The volunteer project ‘Embracing Our Monuments in Sparta’ brings groups of Yale archaeology students to the Peloponnesian city. The students offer cultural walks and tours that showcase the heritage of the city. The project is helping to forge new bonds between the current citizens of Sparta and those of the Greek diaspora.
Greece has a rather extensive list of untapped opportunities and unlocked areas of potential – and there is no doubt that internationalizing education is among the most prominent. The country has such low levels of foreign students that it is not even included in most global lists that quantify student body diversity, while complex regulations and hostility to academic extroversion persist. Beyond a few promising initiatives such as the decision of the University of Athens to establish an English curriculum in archaeology, the internationally accessible educational landscape remains unusually bleak.
In contrast, internationalized education is thriving in many other countries around the world. In 2017 over 5.3 million students studied in a foreign country – a meteoric rise from just 2 million at the turn of the millennium – while 2014 brought forth one of the happiest headlines: the millionth baby born to couples that met during an Erasmus program. Together with giants like the US, the UK and Germany that absorb almost half of the international student body, dozens of countries including Turkey, Chile and Malaysia have managed to transform their educational ecosystems into cosmopolitan magnets, massively benefiting their economies, innovation prospects and societies along the way.
Greece’s academic introversion is particularly distressing not only because it has shunned the global trend of internationalizing education, but mostly due to a number of factors that could transform it into a formidable global player if properly utilized. Three in particular stand out.
The first is well known to every Greek student who studied abroad: Our country has an impeccable "brand name" with massive global recognition and a particular gravitas within academic circles. During my freshman year at Yale, I stumbled upon the “Introduction to Ancient Greek History” class, taught by renowned archaeologist Donald Kagan. I was shocked to see students cramming into the corridor outside the massive lecture hall to follow his lectures, and overheard many wishing they could visit Greece to experience the cultural heritage first-hand.
The second variable was summarized quite aptly by Nikos Marantzidis, professor of political science at the University of Macedonia, in a recent article he penned for Kathimerini. “If we compare Greece to countries that are similar in terms of demographics and development levels,” he wrote, “we find that the presence of Greek academics at global universities or international research centers is dramatically greater.” Greece is undeniably very well positioned in the most prominent global academic networks. The necessary interconnections have already been established – even though systemic challenges have rendered them rather latent.
The third variable is slightly intertwined with both aforementioned strengths: Greece has one of the largest and most successful diaspora populations scattered around the world. Many educational ambassadors of Greek heritage are sitting in key positions of academic power and influence.
Unlocking those three areas of potential would carry economic benefits that have been well documented in various analyses and case studies around the globe. In 2017 alone, it is estimated that the Australian economy gained $US32 billion due to the net expenditure on education and noneducation items by foreign students – and that figure does not even account for the foreign talent that chooses to remain and contribute to the economy. But beyond economics, an extroverted approach to education brings another, more subdued yet transformative advantage: It combats anachronistic obsessions, offers opportunities for exchanges of views and allows for cultural self-reflection. Two young initiatives that have been growing exponentially already showcase the effect of such interactions in Greece.
The volunteer project “Embracing Our Monuments in Sparta,” spearheaded by Greek-American scholar Daphne Martin, has been bringing groups of Yale archaeology students to the Peloponnesian city for the past two years now. The students offer cultural walks and tours that showcase the heritage of the city, but their most transformational impact has been in forging new bonds between the current citizens of Sparta and those of the Greek diaspora, through the common history Sparta’s past provides. “At the beginning we were afraid we might be snubbed by the locals – it’s a common insecurity of the Greek diaspora when it comes to their relations with Greece – but over time we were moved by how enthusiastically we were embraced,” recalls Martin, who emphasizes that the project was quickly welcomed by a number of institutions including the Archaeological Service of Laconia, the Municipality of Sparta, the city’s public library, and the Museum of Greek Olives and Olive Oil. “The most memorable moments though, were our interactions with the local youth,” she adds with enthusiasm. “They participated, often actively as volunteers in our various initiatives, and our bonds remain strong well after the duration of our project.”
Elsewhere, recurrent academic exchange programs are thriving and continue to grow. The Heritage Greece Program, developed by the National Hellenic Society (NHS), celebrated its 10th year in 2019, and continues to offer an unforgettable educational and cultural immersion experience for North American students of Hellenic descent. At the core of the program’s philosophy lies, once again, cultural interaction: The foreign students of Greek heritage are paired with students from the American College of Greece in Athens for three intense weeks exploring Greece in all its facets. Students practice their Greek by purchasing souvenirs in the bustling streets of Monastiraki, and awaken their Greek roots through top-notch tours of the country’s museums and archaeological sites. Yet again, the value lies in the student’s diverse exchanges: Many diaspora students that participated in the past return regularly to Greece – some now as employers of the Heritage initiative – while a number of Deree students have visited their friends in the US and were encouraged to participate in study-abroad programs there. The mere passage of 10 years has already transformed the Heritage Program into a loyal transatlantic family.
These two initiatives are just a glimpse into the massive untapped potential of internationalizing education, and the transformational benefits it could bring to the country in terms of economic development, societal openness and cultural reflection. The unprecedented decade of crisis understandably resulted in great introversion in Greece. It is time for the country to look outward.