Taking students virtually to Brussels

By Paul Stephenson

How do you organise a student trip to the EU institutions in the middle of a global pandemic? What do you when you can’t cross the border to Belgium? How do you cope when the Commission and Parliament are closed? These were some of the questions I have been faced with over the last two years as Programme Director of the MA European Public Affairs and MA European Studies.

The Brussels trip has long been one of the main highlights of the MA programmes. Not only does it acquaint students with the city and enable students to visit the main institutions for various thematic presentations with key speakers, but it’s important for strengthening the group dynamic. During the intense two days with an overnight stay, students get to know each other in a different way, beyond the classroom, which is particularly important for EPA where the 30 students do a lot of group work.

In November 2020 we held the first MA EPA virtual trip, which ran for three full days and two evenings, with visits to 13 organisations from 9am to 5pm, followed by after dinner alumni events (which I hosted from a Maastricht hotel room via Zoom). We had reserved the Turnzaal and classrooms so that students could be together on campus even though the visits were virtual, but it turned out that four or five visits each day, combined with occasionally having to decamp to a different room, made it very demanding on concentration.

Why were we cramming in so many visits when the virtual format meant we weren’t limited by the constraints of travel and accommodation?

In the three subsequent virtual trips we spread the visits over five mornings, so that afternoons could remain free for other activities – two visits each morning was enough, without information overload. In fact, the experience of taking part in four virtual trips has revealed many advantages:

  1. You can visit more organisations virtually than face-to-face – rather than 4 visits over 2 days, we generally reverted to 10 visits over 5 mornings.
  2. Faced with a larger programme students can visit speakers they wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to – the MA ES trip usually splits the group for some visits between those doing IR (who might visit the European External Action Service) and those doing public policy (who might visit consultancies or EU advisory bodies).
  3. The virtual set-up allows visits earlier in the morning and also back-to back (e.g. two visits each morning).
  4. Speakers are more informal since they are often speaking from home, rather than in a formal setting – they also often put their email address in the Zoom chat so that students can follow up; speakers might also share files.
  5. Students get closer access to the speakers by being able to unmute and speak directly or use the chat, rather than raising hands and using a microphone.
  6. Staring at the screen is tiring but less than doing morning visits after a big night out in Brussels bars and not much sleep in the hostel (I recall students falling asleep around the table at Business Europe).
  7. There are massive savings on transport and accommodation – the trip is essentially free – so the programme budget can be spent on other things including extra Solver hours.
  8. Transport can fail you – read about my stressful experience over a decade ago in March 2010 when the coach got pulled over by the police on the Belgian motorway in the UACES newsletter.
  9. Bags don’t get left on buses that have driven back to Maastricht.
  10. The lead times on planning the trip is much shorter since no block bookings for hostels need to made weeks in advance, and there is less need to book the European Commission Visitor’s Centre so far ahead.
  11. No more time spent queueing to go through security (we once spent over an hour to go through at the Council only to find that they had double booked us).
  12. The virtual trip can be extended by scheduling other speakers in the weeks that follow, or by accommodating speakers who are unavailable that week.
  13. More MA programme alumni are able to join online after work than would make it to Campus Brussels – and more alumni can join (not all alumni are in Brussels).
  14. The Brussels Trip provides a very good Anticipation Week activity in both MAs.

This year some students have made it to Brussels anyway, such as EPA students as part of the Beyond International Women’s Day organised at CIFE by EPA student representative Kim Graves. Participants then went round the corner for the proper Thursday evening experience of drinks in ‘Place Lux’. Another group of MA ES students accompanied Yf Reykers to the European External Service as part of a BA ES trip.

How to proceed post-Covid? To return or not to return to a physical trip?

Students benefit greatly from meeting speakers in the flesh and gauging the atmosphere of the workplace.

Meeting alumni at UM Campus Brussels in the evening for networking drinks is not the same as sipping your beer alone on Zoom – you can’t work the tables in quite the same way. Students are empowered by entering the institutions – seeing inside the buildings helps understand the culture of the organisation and allows students to question whether they could really see themselves working in such an environment (some may realise that an EU career in Brussels might not be for them). They’ve seen the Schuman roundabout, and hopefully also, walked through the Parc Cinquantenaire and Grand Place.

A bigger question might be whether to broaden the perspectives of the trip, by way of a ‘trip’ aimed at a wider range of career destinations. The virtual format potentially allows you to include speakers from other international organisations beyond the EU, and in other cities, even beyond Europe. Maastricht is not the College of Europe. The MA ES in particular remains a broad masters programme that prepares students for a whole range of careers beyond the EU institutions.

About the author

Paul Stephenson is programme director of the MA EPA and the MA ES. He is on the editorial board for the faculty’s magazine Mosaïek. Paul would like to thank former student assistant Jur Schilp, and colleagues Ruben Janssen and Didier Houjnet, who have helped plan recent trips.