SOCIETY

Studying in the cradle of European civilization

International students enrolled in the first English-language undergraduate degree course at the University of Athens share their experience

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Greece has really impressed them. Studying at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens’ Philosophy School, being able to walk around internationally renowned archaeological sites such as the Acropolis, getting to know the people in their neighborhood and enjoying the country’s fair climate. “Life in Greece has been quite relaxing and enjoyable for me so far. I usually go for walks in the park, sunbathe, or go hiking on the weekends. After they recently opened outdoor areas, my friends and I visited various interesting historic locations, like the Acropolis, which thrilled me. The course is really very good. The lessons cover all aspects of studies. Lectures by the professors are exceptionally clear, and, when contrasting it to the Chinese method of teaching history, this course is far more carefully put together and comprehensive, and all the teaching is supported by historical sources, something which creates a favorable environment to raise the student’s awareness of historical research,” Liu Hao told Kathimerini.

He is one of the 28 students enrolled in the first English-language undergraduate degree course offered by the University of Athens’ School of Philosophy – focused on archaeology, history and the literature of ancient Greece – who just completed their first semester here. It must have been a truly strange experience in the midst of a pandemic for young people who just recently entered adulthood, participating in lectures online, having hardly had the chance to meet their fellow students and teachers in person, while living in a foreign land, far from their families.

Naima Alshamsi came to Athens from the United Arab Emirates. “The course is definitely different from what I am used to, and it might take me some time to adjust. The way in which examinations are conducted is something new to me, as I am used to the way courses are taught in Australia, where there is more coursework and fewer written exams. Greece has a very rich history, and I am glad I am learning as much as I can about ancient history while simultaneously experiencing contemporary Greek culture. Even if the language barrier is very prominent at times, it becomes manageable with the use of technology,” she said. When asked about the pandemic, she said, “A restriction on movement is no problem for me as I am used to restrictions.”

The course also has students from the West, as well as Asia and the Middle East. Lorena Di Stefano is from Canada. “Living in Athens and participating in the course is a huge experience for me, coming from Canada where the educational system and cultural and social institutions are all very different. This is a challenge for me, but I am trying my best to adjust to my new environment. Despite the many hurdles set by the pandemic, I have managed to make some good friends from the course, and I have kept myself busy by wandering, reading, watching movies, cooking. I am not particularly fond of distance learning, but I am eagerly awaiting our return to the lecture halls,” she told Kathimerini.

Hailing from Albania, Elisabeta Mosho isn’t as far away from home as most of her fellow students on the course. “I find it hard to find the words to describe my impressions and feelings created by the course and Greece. The study of Greece and its history and language has been one of my great passions since I was a kid. You can imagine my enthusiasm when I was accepted on the course here, in the cradle of European civilization. What impressed me most is the care, passion, warmth, dedication and the support of the academic and administrative staff. I am truly satisfied and happy with the lessons and teachers. I already feel like I am part of a family!” she said.

Amal Soliman, from Egypt, stressed that the course is dedicated to something completely different to subjects she has studied in the past. “The pandemic is not easily manageable, obviously; it is something unprecedented. We suddenly stopped attending classes in person and began having them online, but the lectures are great and easy to follow. On weekends, I go for walks or for coffee with my friends. During the week I study, watch Netflix, and stay in touch with my family and friends,” she added.

‘Deeper understanding’

“The professors here have led me on a path toward understanding both ancient and modern Greece. This opened a route, a viewpoint for a deeper understanding of the Greek way of life. My daily routine includes feeding the pigeons, watching snails and playing with cats as I wander the streets of Athens. I love the warm sun and the welcoming Greeks. On weekends we always go hiking or watch movies. We recently started visiting the nearby archaeological sites,” added Jiaqi Zhao, a student from China.

American Amy Dugan is even more enthusiastic, saying: “This course is one of the best educational experiences of my life. The combination of educational acquaintance with ancient Greece and living in Greece is irreplaceable. I have been living in Greece for six months now, and, honestly, there is no place I would rather be right now. Thankfully, I live in the center of Athens and even on my daily walks I am surrounded by ancient Greek history.”

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Significant improvement in university’s international recognition

The English-language undergraduate degree – its full title is BA Program in the Archaeology, History, and Literature of Ancient Greece – has significantly helped the University of Athens climb the international rankings for Classical studies, paving the way for other Greek universities to follow suit. Indicatively, in the recently published Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) international university rankings for 2021, the Classics and Ancient History Department of the University of Athens has been ranked in the top 51-70 bracket in the world for the first time, while the Archaeology Department has held its spot in the 101-150 bracket. “Apart from the four criteria – academic reputation, reputation with employers, number of references per paper, h-index ranking – another factor that contributed to the rise of the History and Archaeology Department in both lists of this particular QS ranking was the creation of the first foreign language – English – undergraduate degree in the history, archaeology and literature of ancient Greece,” states a release by the university. “Initiatives to promote and advertise the program have already begun in an effort to attract students for the next academic year,” stressed Professor Eleni Karamalengou, president of the program’s administrative board and its academic director.

The lectures were initially conducted in person, before going online when the pandemic measures were introduced. The first six months of the course have been concluded and during this period four modules were taught (1. Introduction to the Discipline of Archaeology, 2. Introduction to Historical Studies, 3. Ancient Greek Literature: An Overview, 4. Greek I – Ancient Greek Language). The exams, as is the case with all the country’s universities, took place online. 

The foreign students also started participating in Modern Greek classes at the Modern Greek Language Teaching Center of the University of Athens (which are free as part of their degree course). At the same time, if they want, they can participate in optional English lessons to improve their grasp of the language as well as become familiar with important terms used on their course (also offered for free as part of their degree). They have already begun online lessons for their summer semester (1. Aegean Civilizations: A Survey, 2. Ancient Greek Art: An Overview, 3. The History of the Greek Polis, 4. Greek II).

The students received help finding places to stay, as well as with the visa process, and are provided with electronic and printed material to help with the course. At the same time, since the course’s early days, and especially following the introduction of the pandemic measures, there has been a steady stream of support from the staff toward the students. Many of the problems linked to the creation of a degree course in a foreign language have been solved by the state and the university, with the contribution of the staff. However, there are still some issues that remain unresolved. Matters relating to visas have not been fully resolved and it has been necessary for the staff to continuously help the students. Additionally, the process of securing funds from the Special Research Fund Account, especially to promote and advertise the program, has been difficult and requires the improvement of the relevant legislature.

As Karamalengou notes, “To all those involved in supporting and keeping the program operational – to the dean of the School of Philosophy who supports the program academically, coordinately, administratively – we are greatly relieved that, despite the adverse conditions brought on by the pandemic, these young foreign people are maintaining high spirits, keeping their composure, displaying optimism, and keep talking about their studies and Greece in very positive terms and promoting our country abroad.”