Erasmus is a scheme that began in the 1980's to help students to study abroad in the different countries of the European Union in the continued promotion of peace on the continent and to encourage learning about each other's language, culture, and traditions. Find out here about how I so did not want to do Erasmus and how afterwards, I knew it was the best decision I ever made.
"No, I will go away – only an hour away, but away, to Leeds, and that way I can still bring my washing home"
I hadn’t planned to go to university, I'd just get myself into a company and work my way up, the same way my parents did. Nobody else in my family had been to university and they'd done ok. Then, I spent a week in my mum’s company in the IT department and concluded I’d rather poke my eyes out than sit in front of a computer typing in the same set of numbers every day. When it came to university application, it turned out almost everyone in my year was applying so I came around to the idea that maybe I should take that path too. Study what you like, they said. That was easy then – languages and literature. But I'd stay at home. I wasn’t ready to go far away. I applied for three courses at Manchester, two at Leeds and one at Sheffield. For sure, I'd go to Manchester. Then, on the last day we had to put our first and second choices, I woke up in the morning and had some sort of epiphany: Nope, I will go away – only an hour away, but away, to Leeds, and that way I can still bring my washing home. And that was what I did. Leeds also allowed me to delay my decision of which two subjects to choose as I could do French, English Literature and German in equal amounts in the first year. This was how I came to find out about Erasmus.
"War is sweet to those who know it not".
Desiderius Erasmus was born in 1469 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands but over his lifetime he would spend time also in France, England, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland (Tracy, 2018). He is referred to in various biographies as a Catholic priest (Tracy, 2018), a theologian (English Bible History, 2016), a Renaissance thinker from way before the Renaissance and a humanist (Wolfe, 2012). He spent much of his life translating the New Testament of the Bible into Greek from Latin and is said to have built what is referred to as the ‘liberal tradition of European culture’ (Tracy, 2018). He studied and lectured at universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Bologna and must have known at least three languages (Dutch, Greek and Latin) but possibly also French, English and Italian (or whatever form of those languages there were in those early days). He believed strongly in the power of education and is quoted as having said, “The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth” (Goodreads, 2018). He is also famous for stating that whenever he had money, he would first spend it on books and if there was any left, he would buy food and clothes. His priorities were really quite clear. Erasmus was boldly critical of Christians and royalty who believed solutions lay in war and instead he advocated for education as the remedy to human ills. Though originally found in the writing of the Greek poet Pindar, Erasmus wrote in one of his texts, “War is sweet to those who know it not” (in Greek, γλυκύ δ᾽ἀπείρῳ πόλεμος). Perhaps we would do well to be reminded of those words today.
“I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger”, said Erasmus (Faludy, 1970). It is perhaps no surprise then that when the European Union decided in the 1980’s to set up a programme to help young people travel and study in its different nation states, Erasmus became the official face of the logo. The official title of the programme is EuRopean community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students and it enables students studying at any participating universities on the continent to spend 3 to 12 months at another university or in an affiliated traineeship and receive a grant towards paying for this. The idea behind it is to enable students to learn new languages, boost their employability and skills, promote equity and inclusion, and to bring young people together across the EU’s different countries to learn about each other and to continue together the relative peace we have now enjoyed for the past 70 years in Europe. In 2016, over 725,000 people took part in the Erasmus scheme either studying, doing training or volunteering in the 79,000 organisations that collaborate on the project (Erasmus+ Programme - Annual Report 2016). To give you an idea of how open this scheme is, see the story of 80 year old Miguel Castillo from Spain who became the oldest-ever Erasmus student, wanting to benefit from a scheme that wasn't available in his day, he declared to fellow Europeans of his age: "Don't lock yourself up at home, open up to the world, because we can contribute so much and can also receive a lot from society."
