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For our third edition of the 25th Anniversary portraits we delved deep into the history of both the Erasmus programme and ESN, and thus had the pleasure to interview Désirée Majoor. Désirée was one of the first ever Erasmus students who went abroad in 1987, but she was also the first ever President of ESN. Thus, in this interview we had a chance to understand both how the exchange experience influenced Désirée and also how ESN was built up from the discussions of a few former Erasmus students in the late 1980s.
Désirée Majoor is currently working as the Faculty Dean at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. She has held the position for a total of five years and is responsible for over 4500 students that are studying in academic fields related to Communication and Journalism. Before, working at the University of Applied Sciences, Désirée worked at the School of Arts in the same city and also Utrecht University, so she has the full-set you could say, of working at universities in Utrecht. What has linked all jobs has been that they have all been management positions, which is very much linked to the experience that Désirée gained from ESN and her Erasmus experience which she viewed as being something like a traineeship.
Back in the 1980s, Désirée was a student at the University of Utrecht reading for a degree in theatre studies and she was deeply interested and involved in the arts in general. She remembers these times fondly and said that Theatre studies in the 80’s was a fun period! It was whilst studying for her Masters that Désirée was presented with the option to take part in the newly-founded Erasmus programme, an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. The chance for her to go to Bologna, Italy and do her Masters Research into the Historical reception of theatre was a match made in heaven. She was looking at how audiences at the turn of 20th Century (during the Interbellum) responded to theatre, with a focus on The Futurists. Whilst on exchange she had the chance to get face-to-face with the documents from the period, by delving into the archives in both Bologna and Fiorenze and gathering data from the newspapers, reviews and journals of the period. She spent around 9 months in Bologna from November 1987, short of a year due to the later start of the academic year in Italy.
Following her successful and enriching time abroad, Désirée returned home, but her involvement in the Erasmus Programme was far from done. Since she was in the 1st year of Erasmus, she was invited with 25-30 other students from across Europe to Gent to take part in an evaluation of the Erasmus Programme at these early stages. The students gathered in Gent for a two-day-meeting to share their opinions, experiences and ideas with the universities and institutions involved in the implementation of the programme. But, it was in the evening when the students had the chance to relax and discuss together that they decided to create a network based on the principle of ‘students helping students’ (SHS). Their personal experiences of exchange and also of the two-day-meeting all led them to believe that they could look at solving problems at the student level, rather than just those in Brussels.
There were two key ideas which they believed would be the basic of this European network they had envisioned. On the practical level, they wanted to develop a Buddy System to help incoming students integrate into their host community. Then on the more theoretical and policy level, they wanted to help the programme develop and give regular input to the all the stakeholders representing the student voice. Furthermore, they got a boost from Brussels as they made it clear that they would support the idea. So with the wind in their sails, and ideas in the head, Désirée with a team of seven students drew up the proposal for this organization and also received financial backing from the Commission for the first ever meeting, or AGM shall we call it, where Désirée was chosen as the first ever President of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). Personally, Désirée was involved in the establishment of both ESN as an international entity and ESN Utrecht. She drew up the proposal for the organization and managed to gain support from the University of Utrecht, who had long since been a supporter of exchange programmes and the internationalization of education. Furthermore, she was a ‘born organiser’ and such tasks interested her greatly.
Throughout the year, Désirée and her team set about starting ESN sections around Europe to put their ideas into action, and this saw sections spring up in Utrecht, Brussels, Lille and Copenhagen. However, when pressed on which section was the first ever, Désirée said that this was not important, what they wanted was to focus on spreading the news about this new network and to start new sections in as many cities as possible. After one year they had established 10 sections and within 3 years this had grown to 25.
Fast forward almost 20 years and Desiree found herself at the AGM Utrecht celebrating the 20th Anniversary of ESN and she said it was a beautiful result to see how ESN has evolved. Seeing the practical actions and results of so many sections showed to her how powerful an idea can be. For Désirée, the power of exchange has always been the personal experiences and personal stories and the added value that it brings to people’s lives. Also, she thinks that the social aspect of Erasmus should keep being promoted, the cultural value of exchange, the chance to meet new people, new countries and new languages are vital for people in Europe getting to know and understanding each other. Désirée feels that in the current economic situation the focus of the Erasmus programme is more towards employability which is necessary in these times, but we should still remember the cultural value of exchange and how it will and has contributed to a better Europe.
Written by Leo Smith