Erasmus and the historical roots of studying abroad

Histories behind students' educations in other countries

Larissa Borck (opens in new window) (Swedish National Heritage Board)

Since 1987, more than three million students have participated in the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme, spending some time studying in another EU country. However, students spending some of their education abroad is not a recent phenomenon. 

The Erasmus programme - now known as Erasmus Plus - has been running for more than two decades, facilitating students across the EU to study in another country.

For many European students, the Erasmus Programme is their first time living and studying in another country. The name is an acronym, deriving from EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. It is also named after Renaissance philosopher and Christian scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam.

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The Grand Tour

Grand Tourists like Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719) were an early example of travelling for educational purposes. Since the Peace of Münster in 1648 facilitated travelling more safely across Europe, it was popular among young nobles to tour around European countries for several centuries.

It was considered that travel and liberal education would open the minds of the youth. Important stations during their travel were amongst others Paris, Venice, Milan, Rome and the German-speaking countries.

During their travels, they took lessons in languages, arts and sports. As travelling was very expensive at that period, only noble families could afford a Grand Tour for their children. But some, like Joseph Addison and Finnish painter Alexander Lauréus, also found a rich sponsor.

Women's education

Most of the Grand Tourists were young men, as women were excluded from formal education for a long time. With the rise of feminism in the 19th century, women began to fight for their right to education - one of whom was Sophia Jex-Blake.

She was born in 1840 in England and visited several private schools. After her studies at Queen’s College in London, she travelled to the US to learn more about women’s education. Being in touch with one of the first female physicians, she started to wish to be a physician herself. She started working as an assistant in Boston but wanted to study medicine herself.

She wrote to the President of Harvard University, but the answer was: ‘There is no provision for the education of women in any department of this university’. After returning to the UK with an idea sparked, she fought all her life for her right to education. Her application to study at the University of Edinburgh was first rejected, but after a legal fight, she became one of the first female students to study there in 1869.

Despite this, she was not allowed to graduate in Scotland and was forced to travel to the University of Berne in Switzerland to finish her studies.

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Memories of studying abroad

For many, their years studying abroad remain a cherished memory for their whole life.

This certificate of Carl Frithiof Mattsson hung in his horologist’s workshop in Uppsala, Sweden for all his professional career from 1915 until 1949. It states that he has studied at the British Horological Institute from 1906 to 1907 and gives reference to his achievements. 

Students not only return to their home countries with new influences and ideas. They also left traces at their temporary homes.

An interesting example of international students' culture is this first edition of the newspaper ‘The Chinese Studen’ from 1921, edited by the Edinburgh Chinese Students’ Union. Until today, there is a non-profit organisation to help Chinese students in Edinburgh find their way.  

Erasmus in Rotterdam

A recent example for studying abroad was shared by Natasha at our Europeana Migration Collection Day in Brussels in March 2018.

Her mother is Danish and her father is Dutch. They met in Spain, and her father took his motorcycle from the Netherlands to Denmark to visit his future wife. From then on, he decided to stay. She herself grew up in Denmark and was then undertaking her Erasmus study in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

The reasons why she chose to study in Rotterdam over any other city are its similarity to Copenhagen as a maritime city as well as studying in the country her father is from.

She told us: 'I saw a nice quote that fits how I feel studying here in Rotterdam: ‘Heel de aarde is je vaderland’. The literal translation is that the whole world is your fatherland. Erasmus also uses the same quote and I feel as if this speaks to me as I am in my father's country and I do feel at home.'

EXPLORE MORE: Migration stories about studying abroad

Have you spent some time studying abroad? We'd love to hear your story - share it with Europeana Migration.