Megan Levis is an Ambassador who studied abroad in Rome and Greece.
Briefly describe a specific cultural experience you had on your trip that made a lasting impression.
When I think of Greece, images of the Acropolis, white buildings with blue domes, and long last names come to mind. But one of the biggest parts of Greek culture is the olive. Just driving around the country the amount of olive trees is overwhelming. While living there, I was one of the students lucky enough to participate in harvesting olive trees at a local olive orchard. Christos, the bus driver for our school, and his family owned the grove and one Saturday we were invited to go there and help them. Upon arrival we were greeted with hugs and kisses by Christos's mother, or Mamma Christos, as she told us to call her. Actually, as she did not speak a word of English and our Greek was still only at the "Hello, my name is..." stage, our conversations mostly consisted of lots of nodding, smiling and hugs, and it was Christos that told us we could call her Mamma. None of this stopped her, or the rest of his family, though from welcoming us to their home with open hearts and big smiles. Even though we were all complete novices at using the tools and were worn out fast (raking tree branches for olives is hard work), they were always happy to help us. I knew hospitality was a major part of Greek society, but I had never seen it in action before, and definitely not at such an extreme level. I left that day with a lot more than just a bottle of homemade olive oil and a full stomach of Greek barbeque. I saw a rustic way of Greek life, and how hard they have to work at keeping those fields and producing a good product, and most importantly I saw the foundation of Greek culture: the family.
Why did you choose the program in which you participated?
Since age ten I had known that I wanted to study abroad. Raised by parents who had both lived for years in other countries, I had heard countless accounts of their adventures, friends, and experiences. That desire to expand my horizons was actually one of the main determinants for which college I attended and CSB/SJU answered that call perfectly. I believe that in order to actually understand yourself and the world around you, you need to live outside of your comfort zones. I did that when I decided to come to an out of state school, and move to a place where I only knew one person within a seventy mile radius. It was one of the best decisions of my life and I knew choosing to study abroad would result in the same happiness. In all honesty, this type of opportunity is very rare and I knew if I missed it, I would regret it for a very long time.
Choosing the Roman-Greco program was both difficult and simple for me. Paradoxical, I know, but while I knew it offered exactly what I wanted I could barely pick between all of the amazing places that CSB/SJU offers. In the end, though, the siren call of Rome and Athens was too much, and they fit perfectly into my course schedule, fulfilling many of my core requirements. Beyond that logistical fact, though, they offered me something I have always dreamed of: a chance to see the places that have always held an astronomical amount of fascination for me. Both Rome and Athens have histories that span the centuries and even though I am only a history minor, mythology and the study of their ancient civilizations is one of the most interesting types of subject matter. I had been to Rome previously for two days, and I knew it was not enough so the thought of returning, and getting the chance to explore Greece was all I needed to convince me that this was the program for me.
Describe your overall study abroad experience.
Spectacular. Amazing. Epic. Nothing really seems to do it justice, but that is a question I have faced since I stepped back onto campus. Each time, I struggle to come up with a sentence or two that really expresses the joy I felt while on the trip. And every time I end up stuttering synonyms of those listed above. Of the few things I can tell them definitely, one would be that no matter how much work it requires, this opportunity is worth it. Through all the hectic essay writing, nerve-wracking interviews, and anxious periods of waiting, it is the best thing you can do for yourself here.
Something else would be that through this experience I met some of the best people and they have thankfully become some of my closest friends. It was the people who I shared this time with that truly made it all of the extraordinary things it was. Spending almost every waking minute with the same thirty people for over four months sounds like it could get mundane or boring, but really it just allowed us to deepen bonds of friendship. We saw each other at our worst and best and there are no other people on this planet who can truly grasp the significance of my time in Europe. This is not just referring to the other students on the trip either. I was lucky enough to have a great director who enhanced my cultural experience and professors who gave me some of the most memorable lessons and trips I have ever had. The local people are all nice and if you make an effort, they will also make an impact on your life.
Mostly, my experience was a whirlwind. I think back and am flabbergasted at how quickly time passed while there. One minute I was in Rome, the next in Athens, I explored Ireland and Turkey for a few seconds and then, somehow, I ended up back home. I truly miss it, and though I am glad to be home again, my experience last semester is really only the beginning.
How has the trip affected you? How are you different for having completed the experience?
As I reflect on my time abroad, it is difficult to truly articulate the effects it had on me. The entire time I was there, there was never one point that I could extract and say "There! That's when I became a different person!" However, returning home has brought instances of sudden awareness that something has changed within me. Possibly, it is the realization that I just spent over four months on my own, in a world completely different from one that I am used to. There is something incredibly powerful about such a complete state of independence. Yes, I traveled with other students, and was part of a program, but everything I chose to do was entirely my decision. This fact alone affected my entire experience abroad. I knew that the success of this trip (though I feel guilty about even calling this marvelous time a mere "trip") totally depended on how I decided to use the time that had been given me. Whether through travelling, exploring the sites of the city, tasting the scrumptious cuisine, or bonding with those around me, I was able to grow as a person by interacting with the environment surrounding me. I think it is that realization that has really shaped who I am now that I am back on campus. Many times it is easy to get caught up in what I like to think of as "Bennie-Johnnie-Land" and I forget there is a world outside of St. Joseph and Flynntown. Between homework, classes, and school activities I often lose sight of the big picture. However, with studying abroad fresh in my mind, it is now much more important for me to keep that sense of adventure alive. While I may not be fifteen minutes away from the Colosseum or ten from the Acropolis, there is so much I have not done in my own backyard. Even with mountains of homework and different responsibilities now, the attitude that studying abroad instilled in me, the one that explored culture with endless curiosity and would try anything new, is still operating. It is not always easy to continue, but I know from experience it is worth it.
What advice do you have for future Study Abroad Students?
Keep an open mind. There is only so much packing and planning you can do before leaving. Obviously, you should prepare (try to learn a little of the language before leaving- even if it is not a requirement!), but it is almost impossible to anticipate all of the amazing things you will experience once you embark on your journey. Try your best to immerse yourself in the culture surrounding you. Travel, meet new people, and really try to bond with those around you because they will become some of the closest friends you have. Do not expect everything to go perfectly, but try to look on the bumps of traveling and being on your own as new adventures and challenges. Do not get hung up on the little things and just live in the moment- even something horrendous at the time can transform itself into a memorable time (just ask me about the time I accidentally train-hopped in Italy). Truthfully, your experience abroad is all up to you and what you make of it.