Spanish 80-year-old snags Erasmus study grant, packs his bags for Italy

History student Miguel Castillo has a quadruple bypass but promises to try to party like the youngsters

Miguel Castillo, 80, will travel to Italy on an Erasmus grant.
Miguel Castillo, 80, will travel to Italy on an Erasmus grant.Mònica Torres
Ignacio Zafra

Miguel Castillo is getting a university degree in history, and on Monday of next week he will travel to Italy on the Erasmus student exchange program. Oh, and he is 80 years old.

Castillo is a retired notary public with a wife, three daughters and six grandchildren. He is also something of a celebrity at the Valencia University History School. Janitors are on hand to help him find a room where he can talk to the media: reporters are standing in line for a chance to interview him. Professors on their way to class stop to greet him. And fellow students congratulate him for having won an Erasmus scholarship to go study in Verona, Italy.

Castillo realized that farming was in fact a lot tougher than studying

A fellow student who is also retired sees him in the hallway and asks: “How did you get up the nerve to do this? I thought about it too, but you know why I didn’t? Because I was embarrassed to go to the student affairs office to ask.”

Castillo was not embarrassed. He applied for the grant, which lets recipients take courses in another European university. And he did it for the same reason that he decided to get a degree in history after suffering a heart attack and getting a quadruple bypass.

“Shortly after recovering, I told myself: ‘I would like to do something other than the classic napping.’ I had always had an interest in history. I am interested in all of it, but especially contemporary history,” he says.

Typical Erasmus students are in their early twenties.
Typical Erasmus students are in their early twenties.M. Zarza

Now, Castillo considers himself just another regular student. He goes to class, exchanges notes with his classmates, asks for help, and offers help when required. “I feel welcome, age is not a problem,” he notes.

He has been getting passing grades in nearly all his courses. “Not all though, because my age and my family duties don’t let me follow the regular pace,” he confesses. And by duties, he means taking care of his grandchildren.

“They are going to miss me, but at the same time they are glad to see that their grandpa has this desire for self-improvement.” In fact, family members are already making plans to go visit him in Italy.

The octogenarian is aware that the Erasmus grant is known to students as much for the parties as for the study program, and he jokes about it: “I will attempt, insofar as my own limitations allow me, to follow in the footsteps of those who came before me. But keep in mind that my wife will be there with me, and we will be living in an apartment. Attending the school dorm pajama party would be a little odd at our age.”

Law, farming, law

Castillo was born in 1937, in the Valencian town of Llíria, to a family of farmers. As a young man he would take the train to Valencia every morning to attend high school, where he got good grades. He then started to study for a law degree, but flunked all his exams and dropped out. He spent a year out in the fields with his father, and realized that farming was in fact a lot tougher than studying. So he packed his bags once again, and moved to Barcelona to take up law one more time.

Attending the school dorm pajama party would be a little odd at our age

Miguel Castillo, 80

Back in high school he’d played in the Valencia CF junior leagues. In Barcelona, Castillo was signed by CD Fabra i Coats, one of the teams that eventually merged into Barça B. His salary as a soccer player and what he earned tutoring students paid his tuition fees. Before becoming a notary, he taught at Barcelona University and spent two months in Rome and Bologna, where he learned some Italian – which he is now catching up on as fast as he can.

Castillo is also a big fan of music who is an annual subscriber to Barcelona’s Palau de la Música and Valencia’s Palau de les Arts. He was once in the Italian city of Verona to hear the famous soprano Maria Callas sing. A hotel now awaits him and María Luisa Alamá, a retired nurse who became his second wife five years ago. Soon after they arrive, they will move into an apartment in the city that was the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

English version by Susana Urra.

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