For my STEP Signature Project, I enrolled myself in a study abroad course through OIA, which was a one-month long May-Semester history course that I would take in entirely Corfu, Greece. While taking this course, I would also interview the other American students with me as well as the locals of the island in order to learn about how American views on life differ from those of Greek people, as well as learn more about the human condition to my own satisfaction.
I learned quite a few things about myself and about the wider world during my time in Greece. One of the major things I learned while I was in Corfu was how multiculturalism exists in this particular town as opposed to how it does here in America (or at least in what I see on campus, around Columbus, and at home). While there, I was often running into others throughout the main town on the island that were from another part of the world. In fact, I interacted with people from Germany, Austria, Britain, Poland, Italy, Russia, Americans and – of course – Greeks. I did not have very long conversations with some of them (and some did not know English, but I could speak to them through those that did), but it was very clear that on this island it is quite easy to participate in cultural exchanges. In my opinion, this stands in contrast to Columbus, as well as my own Ohioan hometown and much of the USA, where becoming engaged in conversations with foreigners or people of a different culture, and then being able to talk to them about differences in culture in constructive manners requires significantly more effort. What I mean by this is that here in the states you would need to seek such people out, and would then need to handle cultural questions with (again, in my opinion) less delicately than in Corfu. Overall, this difference in the level of effort that is needed in cross-cultural exchanges really emphasized to me how little I understand other cultures. For example, when I asked locals about the refugees that still live in camps in Greece, the responses that I received implied that this problem is being handled properly and that there are few issues (if any) with the camps that have a large impact on everyday life for most people in Greece. This is not something I expected to hear, judging from the reporting done on this issue here in the states.
My interactions with the other American students taking this OIA study abroad course also emphasized how I previously have failed to give sufficient appreciation to other lifestyles and cultures here in the United States. Most of the students that I was with were a part of Greek Life at OSU, and – for some that wanted to share – their parents were also part of Greek Life when they went to college. These students’ lifestyle, I believe, should be described as “work hard, play harder.” I knew that such people would have such a lifestyle – and worldview to match – in the abstract intellectual sense because of what I picked up and overheard during my time at OSU. However, after spending nearly a month with the other students, I realized that I did not give sufficient emphasis to how much hard work and feeling that they put in to their Chapter’s respective daily activities (namely their councils and their work with charity organizations) or to how much care was put into their early career choices. I also feel like I need to say that I consider what I learned about Greek Life students to be of importance to my STEP project (and therefore include it here) because of just how important this lifestyle was to most of the other American students on this study abroad experience.
My realization of how I was still lacking in my appreciation for foreign cultures and multiculturalism started to dawn on me within a few days of my arrival in Corfu. When I first mentioned that I was going to Corfu for a month to one of the local elders in my congregation, he thought it would be a good idea to look up where the local Kingdom Hall on this island was so that I could go there when I had the time. In order to get to my usual church meetings at that church in Corfu, I had to take two buses and walk for about 10 minutes in order to reach the correct church (the first time, that is). I had also decided well before I left that I would use my experiences with the people in this congregation to help me for this project. On my first visit, people local to the area, as well as a middle-aged vacationing couple from Austria and a group of four older women from Wales who were also on vacation, both of whom were also trying to make their church meetings while in Greece, greeted me. After the meeting (which was in English), a local couple took the other foreigners and myself on a tour of the main town (which I had yet to tour completely through the study abroad). Over the next few weeks, I learned firsthand that this particular congregation has a continuous stream of vacationing individuals from all over the European Union coming to their meetings. This particular phenomenon stood out to me because I cannot recall an equivalent experience of cross-cultural contact here in the US, nor could I imagine this happening in daily life to those that I know here or to myself.
Additionally, by going on this study abroad experience and by spending time with both the locals as well as with the other students, I was able to try out a style of living that I had previously not attempted to live – that is – a lifestyle where spending recreational time with others in a social setting takes high priority. For instance, the locals invited me to their houses to have dinner with them or go out to dinner on quite a few occasions (a few times a week, actually). I spent this time learning about local dishes (my personal favorite being Saganaki: fried cheese with pita bread and lemon) as well as engaged in conversations that most of the time consisted of learning the differences in lifestyle between different countries. During many of these conversations, I was also with others from other European Union countries, primarily the UK, and so I came to learn not only about Greek culture but also a larger European culture. For example, some of the things we talked about were how Greek foods typically have very few preservatives in them, as opposed to British and American foods, as well as how important the concept of “Greek hospitality” is very important to them (as noted by my failed attempts to pay for their food). In a similar way, the other OSU students also helped me to get out of my social bubble and would often invite me to meals or exploring the island with them. By doing these things, I gained an even greater appreciation for the need for communication between people that have different cultures and even different lifestyles within that culture.
Considering the OSU students specifically, I can recall a particular conversation that I had with the other students while I was on a tour boat ride with a few of them, which I think was one of the more memorable conversations that I had with them while I was in Corfu. They had started talking about some aspects of life in their various Greek Life Chapters, and were particularly emphasizing how difficult it was to maintain and justify their Chapter’s persona and outwards appearance to those in charge of keeping the reins on their organizations, both here at OSU and at other universities. Specifically, they found it challenging to keep their positive image going when problems would arise at other unrelated Chapters in other universities. At this point, I felt inclined to start asking questions about how they felt about rules governing Greek Life (mainly country-wide rules for Chapters) as well as about how their Chapter’s community enrichment activities influences them. From their responses, I realized that the students with me and those like them are quite similar not only to myself but also to those that fall into many “normal” social groups. This was interesting to me because this conversation about the difficulties of being a fraternity or sorority student blew away many of the preconceived notions that I had about these students, and gave me a newfound respect for them.
During my time in Greece, I realized how little those I am typically around here in the states or I myself truly understand other cultures due to our lack of exposure to them. At the same time, I learned about some of the misconceptions that I myself had about Greek life and culture. For example, the US media insisted on Greeks not being hardworking compared to other national groups during the Greek financial crisis. However, I learned through observation that the typical Greek has greater pride in their work than would a typical American doing the same job, but at the same time expect long and frequent breaks. Similarly, I learned about my misconceptions about fraternity/sorority life and culture, and in doing so was able to change my views to match reality.
In these realizations, I have achieved my goal for this project of becoming better able to empathize with others, as well as to learn more about the human condition. Furthermore, the time that I spent walking around this island of Corfu also helped me to realize just how much I enjoy small-town living. Over the course of the month that I spent in Corfu, the locals that I came to know and become friends with as well as the rest of the community helped me to realize that I would love to live in a community with a small-town feel when I finally have a steady career and living arrangements. This was quite a realization to me, as I have not felt like I wanted my life to take a particular course in this respect since starting college, other than a strong will to learn about others and the world around me.