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Alumni Shocked By Britain's Decision To Leave Student Exchange Program

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

For more than 30 years, students across Europe have taken advantage of an exchange program called Erasmus. But British students are now out of luck. The United Kingdom's government has decided to leave the program. Rebecca Rosman reports.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: When he was studying in the United States, Conor Keenan quickly became known by his American peers as the European.

CONOR KEENAN: People would often be asking me what's Paris like or what's Brussels - you know, have you ever been to Germany? And I had never really been east of London.

ROSMAN: So he decided to change that. Keenan, who is from Northern Ireland, signed up for an Erasmus volunteer program in Luxembourg. That's where he met Raquel Rodrigues from Portugal.

RAQUEL RODRIGUES: I think I met Conor when I arrived, maybe the day after I arrived.

ROSMAN: Today, they're married with two kids. Keenan says, well, there is literally no other way to say it.

KEENAN: I wouldn't be sitting beside this beautiful woman otherwise, and there wouldn't be two children who can speak English and Portuguese in this house otherwise. So we live the legacy, I suppose, every day, you know?

ROSMAN: But babies are only one part of the Erasmus legacy. It has become one of the EU's most successful forms of soft power - an exchange of cultures, languages and ideas made accessible to all Europeans. Although students in Northern Ireland can still study under the program, for other British citizens, it's now just another item on a long list of things they're being shut out of post Brexit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: On Erasmus, it was a tough decision.

ROSMAN: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in late December that the Erasmus exchange was too expensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: So what we're doing is producing a U.K. scheme for students to go around the world.

ROSMAN: Johnson says the Turing Scheme, named for the mathematician Alan Turing, will save the U.K. $25 million and support 35,000 British students to study abroad every year. But critics call the new program one-sided.

THERESA REINTKE: I think what the U.K. is going to miss out on is really this idea of exchange and building bridges.

ROSMAN: Terry Reintke is a German member of European Parliament. She'd been campaigning - so far unsuccessfully - to let students from Scotland and Wales continue to participate in Erasmus. Both countries voted against Brexit in the U.K.'s referendum in 2016. Reintke says her campaign is influenced by her own experience. She spent a year studying in Scotland with Erasmus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

ROSMAN: One of the things she loved the most - live folk music.

REINTKE: This, for me, was something that I enjoyed so much. And I'm really still missing it today, you know, because I think in mainland Europe, it's not so common to have that.

ROSMAN: One of Boris Johnson's criticisms of Erasmus was that twice as many European students came to the U.K. compared to British students studying abroad. But Conor Keenan says that really isn't the point.

KEENAN: They brought new ideas and new accents and new languages and the world will be a bit less colorful without it for sure.

ROSMAN: Keenan says the diversity of those European students coming to the U.K. enriched the communities they lived in and the organizations they worked for. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Bologna, Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "THUNDER RISING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.