After returning from my semester abroad in Greece with 135 first semester, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) first-year students, the number one question I was asked by family, friends, and colleagues alike was, “How was it?” This three little word question was actually quite difficult to answer in such a concise way, especially since I was going through my own adjustment back in the U.S. It wasn’t until now that I am actually able to put my experience in writing for others.
Similarly to how students feel after returning from a truly transformational experience abroad, I, as a professional in higher education was feeling the same- reverse culture shock to say the least. But now, as I’m about six months removed from the experience, I have a better understanding of how it has changed me and made me a better education professional.
Setting the Scene
Let me flashback to last summer. I was in Boston, Massachusetts ending pre-departure orientation for all of Northeastern University’s participants and family members for the N.U.in program. Students and parents had multiple questions about what was to be expected abroad, specifically in Thessaloniki, Greece, as the country was currently being negatively portrayed in the media for undergoing its most significant economic collapse in recent history. And despite having never worked with the program before, or in an abroad setting, I was expected to have the answers.
Luckily, I had a supervisor and colleagues who were willing and able to answer questions I didn’t have the answers to. For the first time, as a young professional, I had a realization that I did not have all the answers and that I was going to be experiencing something quite unconventional in my professional career. I was going to be learning so much about myself alongside all the students and fellow staff members and really “breaking out of the ordinary.”
Time to Depart
After six weeks of training and down-time to prepare for the voyage across the “pond.” I had such a heightened level of cognitive dissonance. I kept asking myself, “What am I doing?”, “Did I make the right decision?”, “What if I hate it?” or worse, “What if everything goes wrong?”. At this point, it was too late to turn back. After spending a week in Cairo, Egypt on a vacation to mentally prepare myself for a busy semester, I arrived in Istanbul, Turkey where I met the rest of the staff.
Now one might wonder why I was in Turkey, when the program was in Greece. Well, due to immigration and the arduous visa process, we were unable to get a work-visa and could only spend 90 days maximum in what is known as the Schengen Region, a region of Europe, as a visitor. Much to our dismay, the staff and I still had a unique experience bonding and prepping for the student’s arrival in the neighboring country. After about 5 days in Istanbul, we made our way to Thessaloniki, and awaited the arrival of our students. After an extensive week of on-site orientation, adjusting to cultural norms, exploring an unfamiliar place, and trying to develop authentic relationships and trust with new students, the job finally began to take shape.
As an Assistant Site Director on a staff with two other professionals and six recent graduates from Northeastern University whom served as International Student Advisors, work was disseminated and we soon became a well-oiled machine. Imagine overseeing an entire living learning community of first year students and a Student Affairs department of nine staff members. Now imagine that same dynamic in a foreign country, during the host country’s economic downfall with an intense language barrier, and you are all housed in a private hotel.
Much to my surprise and many of the students and staff, the crisis wasn’t much of a “crisis” as one might assume. And for the most part, many of the locals spoke English quite well, and the local staff was very helpful and supportive. Once I was able to see past the minute differences, I was then able to see the real beauty of the country and its people. Greece was to be home to several domestic and international students for the next three months and it was my home away from too.
My role was multi-faceted. I oversaw the curriculum and lesson plans for six sections of the Global Experience course, similar to traditional first-year seminar or FYE courses but with a global perspective and service-learning component. I also taught two of those sections, supervised three International Student Advisors, collaborated with faculty and other campus partners at The American College of Thessaloniki, served in an on-call rotation as a crisis responder, had general oversight of all programmatic initiatives and budgeting, and communicated to several constituencies: off-campus vendors, Northeastern University staff in Boston, hotel staff at the Metropolitan hotel. Even though the job was intense with much gray when it came to work-life balance, especially since the position lived amongst the students, I wouldn’t have traded it for any other job in the world.
Although the feeling of in loco parentis was evident early on, challenging students and helping them develop some autonomy and interdependence as they openly discussed deep issues, such as, oppression, privilege, and social justice was remarkable. It was great witnessing students whom were experiencing extreme homesickness and culture shock take risks and venture out to surrounding, yet unfamiliar, European countries with their peers.
Powerful Professional Development
In all honesty, it was a perfect position for me at that moment in my life. I was always fascinated with the idea of student affairs abroad and what it all might entail. The learning curve was steep, but all of what I experienced with the students was at some points unfathomable. In no other position would I have had the opportunity to take a day hike on Mt. Olympus with students, enjoy the picturesque views of the Aegean Sea on a catamaran alongside a family of dolphins, or volunteer at a refugee camp sorting and distributing clothes for thousands of Syrian refugees.
Not everything was as easy-going as it might seem however, there was the Paris bombing terrorist attacks to process through with students, a forced exit to Bulgaria in the middle of the semester for staff, and countless trips to the local clinic for everything from food poisoning to an appendectomy.
Although the position was only three months in length, in that span of time, **I was able to navigate some critical and intense professional development opportunities of my career to date.** Nothing has prepared me more for working within American higher education than my time spent abroad, as ironic as that may sound.
If you would’ve asked me a year ago if I wanted to take over 100 college first year students to Greece for their first semester, I probably would’ve laughed and walked away. However, after having gone through this experience, I am now excited about continuing my career trajectory in the international realm. This opportunity gave me a greater understanding of how the U.S. is perceived by others and has made me a more globally-minded individual- a true aim of higher education if you ask me.
So, if you ever find yourself with the opportunity to work abroad, particularly in a position as a higher education professional, truly consider it. The personal and professional growth you’ll experience will pay dividends for years to come- whether as a #TravelingSAPro or one state-side.
About the author: Joseph A. Granado a Texan native, originally from Midland, Texas, graduated with his Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Texas at San Antonio. After teaching high school Biology, Anatomy and Physiology in San Antonio, Joseph pursued his Masters of Science degree at Texas A&M University in Educational Administration. Joseph has worked in various functional areas within higher education including, Residence Life, Orientation and New Student Programs, Fraternity and Sorority Life. In the fall, Joseph worked in Thessaloniki, Greece for Northeastern University as an Assistant Site Director and is currently the College Readiness and Programming Specialist for Seeds Training, the #1 Provider of Youth Training Worldwide. He has a passion for travel and enjoys helping students pursue their educational and career goals.