My STEP project was the Engineering of Ancient Greece program, a 12-day education abroad program in Greece. The program was May 12th through May 23rd with a 3-credit hour ENGR 5797.18 class taught in English as pre-departure course held at OSU. The week and a half in Greece consisted of traveling to notable engineering sites built anywhere from 500 BCE to 1600 CE. The pre-departure class had group presentations on culture and other important information involved in visiting Greece as well as individual presentations on specific historical sites we visited.
A huge and controversial issue currently in Greece is the influx of Syrian Refugees and immigrants due to the Syrian Civil War. Not only was there a sizable Syrian refugee population but also refugees from other African countries. This was especially apparent in Athens where an incredibly large number of people were homeless and on the streets begging. Seeing this really had a large impact on me. This was not the first time I had witnessed this issue, as downtown Columbus and Cleveland have homeless populations, but the size and scope of displaced people in Athens blew my mind. The unemployment rate in Greece is estimated at 20%, which is staggering percentage compared to U.S. unemployment, which usually hovers around 4%. The Greek government-debt crisis continues to hinder the Greek government’s ability to remedy the situation. Without funding for social programs, such as unemployment benefits and welfare, many Grecian residents have also lost everything. The combination of the refugee and the economic crises left Athens in chaos. I could not turn a corner without encountering a guilt-filled pandering.
From my safe “cocoon” in the United States, I read about these monumental problems facing the Greeks, but the information minimal effect on me. Obviously, the United States has a significantly more stable economy and social programs to combat unemployment. Moreover, our country’s immigration policy and border security keep the refugee population in check. During the course of my trip, however, the stark difference in overall quality of life between me and many of the Greeks was disturbingly apparent. As a Christian, it is very hard for me to see the helplessness of so many of the people around me. My inability to truly assist the homeless and refugee people was incredibly troubling. While giving a few euros to people on the street may help in the short term, it is not a viable long-term solution. I would often see the same beggars using their few euros to purchases cigarettes and alcohol instead of food or other necessities. It was hard for me to not be judgmental about their purchases because I honestly cannot relate to the mental and physical stress many of these people face every day. This trip greatly increased my gratefulness to be an American and to have a stable life back in Ohio. The poverty of Athens put many of my own perceived problems and stress into a new perspective. Everything back in the US seems so minimal compared to struggles of so many people in Athens.
I owe much of this transformation to the interactions I had with locals in the cities we visited. I mostly interacted with people in the service industry: bartenders, waiters/waitresses and tour guides. These people were always willing to discuss their thoughts on both Greek and American politics and society. Everyone I talked to was incredibly friendly and open to my questions; my new Greek friends practiced their English while we discussed the similarities and differences between our cultures.
Two of our many tours guides were non-Greek natives. The first woman was an amazing tour guide we had on the island of Samos. She was born and raised in Australia and is an archeologist until the Greek Economic Crisis of 2007. Currently, she still lives on the island but gives guided tours of many of the amazing historical sites on Samos. It was crazy that such a highly educated and skilled professional cannot perform her job in such a historically rich area because of the poor economy. The fact that the economy has not recovered even after ten years after the initial recession was shocking. Nevertheless, our guide was optimistic about the future and hopes to return to working on archeological sites within the next year. She gave us extraordinary insight on the impact of the economy on a non-native. The second tour guide in Ikaria is a Chicago born woman who currently lives on the island and has two sons. She gave us a similar story and insight as the first tour guide, but I was very interested to see the similarities of the economic impact on the lives of people across the entire country.
The most impactful interaction I had was with a hotel bartender named Christopher. Christopher is incredibly friendly and relatable. A group of us talked to him for about two hours during our one night in Athens; it was an amazing experience. Christopher is a 26-year-old native Athenian, who did not shy away from talking about Greek politics and their economy with us. We shared details and thoughts on each other’s political figures, society and economy. The opportunity to openly talk with a native was an extraordinary experience. What surprised me most was the incredibly low salary he receives and the government tax on cars. Not only does collect a minimal paycheck, Christopher shared that only the American tourists tip. In addition, the government tax on cars is enacted on each household based on the number and type of cars they have. Christopher said an exorbitant amount of his salary goes to his car; either in gas, maintenance, or the end of year tax. Due to this he is forced to live with his parents and struggles to make any meaningful savings. Even though Christopher has a college degree and even played semi-professional basketball for Greece, he is trapped in a low paying job due to the poor economy and influx of unskilled laborers. Christopher went on to discuss the impact all the refugees have in Athens and he told us there are significantly more crime and narcotics issues in recent years. My talk with Christopher gave me an amazing insight to the life of young people in Greece.
This trip was a truly an amazing experience for me and it had a great impact on professional goals. After a guest lecturer, the CEO of the non-profit A Kid Again, spoke in one of my business classes last spring, I have decided to pursue a career in the non- profit sector. I greatly enjoy working and helping other people in the world around me. I feel that this trip has solidified my aspirations to continue this sort of work both now and in my professional career. I plan to continue with my International Business major and Spanish minor throughout my OSU career so that I can expedite my ability to positively impact both people in the United States and abroad.