During Eastern Michigan University senior Vanessa Riley’s time in Athens, Greece she witnessed small children begging for money, restaurants competing for the students’ attention and a general lack of tourists.
“In the beginning we were just having fun traveling, not a care in the world, not realizing how privileged we were,” Riley, an occupational therapy major, said. “Sometimes I would get easily annoyed and I found myself taking things for granted or being unsympathetic to a lot of the things I saw, like beggars in the streets. That’s not who I am or who I want to be.”
Riley and 11 other students from across the United States visited museums and archaeological sites in Europe to learn the history and culture of the Mediterranean region. They learned valuable life lessons along the way.
“I did the Mediterranean Cultural History program and I loved all of the places we went,” Riley said. She traveled throughout Switzerland, Italy, Greece and Turkey during the program.
Everyone comes back from summer vacation with a story to tell, whether they spent their summer working or relaxing. But some students return to campus with a unique story, having undergone a life-changing and eye-opening experience sometime during the four months away from papers, projects and procrastination.
For Riley, the opportunity to study abroad over the summer semester provided her with many of these perspective-altering experiences.
“About halfway through my trip, while we were in Athens, I had an epiphany,” Riley said. She experienced firsthand the effects of Greece’s economic crisis. “The first thing that struck me about
Athens was how desperate everything seemed to be.”
“It was like a reality check, seeing how some of the people in Athens lived,” she said, especially after attending world-class museums and going on private bus tours as privileged college students. The group even stayed in a private beach house for a night.
“It was really eye-opening.” she said.
Although her time in Athens was sobering, Riley said she had a lot of positive, meaningful experiences during her trip as well.
“I’ve always been a bit of a museum nerd, so it was great to see so many different kinds of beauties and check out all of the sites,” Riley said.
“We went to so many cities and it felt like we were there long enough to get to know the culture,” she said of her 35-day tour. “Each city lent itself to a different feeling and I really felt like I could compare the different cities and cultures. The experience has taught me how to be more comfortable in new situations.”
Reflecting upon the trip and her experiences, Riley said she
realized she was a changed person.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of things at Eastern and traveling is by far the greatest thing I’ve done. I would recommend it to anyone,” she said.
Riley offered advice for anyone considering a study abroad program, but is nervous or unsure about it.
“Just bite the bullet and do it. I was nervous to go because it was a big step and I didn’t know anybody, but I’m so glad I went. There aren’t many opportunities to travel once you’re in the ‘big kid world.’ Seize the day,” she said.
As a recipient of EMU’s Emmanual Fenz Cultural History scholarship, which contributed $1,000 towards her program, Riley urged students to save as much as they can and use their resources to fund their study abroad trip.
“Anybody that’s thinking about it, if they have it in their heart and can work really hard to save the money, they should go,” she said. “It is such a unique thing to experience.”
If given the opportunity, Riley said she would study abroad again.
“It is one of the most fulfilling things a person can do in college.”
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