Psychology Students Spend Summer of a Lifetime in Greece

October 2, 2011 — Summer vacation for Drexel undergrads Ashley Faller and Nicole Graff was anything but trips to the shore and lazy beach reads. For six months, the two psychology students worked on the Greek Isle of Crete as part of Drexel University's Vidalakis Family Cretan Scholars Program. Offered through the Steinbright Career Development Center, the Scholars Program was established by Dr. Nicholas Vidalakis and his wife Nancy to allow students a unique cooperative education experience abroad. Vidalakis scholars receive a $6000 stipend to cover the costs of travel and housing.

Ashley shares her experiences on the summer trip that taught her more about the world, her field, and herself.

Our time abroad became much more than a working experience; it was a life experience as well. For our co-op, we had the privilege of working for the National Youth Foundation as social workers assisting a group of young men from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Guinea and Gambia who were seeking political asylum in Greece. Throughout the time that we spent there, we saw many boys come and go from the island desperately searching for a brighter future. At first, we had no idea how to overcome the language barrier between us. After a great deal of brainstorming, however, we developed a complex communication system involving hand gestures with the help of a few boys who spoke broken English. From the outside looking in, one might think that this was a huge downfall of the job, but we were able to use this method to learn about these boys on a personal level, and to open our hearts and minds to learn about ourselves.

We spent a lot of time teaching the boys English, as well as planning team building activities that would not only keep their minds off of the problems they were facing, but also strengthen communication and bonds between the group. About once or twice a month, we would have group counseling sessions with the boys so that they could talk about the past, the present, and their hopes for the future. Each boy had a unique story, which was often heartbreaking to hear. Coming to the Foundation at a time where there was a great deal of emotional stress and conflict taking place opened our eyes to the true resilience of children; no matter what hardships occurred in the past, and regardless of the many more that might lie ahead, this resilience allowed them to dream and be truly hopeful for the future.

The greatest reward, besides our time working in the village, was the blessing of meeting some of the most interesting people from all over the world. Living under one roof with students from Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Finland and France awarded us the opportunity to learn about a variety of different cultures; though they were not native to the country in which we were living, it is safe to say that their friendship defined our time in Greece. It is wonderful to know that whenever we want to pick up and travel abroad, we will always have a couch to crash on, nearly anywhere we go!

Putting our job and great friends aside, living in Greece never fell short of an adventure, often throwing many surprises our way. From surviving an earthquake during our first week there, to being caught in the crossfire of a police teargasing after a soccer riot, and living through a tough economic time in the country, we endured more than we ever thought was possible with laughter and a smile. We could not be more thankful for such a rewarding experience.

Interested in spending a semester in Crete? Learn more about the Cretan Scholars program or explore the "Drexel in Greece: Summer in Crete" study abroad program.

Photos courtesy of Ashley Faller