Over the next few weeks, you can join Job on his peregrinations in the new series ‘In search of Erasmus’: a tour of modern-day Europe with Erasmus as a guide. In his fourth story, he meets ‘Mamma Erasmus’: 82-year-old Sofia Corradi, the spiritual mother of the successful European exchange programme.

EM_Op_Zoek_kaart Rome

Sometimes you meet people who seem to have a story about them. Their eyes seem to project an amazing film to you. Their smile makes you long to hear a silly joke, their voice keeps you enthralled. I had such a meeting on a weekday evening in Rome.

That defenceless, captivated feeling – one I recognise from moments when I fall head over heels in love – overcame me when I met Sofia Corradi. Over the course of three hours, the 82-year-old founder of the Erasmus exchange programme captured my heart via my head: not as a lover, but as Mamma Erasmus. Over a glass of wine, I listened to several chapters from the life story of the woman who introduced millions of students to Europe.

Sofia Corradi in haar woonkamer; het schaaltje dat zij vasthoudt kreeg Job mee als aandenken. Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

The mother of 5 million students

An important chapter from Sofia Corradi’s life is the Erasmus exchange programme. For thirty years, the European study grant has allowed people to study, work or do voluntary work abroad and has become a very successful project: around 5 million Europeans have already taken part in the programme which has a budget of 15 billion euros. Sofia, professor emeritus of Permanent Education at Roma Tre University became inspired after a period studying in America and has been promoting exchange programmes since the 1960s. As the spiritual mother of the Erasmus programme, students affectionately call her ‘Mamma Erasmus’. Last year, the Spanish king presented her with the prestigious Carlos V award for her contribution to European integration and education.

However, the name of the exchange programme has very little to do with Rotterdam’s Desiderius Erasmus, Sofia confesses: “I have to disappoint you. Erasmus stands for ‘European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students’”. Nevertheless, she rates Desiderius very highly: “You shouldn’t read The Praise of Folly before going to bed, as you won’t stop laughing.” She remembers a conversation she had in 1986, just before the introduction of the Erasmus programme, with the former rector magnificus of Erasmus University in which he told her about a telephone call he’d received from the European Commission. “They asked him if they could use the name Erasmus. We all know what he replied.”

Sofia bij de uitreiking van de prestigieuze Carlos-V-award, die eerder werd uitgereikt aan o.a. Michail Gorbatsjev en Helmut Kohl. Image credit: Eigen archief Sofia Corradi

The Erasmus generation

The name may not refer to the philosopher himself, but after the introduction of the Erasmus programme, a European movement emerged which truly reflected the spirit of his thinking. People even refer to the Erasmus experience and generation. The Italian author Umberto Eco saw the birth of the first generation of young Europeans from the Erasmus programme: “I call it a sexual revolution: they fall in love, get married and become European, as do their children.”

Sofia’s eyes sparkle at the mention of the side effects of the Erasmus experience: “Besides the 5 million Erasmians, there are one million Erasmus babies, including a number of Erasmo’s, but I’ve also met pregnant former Erasmus students who told me that they were going to call their daughter Sofia. Not even my own daughter has ever said that to me!” Excitedly, she continues: “For a woman of my age, there’s no better feeling than being called mamma by millions of young people, let alone when children are named after you.”

Het kantoor van Erasmus Student Network in Venetië, lokale vertegenwoordiger Lina helpt de Britse Erasmusstudent Danny. Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

Erasmian dreaming

That same optimism returns when we talk about the consequences of exchange programmes. ‘Erasmus’ not only ensures that the study period abroad is officially recognised, but it also creates a form of European citizenship, Sofia claims: “No Erasmian is against Europe. Obviously, they understand that not everything is perfect; it’s a human concept, a project, but that’s why it’s important that we work for a better Europe.” Sofia also reminds me that the heart of the Erasmus programme is not intended to teach a particular profession: “The programme is about making young people world citizens, citizens who value education and mutual understanding.”

Sofia is convinced that the Erasmus programme is on the right track to achieve its goal. Even in her wildest dreams, she couldn’t have hoped that ‘Erasmus’ would have been so successful, but not all her dreams have been fulfilled yet: “My dream is that Erasmus and a good education will one day be available to everyone. And I hope that one day we will learn how talent can best be discovered, and what’s necessary to enable someone to truly fulfil their potential.”

After finishing my wine, I round off the conversation. “I’m so glad I am able to experience all of this,” says Mamma Erasmus when I say goodbye to her in the doorway. As I put my coat on, I taste the wine in my mouth. “Me too”, I dreamily reply. Now I’m under the wings of the one and only Mamma Erasmus, I decide to continue my European journey.

In my next story, you will meet the Erasmus generation, which is not limited to exchange students. For example, I talk to a Cambridge professor who discovered a piece of Erasmus, a Syrian refugee who decided to return to his homeland, and a student who consciously and unconsciously carries Erasmus with her.