Last February I went to Bucharest for a STSM aiming to explore the educational and organizational model of Alternative University (AU) of Romania. My expectations were high. I had met Traian Bruma – one of the founders of AU – a couple of months earlier and his enthusiastic presentation at a gathering at ISCSP in Lisbon caught my attention. Founded in 2008 aiming ‘simply’ to contribute to the happiness of Bucharest’s University students, AU (initially called CROSS) is a non-conventional project for higher education. Traian’s presentation at that gathering with a group of friends who shared a common worry about the Future of Universities went further beyond the presentation of AU’s project, yet my interest in knowing more about this Romanian University remained.
Even if not acknowledged by the public education system of Romania, over the last few years AU has grown in dimension and ambition. Assuming its own place as a non-conventional educational model, AU proved to be a successful and relevant project in the educational, social and entrepreneurship environments of Bucharest. In this short account we want to reflect on what makes it such a special example of both struggle and success.
Firstly, and in accordance to the initial vision of that small group of young students unsatisfied with Romanian higher education system, the focus of AU educational model is on human development in its various dimensions. That was probably the reason for its immediate success. The four main areas of training are Education, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, and Management, organized respectively as four main ‘communities of practice’, which allow students to learn by doing, in a close relationship with the professionals and professors of AU. In addition to this opportunity to learn directly from practitioners, what makes up for AU’s strength is also the existing programs and initiatives focused on self-development, awareness and civic engagement.
We focus pretty much on how people think of themselves and we offer them some life skills, experiences too, not only professional skills, and we try to encourage them to know themselves better, to understand how they relate to themselves and to the world. And this is a constant ping-pong between what you understand about yourself and how do you decide to use those ‘superpowers’ that you find within yourself and put them to something useful for the world. Corina Angelescu
As for the students I met, there is clearly a before and after Alternative University. Entering AU was a life-changing experience after twelve, sometimes fifteen years within the public system. AU’s curriculum in ‘life skills’ (which runs in parallel with the other four technical curricula) is one of the fundamental aspects leading to that transformative experience. The differences in between the two educational paradigms are such that, starting from a place of isolation, vocational disorientation and lack of autonomy, students end up being not only the protagonists of their own pathway of learning, but also potential agents of change in their surrounding environment.
The educational model is built around the individual needs of each student, and stands on three distinct though interconnected pillars and dimensions, which focus on the development of human potential. The first pillar is ‘Self-awareness’: students are encouraged to deal with their own individual needs, in order to design their path in learning and life, but also to address their main difficulties, insecurities and personal struggles. The second one ‘Building community’ aims at the development of competencies of the student to collaborate, get involved, and engage with common values and common purpose of a larger group of people. With the third one, ‘Acting for the world’, AU aims to encourage students to find their own place in their local communities and in the world, understanding the existing problems and how to contribute to address those challenges at a local scale, with a global mindset.
With this approach, AU intends to bring together, in an integrated process of learning, the personal route of individual awareness, the building of appropriate skills and competencies to engage in community building, ultimately motivating the student to actively assume its social and civic responsibility. To a certain extent we can say that the educational project of AU resonates with Fadel’s proposal on ‘Character Education’: “build a foundation for lifelong learning, support successful relationships at home, in the community, and in the workplace, and develop the personal values and virtues for sustainable participation in a globalized world” (Fadel et al., 2015: 81).
 Fadel, C., Bialik, M., & Trilling, B. (2015) Four-dimensional education: The competencies learners need to succeed. Center for Curriculum Redesign.