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A Campbeltown Grammar pupil had the ‘experience of a lifetime’ at the 2018 Euroscola in Strasbourg.
Rhona O’May, who is taking advanced higher French, was encouraged by her language teacher, Gerri McAnerney, to apply for the prestigious event and was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Campbeltown.
Euroscola enables high-school students from the 28 member states to become Members of the European parliament for a day.
They can debate and vote on resolutions and current affairs in the chamber of the European parliament in Strasbourg while practising language skills and meeting students from other states.
The 27 delegates from across Scotland met for the first time at Glasgow airport for the flight to Amsterdam.
They became acquainted during team building exercises before flying on to Basel.
The following morning they visited the Council of Europe, followed by a trip across the Pont de L’Europe for lunch in neighbouring Germany.
Rhona said: ‘There were so many firsts for me. I had never been on a plane before, or a ‘bendy bus’ or tram.
‘I didn’t realise trams went so fast. We had to hold on tight on the ride over the border into Germany.
‘We walked back, over the bridge into France and captured the moment on camera. It was an amazing experience.’
That afternoon Rhona took part in a street survey using her French language skills to check Strasbourg residents’ knowledge of Scotland.
She said: ‘We found that younger folk were more willing to take part in our survey and although most of them thought they knew the location of Scotland, some thought it was between England and Wales.
‘Most were able to name some Scottish towns and cities, with Edinburgh as the most popular answer, and everyone seemed to know that Scotland is famous for tartan and whisky,’ she added.
The following day was preparation day for the Euroscola.
The students prepared topics and questions for the parliamentary sessions, and took part in the Strasbourg Challenge, which included filming and editing a piece on a European topic.
Rhona’s group topic was tourism and she spoke on camera about Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre-Dame, which is known as one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in Europe.
On the day of the main Euroscola event, Edouard Martin MEP spoke in French to the 1,000 students. Delegates who wished could listen via headphones to a simultaneous translation in another European language.
Afterwards, delegates asked previously prepared questions to Monsieur Martin.
Rhona explained: ‘We sat in the MEPs’ seats with the same technology and pressed a buzzer to signal that we wanted to speak. But with around 1,000 delegates present, only a few were able to have their questions answered.’
Rhona said: ‘I was really impressed with the mature, insightful questions that students asked and I learned so much from the debate.’
Later, the delegates were separated into six groups to focus on different European topics.
Rhona explained: ‘My group was tasked with preparing and presenting an address on the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage using the question: “Can we promote the cultural diversity of Europe?”
‘We looked at how the cultural sector could be supported and helped to develop its full economic potential, and discussed what activities could be organised to promote intercultural dialogue and further EU international relations.
‘We chose a speaker to lead the discussion and to present our findings to the main parliament and answer any questions that arose. It was a daunting task to address such a large gathering in such an important venue, but our speaker, David, was great.’
Rhona continued: ‘At the end of each session, we voted electronically using smart cards just as the real MEPs do.
‘This was such an amazing opportunity for me,’ Rhona said. ‘Having participated in this conference, I feel so much more confident and better prepared for university.’
She added: ‘We were very aware that this experience will not be available to other UK pupils after Brexit, and that makes me sad.’
On being asked whether she felt that coming from a smaller school in a remote town made it more difficult compared to students from large cities, Rhona replied: ‘No. Quite the opposite in fact.
‘In Campbeltown everyone speaks to each other and we talk to the town’s visitors, so talking to new people was easier for me.
‘In large cities people tend not to speak to those they don’t know, so they were much more intimidated by that.’
She continued: ‘The whole experience was so exciting for me. It really was a case of ‘country comes to town’. Everything was bigger and faster, and so much was new for me. I was determined to make the most of every opportunity.
‘I loved Strasbourg. The air was so clean, unlike some other big cities with traffic congestion. The city centre just had public transport, push bikes and pedestrians. There was no smog. You could look up and see the stars.
‘I went to bed exhausted every night, but could hardly wait to get up and go the next morning, with so many new experiences ahead.’
Rhona explained that a ceilidh was scheduled for the last evening, but instead they sat and talked about how great the week had been.
But the Scots like to dance, so an impromptu ceilidh in Amsterdam airport as they waited for their flight home entertained other travellers, as the Gay Gordons was danced to music from a mobile phone played though a small speaker.
‘I keep in touch with some of the other Scottish delegates on social media,’ explained Rhona, ‘and we plan to meet up again.’
Rhona said thanks to Ms McAnerney for her encouragement, and to the Rotary Club for its financial support.
‘They gave me the opportunity of a lifetime,’ she said. ‘I will never forget it.’