Lost in Deutschland
When I learned that as part of my degree of French and German (I dropped English Literature when I found my fellow students to be, let’s say, a bit too stuffy), I would have to spend one term abroad studying with the Erasmus scheme and another year studying or working in the other country, I tried to dream up every possible excuse for not going. But eventually, there was no excuse. If I didn’t go, I couldn’t pass my degree. Astrid, the German teacher at Leeds who I thought was quite nice told me that Tübingen in Germany would be a good place to go and Leeds had an affiliation with the university there. I looked on the internet and found pictures of strawberry pink houses with chocolate coloured roofs and gingerbread streets, weeping willows hanging over the river where people sat eating ice-creams and drinking beer. It looked idyllic, like a scene from a fairy tale. I would go there, and it would remain until this day the most beautiful place I have ever been. I went there with Moglie (meaning wife in Italian, so-called because years after the Erasmus trip we'd spend some time studying Italian in Florence, Italy where we coined the name for each other because we spent enough time together to be considered a married couple). She was a fellow blonde in the faculty, and we booked our plane tickets together, entirely clueless really of where we were going or what we were doing. We hadn’t even thought as far as the train station where we discovered we couldn’t lug our huge suitcases and bags up the stone steps and were extremely relieved when a local guy offered to help us. Pulling those bags over the cobbled stones of Tübingen was no small feat either as we wandered lost looking for somewhere to find food with everywhere shut because it was Easter weekend. We remained lost for most of our stay.
Needless to say, our Erasmus experience was definitely difficult. In fact, I can probably say it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But it gave me a freedom ticket that I’ve enjoyed ever since because it taught me that I could live in other countries. After Erasmus, I went on to live in two different places in France, a year and a summer in Italy, spent a significant amount of time training and travelling in Greece, and just this year I returned to a different part of France with my family. I have no doubt in my mind that if I hadn’t done Erasmus during my degree, I never would have had the confidence to live beyond England.
"Erasmus inevitably and positively shapes your life forever after"
So, what is the Erasmus scheme like? Well, you can get a good idea from a documentary called Erasmus 24/ 7 (full documentary here) which follows a group of Erasmus students in 7 different European cities. The fact the opening scenes begin with beer bottles strewn around student halls gives you an idea of one of the main elements of Erasmus – partying. The ideal Erasmus is perhaps best depicted in 'l’auberge Espagnole', one of my favourite films. It shows the innocence and the ignorance we hold before we depart. It talks of the paperwork hurdles to first jump over, leaving behind the boyfriend or girlfriend, the stereotypes of the European characters, the emotional rollercoaster of experiences, the confusion caused when struggling to communicate in foreign languages and the difficulty of finding a place to stay. I watched this film and cringed when I saw myself in Wendy, the English girl who, whenever anyone had a problem in the story, she would offer them a cup of tea. Well, a cup of tea is the answer to everything, right? For me, I think the most striking part of the film is the end, the part when you return home and it’s only then that you really appreciate what you had. It is then that the post-Erasmus blues properly kick in as you begin to realise that home has stayed exactly as it was before you left, but you have changed in so many ways you can’t even explain. Erasmus inevitably and positively shapes your life forever after.
For more accounts of Erasmus experiences and useful tips if you're about to embark on one, try the links below:
Guardian article: 'It helped me grow up': students on why the Erasmus scheme must stay.
Europa EU Youth: How Erasmus changed my life?
European Commission Erasmus+: The plus of Erasmus+
Desiderius Erasmus. (2018). Wikiquotes. Available at:
Erasmus+ Programme - Annual Report. (2016). Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/erasmus-plus/about/statistics_en
Erasmus. (2016). English Bible history: Erasmus. Available at:
Goodreads. (2018). Erasmus Quotes. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/706620.Erasmus
Tracy, J. (2018). Desiderius Erasmus Biography. Britannica. Available at:
Wolfe, G. (2012). Erasmus is an eel: Renaissance humanist hero. Available at: https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/erasmus-is-an-eel-renaissance-humanist-hero/