are very well trained”, he says. This means that they do not micro-manage the entire daily life of the participants. For in order to achieve a lasting effect on young people, Thomas says, the programme should provide not only plenty of contact with the inhabitants of the host country but also free time. Only this opens up for young people the opportunity to gain valuable personal experiences.
IJAB – Fachstelle für Internationale Jugendarbeit der Bundesrepublik Deutschland e.V. und Forscher-Praktiker-Dialog Internationale Jugendarbeit (ed.): Internationale Jugendarbeit wirkt – Forschungsergebnisse im Überblick [i.e. International Youth Service Works – Research Results at a Glance], Bonn, 2013