In May, a dozen young UIndy women ventured on a decidedly unusual Spring Term service trip to Athens, Greece—one featuring the unlikely combination of rescuing wounded sea turtles and helping Afghan refugees learn English. As part of a course led by Art & Design faculty member Marilyn McElwain, twelve students spent twenty days in Greece. While based at UIndy’s Athens campus, McElwain and her students participated in both cultural exploration and intensive service learning projects.
“The trip included two service locations, Caritas Refugee Center and Archelon Sea Turtle Rescue Center,” said Laura McGaughey, a junior from Bainbridge, Indiana.
“In order for each student to get the full experience and to best serve at the service sites, our group split into two smaller groups of six, with each group going to one location for the first week and then switching sites for the second week.”
The service projects were suggested by Dina Skias, the director of student affairs and the Odyssey program at the Athens campus. “She has been active in establishing partner-ships for service learning opportunities based on community needs for some time now,” said McElwain. “Our service projects may seem to be totally disconnected, but the service focus epitomizes what takes place when the Athens campus develops strong partnerships in the community and can identify areas of need.”
The service learning portion of the course began at the Caritas Athens Refugee Center, where students aided in a soup kitchen, distributed food and clothing, and taught lessons in the English language. Caritas primarily serves Afghan men, which presented a bit of concern for the female volunteers, who knew that in Afghanistan, girls have been attacked and beaten for going to school. The students were worried whether the refugees might object to taking lessons from young American women.
“Going in, I was worried how they would view a young American woman standing in front of the class teaching them,” said junior Elizabeth Mauk of Valparaiso. “I feel like the men almost had to push their values aside.” But she found that the men were very respectful and eager to learn.
“My most memorable moments at Caritas were the expressions on my students’ faces when I would see them in the soup kitchen and tell them how I was excited to see them later in class,” said graduate student Heather Coyle of Morristown.
“A simple comment like that seemed to make the biggest impact on their willingness to keep learning the English language.”
At the end of the two-week period, the refugees told the UIndy students how much their help had meant, and that they would never forget how the students showed that they truly cared for their well-being.The refugees weren’t the only ones affected by the experience.
“I have never worked in an environment where I was very obviously a minority, nor had I ever worked with refugees,” McGaughey said. “While I was originally hesitant to get involved at Caritas, I formed relationships with many of the refugees that I was not expecting. My perspectives on refugees and immigrants were completely transformed.”
Students also worked at the Archelon Sea Turtle Rescue Center, a facility that works to nurse injured sea turtles back to health. Duties there included cleaning the facility and surrounding beach, preparing food (cutting fish and squid), feeding and cleaning turtles, and assisting in transportation to and from medical visits.
“Most of the turtles at the site had injuries that were deliberately caused by man, such as brain damage from a hammer or blindness from having their eyes poked out,” said Mauk.
“When I asked why would someone be so cruel to such a practically harmless creature, I was told that that it was because the fishermen feel that they are a threat to their income. When the turtles get caught in the nets, most are shot and dumped back in the water. The fishermen cannot afford to have any losses, especially with the economy now in Greece.”
The students were fortunate to see how the center’s work pays off: they were present on National Sea Turtle Day, when the center released one of its turtles, Leonidis, back into the sea.
“That was one of the most rewarding experiences at Archelon. It was a great feeling to know that all of your hard work is influential in saving the life of a sea turtle,” Heather Coyle says.
Earning a break
There was more to the trip, however, than service projects. Students also took in the culture of Greece, touring the archaeological museums and sites of Delphi, Olympia, Mycenae, and the Acropolis. A visit to the island of Santorini was also on the agenda. While sightseeing, the UIndy group had the opportunity to witness the Olympic flame being passed to representatives from England. There was a David Beckham sighting, too.
“I went into this trip with expectations and preconceived notions of Greece and the Greek lifestyle,” Laura McGaughey said. “But I returned with a better understanding and a fuller appreciation of a different culture that will allow me to be both a better student and overall person.”
McElwain was very proud of her students and their accomplishments on the trip.
“Our students were excellent ambassadors in accepting the challenges,” she said. “They took on every experience wholeheartedly.”