By Chris Kjonaas

Although sixteen students from the San Diego State University (SDSU) Compact Scholars Program’s inaugural Compact Abroad in Greece cohort returned home after two weeks of travel and service on June 4th, Greece wasn’t quite finished with all of us just yet.

One student stayed on to travel in Europe independently. Three students remained with the trip leaders, Amanda Fuller and I, to travel to the University of Patras in Patras, Greece, which is about a two and a half hour drive west from Athens.

You see, throughout the entire program in Greece, these students served as a student research team, and together, we traveled to Patras June 5-8 to present our findings about the impact of the  Compact Abroad in Greece Program at the 2019 Diversity in Organizations, Communities & Nations conference. This conference had the special theme of learning from the refugee experience.  Yes, you read that correctly – it just so happened that this year’s conference had the exact same focus as our program, AND it began the day after our program ended.  When we learned of this conference almost one year ago, we jumped at the opportunity to submit a conference proposal and were selected as presenters.

Leiana, Katie and Carlett at the Patras waterfront.

So, how did we select student researchers? As part of our application for the Compact Abroad Program in Greece last fall, we asked all students to check a box indicating whether they would be interested in participating in a student research project to present at a conference in Greece for 4 additional days following the program.  Through an interview process, we selected 3 students: Leiana Talo Lepule (rising junior, Liberal Studies), Katie Mercer (rising sophomore, Liberal Studies), and Carlett Serratos (rising sophomore, Biology) to participate.

These students gave up valuable time during the 2-week study abroad program, and instead of sleeping in while in Athens and Chios, attended morning research team meetings to prepare. We worked together to plan data collection, such as surveys and interview questions, and to discuss project timelines and the actual presentation.  There were times when they probably wished they hadn’t checked that box. After all, we were all a little bit exhausted after the final dinner together in Athens and farewells to our classmates.

Our arrival at Patras bus station, about a 2 ½ hour journey west from Athens (bus station selfie).

However, as we traveled across the isthmus of Corinth to the Peloponnese and arrived in the port city of Patras, Greece’s third-largest city, I realized that this city didn’t feel like Athens or Chios; we were seeing yet another Greece.  With hardly any tourists, and a lot more “gia sas” (“hi”) than the more formal “kalimera” (good morning) than we heard in Athens, it felt more familiar.  Although Patras is a port city, it definitely didn’t feel like an island.  The University of Patras Conference & Culture Center, our conference venue, was just a short 10-minute walk from the hotel, along a quiet back road overgrown with gorgeous oleander plants in full bloom.  

University of Patras Conference & Cultural Center.

The conference itself was small, but its 255 attendees represented 23 countries.  From the first day, our students were networking as if they had been attending conferences for years.  Seeing the impressed reactions of our colleagues from Greece, Australia, and all over the EU and USA, when they learned that these were undergraduate students, was a moment of immense pride for me.  As International Engagement Director at SDSU, one of my main roles is assessment of learning outcomes from SDSU international programs, and seeing the increased self-confidence and awareness in the whole group was rewarding throughout the program.  Leiana, Katie and Carlett represented the cohort well by speaking up in the sessions they attended, and sharing their learning about Greece’s refugee situation.

Leiana, Katie and Carlett on the first day of the conference.

Putting together a conference presentation often involves months of work. Our 5-person team administered surveys, analyzed data, put together a powerpoint, and practiced our respective pieces of the workshop presentation in the span of only 3 days!  We ultimately met our research goal, which was to convey the experience of the student group and our NGO partners onsite, the perceived impact of the program, and lessons learned. We impressed those who attended our presentation.

Our presentation team (left to right): Chris, Katie, Leiana, Amanda, Carlett.

After the “performance” of a major presentation when everything comes together, celebration of success is in order.  That final evening, the sunset over the Ionian Sea capped off the final night of our time in Greece before our travel day back to the airport to go our separate ways.  We enjoyed dinner, a separate stop for dessert and coffee (with lots of laughter and reminiscing about the entire experience), and even a final stop for ice cream before realizing at 10pm that we needed to go back to the hotel and pack.   

Many students in our inaugural Compact Abroad  in Greece student cohort just finished their first year or second year at SDSU, and because they took the leap and participated in the program, they have already studied abroad, gotten a taste of service-learning, and in the case of those on the research team, participated in student research.  That means that they have already engaged in two or three high-impact educational practices (HIPs) at SDSU. The Compact Scholars Program at SDSU strives to support Compact Scholars by both connecting them to existing HIPs, and developing programs like Compact Abroad In Greece, to enhance student access to meaningful experiences in learning. Why do we focus on HIPs? The answer is simple. Research shows that students who complete two or more HIPs during college feel a greater sense of satisfaction with their experience, and are better prepared to transition from their undergraduate careers to graduate school or work in their chosen field (Kuh, 2008). In fact, our research showed that a large majority of the student cohort felt the trip helped them clarify, confirm or adjust their career paths. This team’s research on the impact of the Compact Abroad in Greece program on students confirms that students do in fact feel satisfied and better prepared for life after college as a result of participating in experiential learning opportunities.

It’s no surprise then that our three students researchers acknowledged that they were glad they took the leap of faith and checked that box on the application.

I’m glad too.

Sunset over the Ionian Sea, Patras waterfront.