From IVY volunteer to Interreg policy officer: a chat with Robbert

Robbert is a former IVY volunteer. He used to volunteer at the Interreg Flanders (Belgium)-Netherlands Programme in Antwerp, Belgium. Once his IVY volunteering period finished, he started working for the same programme where he volunteered. We interviewed him to know more about his experience: why did he join? What has he got from his IVY experience?

Why did you choose to volunteer for an Interreg programme?

In our rapidly changing world, what seems certain today may be outdated by tomorrow. Globalising markets and technological innovations lead to challenges and opportunities with a drastic societal impact. Valuable ideas and expertise to overcome contemporary challenges, such as biodiversity loss, population ageing or climate change, exist in all corners of society. By connecting the right dots between different kinds of authorities, interest groups, knowledge institutes and private actors, societies can move forward. In the EU, such connections are made through the Interreg programmes. Interreg is one of the EU’s key instruments to facilitate knowledge exchange and stimulate collective action between public and private partners across national borders. Looking for synergy between actors across borders to solve complex societal challenges is something I am personally passionate about. Especially in the European context, I believe that regions can play a large role in encouraging citizen participation on the one hand and bringing European policies closer to citizens on the other.

What’s a striking lesson you’ve learned as an IVY volunteer?

In the summer of 2017, I started volunteering for Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland: a programme that finances innovative projects across the Flemish-Dutch border. As a volunteer, you’ll suddenly find yourself in the middle of a whole new world. Regardless of the Eurocentric master’s degree in public policy I had in my pocket, I still knew nothing about the EU’s regional policies or its many cross-border investment programmes. It’s astounding how unaware I was of the existence of an entire policy area with significant financial and organisational capacities aimed directly at improving the quality of life and resilience of my own region. I started wondering: why did I not learn about the cohesion policy and regional policy in school? Why have I always lived with the idea that the EU floats high above the real, concrete world, while, in fact, it offers valuable tools for local or regional development? The simple answer to that question, I think, is that my teachers and the school management knew nothing about the topic either. EU policy-making is often reduced to a chapter or a section of a chapter in a high school’s civil studies book. And instead of focusing on policy areas that are especially relevant to the student, for example based on the region of the school or the student’s education package, the content can be dull and generic. As a result, many young Europeans perceive the EU as something distant, or, as we say in Dutch: “a far-from-my-bed-show”. As a volunteer for Interreg, I therefore felt especially motivated to contribute to a shift in the public perception of the EU as a Union that, at best, “listens” to its regions to a Union that is a true collective of regions.

How did you contribute to public awareness of your Interreg programme?

I don’t know if I’ve managed to deliver real impact myself, but at least I hope I’ve paved (part of) the way for other engaged young citizens to actively carry out the “Interreg-spirit”. In abstract terms, I’ve created a small network of people with knowledge and capacities that are relevant for communication purposes and delivered a “first experience” analysis on my volunteering activities. In more concrete terms, I’ve written dozens of articles about Interreg projects, given several guest lectures on high schools about EU solidarity and cohesion, and co-worked on a broad communication strategy in which university students will play a major role. Positive feedback coming from my own network, as well as from students, their parents and teachers give me the impression that the EU can gain ground by engaging young citizens in its communication strategy. I don’t believe that “citizens simply don’t want to be informed”. We just have to ask ourselves continually what kind of information is relevant for which target audience, and which medium can best be used to present information. For example, I believe that technical university students may be fascinated to learn about state-of-the-art technologies developed with European funds, while involved entrepreneurs and scientists might also be happy to present their work. Similar matches may exist between volunteers and high school or bachelor students, or between developers of health care innovations and residents of retirement homes. Information exchange, as such, becomes relevant and reliable; a matter of storytelling from one European citizen to another. Having an overview of many different EU-funded projects, IVY volunteers can play a huge role in creating and fostering such communication lines.

What did you get out of your volunteering experience?

Although it’s a lot of fun to dive into a world you knew very little about, it can be overwhelming at times. Thanks to my colleagues’ welcoming attitude, however, it was easy for me to learn about the rules and procedures of the programme as well as the content of the projects. Becoming part of a team –and the Interreg Vlaanderen-Nederland Joint Secretariat is a real team– is always a valuable human experience. I believe they felt the same way about me joining their organisation. After all, they’ve offered me the opportunity to stay on board a bit longer as a policy officer. This means I get to continue my learning-process in an entirely new back-office advisory and administrative role, while every now and then taking up my more familiar communication tasks. In retrospect, I can say that I am very grateful for the volunteering experience in itself, as well as the employment opportunity that it has brought me.

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